Two Maui residents are asking a court to return a former state water official to his previous job.

A controversial Hawaii official in charge of water resource management was illegally removed from his position by the chair of the Board of Land and Natural Resources, a lawsuit filed Monday in state court in Honolulu alleges.

The key question facing the court is whether transferring the water official from his position was an action that needed to occur during an open public meeting where people could have testified about the personnel change.

A building continues to smolder after a wildfire destroyed Lahania town Thursday, Aug. 10, 2023, in Maui. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)
A building continued to smolder days after a wildfire destroyed Lahania town in Maui. The fire has reopened debates about water use on the island. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

The complaint was brought by two Maui residents who allege BLNR chair Dawn Chang was required to follow Hawaii’s open meetings statute, known as the Sunshine Law, when “re-deploying” Kaleo Manuel from his position as deputy to the chair of the state’s Commission on Water Resource Management, in charge of implementing the state water code, to another position within DLNR.

As the BLNR board chair, Chang also serves as chair of the Commission on Water Resource Management, with the authority to appoint her deputy with approval of a majority of the commission. But the lawsuit notes that the commission also has power over hiring, including the power to “appoint and remove agents” and to “hire employees.”

In this case, the suit says, Manuel’s removal from his position as commission deputy to another job needed to be done in an open meeting, with opportunities for people to testify. 

Two Maui residents, Kekai Keahi and Jennifer Kamahoi Mather, say they want to testify concerning the commission’s actions removing Manuel and that they weren’t allowed to because Chang violated the law by reassigning Manuel herself. Among other things, their suit asks the Hawaii court to void Manuel’s transfer within DLNR and determine that the Sunshine Law applied to Manuel’s redeployment.

In a statement responding to the complaint, the Attorney General’s Office pointed to the statutory provision stating that Chang appoints the deputy.

“We have reviewed the complaint and find it wholly without merit,” the office said. “A simple review of the statutes cited in the complaint itself demonstrates that it is the chairperson who appoints her own deputy — a position which is called in law ‘deputy to the chairperson.’”

The AG’s office said it will file a motion to dismiss.

Official Was Criticized For Commission’s Delay Releasing Water

As the deputy in charge of water resource management, Manuel came under criticism after the commission delayed for five hours a request by West Maui Land Co. to divert stream water to reservoirs south of Lahaina owned by the company on Aug. 8, as the fires that eventually destroyed Lahaina were spreading. By the time the commission granted approval, West Maui Land Co. later said, spreading fire had blocked off equipment needed to divert the water.

Although the water from West Maui Land Co.’s reservoirs are not connected to Lahaina’s fire hydrants, the company was able to use water from its reservoirs to help prevent the fire from spreading to its communities, including residential developments, West Maui Land Co. executive Glenn Tremble said in a text message. The company suffered no significant property damage in the fires.

In a letter to Manuel after the fires, Tremble acknowledged the company “cannot know whether filling our reservoirs at 1:00 p.m. (as opposed to not at all) would have changed the headlines when dawn broke on our weary first responders and heartbroken community.”

Critics of West Maui Land who defend Manuel and the water commission’s delay releasing the water to West Maui Land have said the water very likely would not have been used to fight the Lahaina fire because high winds were keeping helicopters grounded, and that was the only way to get the water to the fire. They say the company is using the fire to gain “cheap advantage” in longstanding conflicts over the use of water in West Maui.

Still, Chang later granted West Maui Land’s request to provide “ongoing authorization” to fill its reservoirs when fire has been reported in the area. 

Lance Collins, a Maui lawyer representing the plaintiffs, declined to weigh in on the broader questions of the reason for Manuel’s reassignment.

“That’s the problem with having things done behind closed doors,” Collins said. “Everything is reduced to rumor and innuendo.”

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

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