The power struggle unfolded in the weeks before the Hawaiian Homes Commission voted to tap a longtime DHHL consultant for the spot.

While the Maui County Council was publicly vetting applicants to steer the new East Maui Community Water Authority, a local developer was working behind the scenes to convince the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands to change its nominee. 

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Everett Dowling, whose company has developed millions of dollars of DHHL projects over the past three decades, told DHHL Director Kali Watson in early June that he should not recommend Hawaii water law expert Jonathan Likeke Scheuer to the new board, according to internal emails Civil Beat obtained through a public records request.

Scheuer, who is from Oahu and has long worked as a “well-trusted” consultant for DHHL, had been tapped in March by then-interim DHHL Director Ikaika Anderson for the seat that represents the interests of the Hawaiian Homes Commission. 

“Maui Council Chair Alice Lee asked me to reach out to you,” Dowling told Watson by email on the morning of June 5. He explained to the DHHL director how he could quickly suggest a new nominee and, without citing specifics, said Scheuer would “make it even more difficult to develop housing on Maui.”

Later that evening, Watson replied: “Any suggestions?” 

In a series of emails that followed, Dowling suggested two others to replace Scheuer, who the developer warned was “generally disliked by the development community, large landowners such as ML&P (Maui Land & Pineapple), A&B, the construction trade unions and the ranches.” 

Maui County Council Chair Alice Lee leads the group of elected officials who are tasked with vetting the majority of the applicants for the new East Maui water board. (Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2023)

The email exchanges reveal the struggle over control of the new government body, which was created to give community members more oversight of the water flowing from East Maui streams.

Neither Dowling nor Watson responded to requests for comment.

In an interview Friday, Lee said she told Dowling about her concerns that Scheuer wasn’t a Maui resident and was appointed by a former state leader. But she denied trying to influence the DHHL director’s decision, and said that Dowling’s assertion in the emails was a “misinterpretation.”

“What he told Kali Watson could have been his opinion, or it could have been some miscommunication,” Lee said. “I don’t know.”

Kali Watson, Gov. Josh Green’s nomination to head DHHL, said in emails he wanted a “developer type” to serve on the new East Maui water board. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Prior to Dowling’s involvement, the department under Watson’s leadership had “fully and enthusiastically” supported Scheuer for the role, DHHL staff said in an email. 

Dowling and Watson have known each other since 1998, according to a March letter the developer sent to lawmakers in support of Watson’s Senate confirmation. Dowling’s development company recently broke ground on a $17 million homestead project in Central Maui, the first project funded through the historic $600 million earmarked by lawmakers last year to deliver homesteads to roughly 28,000 beneficiaries on the DHHL waitlist, the Maui News reported.

Emails show Dowling’s first suggestion to Watson as a replacement for Scheuer was Dan McEvoy. According to state business records, McEvoy helped start Maui-based 3D Builders and Design. The company’s website says it specializes in custom homes and commercial development.

Watson wrote in an email that he was planning to move forward with McEvoy’s appointment despite DHHL planner Andrew Choy pushing back that it would be “ridiculous” to appoint McEvoy, who had “no connection to the homestead community.”

Watson told Choy he was just going to have to disagree with him on this one, saying: “I want a developer type and not someone disliked by Council leadership.”

But days later, Watson scrapped the McEvoy plan and went a different direction altogether without offering a public explanation for the sudden change.

On June 12, DHHL sent a letter to the Maui County Council, which is tasked with confirming the majority of the water board’s members, to rescind Scheuer’s name and instead recommend Dwight Kaleo Burns, who works for a construction industry fund and has generational ties to East Maui.

That same evening, Dowling forwarded Burns’ resume to Watson to share with the council. 

The decision raised alarms among beneficiaries. In the wake of pushback, Watson walked back the recommendation for Burns and instead paved the way for the Hawaiian Homes Commission to decide, which beneficiaries said should have been involved since Scheuer’s name was first suggested months earlier.

A screenshot of the presentation made by agency staff during the Hawaiian Homes Commission meeting on Monday. (Screenshot/Hawaiian Homes Commission/2023)

The nine-member commission, which Watson chairs, unanimously voted Monday for Scheuer, who commissioners said had “a level of expertise that few others have” and serves as an “advocate for the beneficiaries.” Besides serving as DHHL’s longtime adviser, Scheuer is known for playing “an integral role in the resolution of complex water disputes” and has co-authored the book, “Water and Power in West Maui.”

Publicly, however, there was no mention of the upheaval that transpired behind closed doors in the weeks before.

Council member Keani Rawlins-Fernandez, who had raised concerns with DHHL staff about the proposed changes in the nominee, said in a statement Saturday that she was thankful community advocates spoke up.

“This kind of intentional and unabashed manipulation of an otherwise transparent process set in place to empower kuaʻaina voices, all in the name of preserving the power of the status quo, unfortunately has been commonplace in Hawaii politics, continuing to erode any faith and confidence our public has in government,” she said.

The effort to influence a key seat on the water board comes as DHHL is under pressure to spend the $600 million that the Legislature provided last year to spur the development of homesteads for thousands of Hawaiian families who have spent years waiting.

Like other developers in Maui County, DHHL depends on working well with county officials — including council members — to get its projects approved.

For longtime political observers, however, it wasn’t a surprise that the process to pick the people to steer the new East Maui board became so political. Residents, politicians and business executives have been fighting over control of Maui’s water for a century, because the water itself — and who manages it — has been used to control where and how Maui County residents live, farm and work.

“Control over the water has always been, I think, central to power,” said Colin Moore, a political science professor at the University of Hawaii Manoa.

Jonathan Likeke Scheuer.
Jonathan Likeke Scheuer was unanimously supported by the Hawaiian Homes Commission on Monday to serve on the new East Maui water board. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022)

“There’s a dark history of control of water on Maui and what that has meant for Native Hawaiians,” he continued. “This is an issue that’s very emotional. It’s also an issue where there’s potentially a lot of money at stake.” 

Moore said that it is “perfectly acceptable” for any citizen or interest group to email government leaders about what they think about important decisions and appointments. If anything, that should be expected, he said, especially when there are appointments at stake that are highly political with back channel communication out of the public eye.

What’s rare, he said, is that there is an email record that illustrates the lobbying outside of public view. 

“You get a front row seat to see what happens when controversial appointments are made,” Moore said. “Here’s an example of how organized interests try to influence the process.”

Last year, Maui County voters decided they wanted more local oversight over the water that flows from East Maui streams. The new government entity is charged with helping to nurture East Maui watersheds and figure out the best way for the county government to acquire a century-old private 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. It’s unclear what, if any, impact the new water authority would have on housing development.

Right now, the vast majority of the water funneled from the East Maui streams that the new authority is seeking to oversee is used to feed Mahi Pono’s farming operation, according to court documents.

The council began recruiting for the new East Maui regional board in December. Scheuer’s nomination 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.

The council received applications from roughly 20 Maui citizens, ranging from former Mayor Alan Arakawa to East Maui kalo farmers. The council has already voted on six applicants in their charge and are tentatively scheduled to vote on Scheuer’s confirmation July 18. 

Read the emails obtained through the public records request below.

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

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