As the council moves to vote later this week, the member recommended by DHHL may have to wait for Hawaiian Homes Commission approval.

In the wake of pushback, the director of the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands is walking back an earlier recommendation and instead paving the way for the Hawaiian Homes Commission to approve a representative for the new East Maui Community Water Authority. 

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DHHL Director Kali Watson said in a letter Sunday to Maui County Council member Shane Sinenci, who spearheaded the effort to create the water board, that he was withdrawing his previous pick, which by law must be recommended by DHHL and serve as the representative of the Hawaiian Homes Commission. 

The change came as the Maui County Council is finally on the cusp of choosing who will steer the water authority after a six-month recruitment process.

In a three-hour discussion Monday — the fourth meeting on the topic since early May — a group of council members took a step forward so that the entire body may vote Friday on who, out of roughly 20 applicants, should fill six spots on the water authority.

Council members may decide to hold off on confirming the seventh seat they’re charged with vetting, the position recommended by DHHL. 

The new board created by voters last year is tasked with carefully managing the water that comes from East Maui streams, which feeds thousands of families, businesses and farms that span all the way through Upcountry. 

Maui officials began recruiting for the new board back in December. (Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022)

Watson’s decision to go back and ask the Hawaiian Homes Commission for approval came after he abruptly rescinded the recommendation of Jonathan Scheuer, a longtime consultant for DHHL and water policy expert.

Without public explanation, Watson on June 12 instead recommended Dwight Burns, who has generational ties to East Maui and has long worked for a construction industry fund. Watson could not be reached for comment.

“For me and for other beneficiaries, it’s not about who’s going to be chosen to sit in that seat,” Blossom Feiteira, a lifelong Maui resident and a beneficiary currently on the Hawaiian Homes waitlist, told council members. “It is about following the process to ensure fair and equitable participation by beneficiaries and the commission.”

During the meeting, Feiteira detailed how the process to choose a Hawaiian Homes Commission representative on the East Maui board had lacked consultation with beneficiaries and the commission itself from the start. Back in March, she said that then-interim Director Ikaika Anderson selected Scheuer without taking it to the commission.

Scheuer had the support of several East Maui community members in recent meetings, but Watson’s sudden switch-up then raised concerns about the process among beneficiaries. Now, they’re working to ensure that there’s proper due diligence to find someone who will best represent the beneficiaries and commission as a whole.

“We’re talking about equal and fair distribution of water,” Feiteira said. “And this East Maui Water Authority will have a hand in making those decisions.”

Lifelong Maui resident Blossom Feiteira urged the council on Monday to allow for more time for the Hawaiian Homes Commission to approve a nominee. (Screenshot/Maui County/2023)

Feiteira was among several beneficiaries who asked council members to delay their expected Friday vote on the DHHL spot so as to allow for the Hawaiian Homes Commission to vet a representative.

“Don’t allow Mr. Burns to become collateral damage,” Zhantell Lindo, a Molokai resident and beneficiary, warned council members. 

She told them that moving forward with his recommendation without giving the commission a chance to approve a nominee would drag him through a highly political process that wasn’t fair to him. 

“He has the opportunity right now, when beneficiary consultation comes up, to put his name up,” Lindo said.

During Monday’s meeting, Burns stood at the podium in council chambers to tell officials that he felt the upheaval around the process made him feel like he needed to defend “my integrity, my character, my family.”

He said he felt as if he were “dragged through mud,” even though he has lifelong knowledge of the streams in East Maui, where his family has lived for generations, grown kalo and fought for water rights.

“How can we move forward if we cannot all work together?” Burns asked the council.

In an interview Monday, Anderson, who initially tapped Scheuer, said that he did so because the longtime DHHL consultant had widespread support from Maui community members and was “extremely qualified.”

Anderson said he also knows Burns, who he believes would be a good fit for the position because he has “extensive roots and involvement” within East Maui.

It’s up to the chair of the Hawaiian Homes Commission to appoint the nominee of their choosing — or opt to let the commission decide, Anderson said.

“I’ve always felt the more opportunities beneficiaries have to share their mana‘o (opinion), the better,” Anderson said.

It’s unclear exactly what will happen next. The Hawaiian Homes Commission’s next meetings are June 26 and 27. In the meantime, council members are scheduled Friday to choose who will serve in the other board positions within their control.

Under the law passed by voters, the water authority must be managed by an 11-member board, four of whom will be chosen by the mayor. The council vets the other seven members, including one recommended by DHHL.

So far, around 20 people have applied for those spots, ranging from kalo farmers to Upcountry ranchers to an ex-Mahi Pono employee to a former mayor.

The applicants include: Francis Quitazol, Christopher Shuler, Brendan Balthazar, William Greenleaf, Jennie Kaahui, Norman “Bush” Martin Jr., Harry Hueu Jr., Moses Bergau Jr., John Blumer-Buell, Alicia Hueu, Jerome Kekiwi Jr., Jesse Nakooka, Lucienne de Naie, Lurlyn Scott, Mario Gaggero, Darren Strand, Janet Redo, Robert McGrath and Alan Arakawa.

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

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