Monday’s vote marks one of the last steps in setting up the 11-member board that will help shape East Maui’s water future.

The Hawaiian Homes Commission voted unanimously to appoint water policy consultant Jonathan Likeke Scheuer as its representative on the new board steering the East Maui Community Water Authority. 

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During a meeting Monday, each member of the Hawaiian Homes Commission, including Chair Kali Watson, voted to select the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands’ longstanding adviser to represent the interests of the commission and beneficiaries on the new East Maui regional water board

Scheuer will be one of 11 board members responsible for steering the new government entity created by Maui County voters last year, which is charged with helping to take over a plantation-era water system, manage East Maui’s watersheds and grow water supply for future generations. 

“He has a level of expertise that few others have when it comes to water policy,” Randy Awo, the commissioner serving Maui, said during Monday’s meeting.

Members of the Hawaiian Homes Commission meeting Monday heard that Jonathan Likeke Scheuer has enormous expertise on water policy. (Screenshot/Hawaiian Homes Commission/2023)

During Monday’s meeting, DHHL staff told commissioners that this is the first time that local government officials have reserved a key role at the county level for a representative serving the Hawaiian Homes Commission and beneficiaries – something that both agency staff and beneficiaries welcomed because of the influence the new water authority could have on Maui’s future.

But in part because the process is so new, both state and county officials have run into issues. Monday’s action came after DHHL twice in the last month rescinded nominees for the board and then acknowledged that it “erred” in failing to seek the Hawaiian Homes Commission’s approval first. 

In March, then-interim DHHL Director Ikaika Anderson initially selected Scheuer. But in June, Watson wrote to the Maui officials to say he had “reconsidered” Scheuer’s recommendation and was instead tapping Dwight Burns, who works for a construction industry fund and has generational ties to East Maui.

“He’s a good guy. I’ve talked to him on the phone several times,” Watson said of Burns during Monday’s meeting, adding that he “actually made his suggestion as a representative not knowing that we had already submitted for Dr. Scheuer.”

But the sudden change without public explanation raised alarms among beneficiaries, who during Monday’s meeting thanked Watson for changing course and giving the commission a chance to weigh in. The agency will also work to come up with a formal process so that beneficiaries will be properly involved in weighing in on representatives in the future. 

Scheuer’s election to the board marks one of the last major steps in a monthslong effort to recruit and vet the 11 people who will steer the new community water authority. During a lengthy and contentious meeting Friday the Maui County Council voted on the other six applicants in their charge; the mayor chose the other four members. 

The Maui County Council was charged with vetting and selecting the majority of members on the new regional water board. (Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2023)

The commission members’ universal backing of Scheuer came after overwhelming support from several beneficiaries, who testified that he brought an unrivaled knowledge of Maui’s complicated water systems and had a long track record of working to secure water for Hawaiian Homes. Besides serving as DHHL’s key consultant, Scheuer works as a lecturer at the University of Hawaii’s William S. Richardson School of Law and has co-authored the book, “Water and Power in West Maui.” 

“It’s a very important position,” said Awo, the commissioner from Maui. “And who we select really should reflect who will best serve in the interests of our beneficiaries, recognizing that water is as important today as it was in ancient times.”

Besides helping to nurture East Maui’s watersheds, the new water authority is also tasked with figuring out the best way for the county government to take over a century-old water system that for decades served Alexander & Baldwin’s sugar plantation. The East Maui Irrigation system that once funneled stream water to dry cane fields is now managed by Mahi Pono, a farming company backed by a Canadian pension fund that purchased thousands of acres of former sugarcane fields after the plantation shut down.

Awo explained to his peers during Monday’s meeting that the East Maui Irrigation system is “an integral part of Maui society, economics and politics.”  

“It’s an engineering marvel based on old school irrigation technology that is still with us today,” Awo said. “It continues to define how we serve our community, and it does influence political outcomes.”

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by grants from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.

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