Mahi Pono, the island’s newest and largest landowner, has acquired some Maui employees. Former Hawai‘i Lt. Governor Shan Tsutsui and longtime island activist Sean Lester have signed on with the subsidiary of California-based Pomona Farming, which acquired more than 41,000 acres of former sugarcane land from Alexander & Baldwin last month.
Currently a vice president in the Honolulu office of Strategies 360, “a strategic positioning firm” (as a press release described it), Tsutsui helped bring Pomona Farming and A&B together. At Mahi Pono, he will serve as vice president of operations and also continue to work at Strategies 360, only now as a managing partner. He was asked how he will manage both during an interview Sunday. “My new role will significantly reduce my time commitments for 360 and it will put me back on Maui.”
Shan’s longtime friend Lester has been hired as a consultant. Lester, a former nuclear engineer, has been a political activist for years and has been affiliated at one time or another with Maui Tomorrow and the Pono Network. He made news during the most recent county council election cycle when he unsuccessfully challenged the candidacies of council members Riki Hokama, Mike Molina, and Alice Lee with the county clerk’s office, alleging they had exceeded their term limits.
In addition, community activist Tiare Lawrence, who came close to defeating State Rep. Kyle Yamashita in last year’s primary election, confirmed Sunday that she has been offered a job as well, “but nothing is in writing yet.”
In the weeks following the December 20 announcement of the sale, Lester was on the phone with many Maui progressives extolling the virtues of the new owners. Lawrence has posted many positive stories about Mahi Pono on Facebook and has urged others to keep an open mind about the new owners. It’s a far cry from her work fighting the mainland group TEACH when it wanted to take over Old Maui High School for an agricultural project and ran into a wall of community opposition. Asked about this seeming discrepancy, Lawrence’s reply was succinct: “I trust Shan.”
A cynic might note that Lester and Lawrence’s jobs appear to be more dedicated to keeping that same Maui community calm than addressing the farming logistics that the massive land sale will entail.
Tsutsui said that Mahi Pono hasn’t “made any firm decisions on any additional staff at this point” and called Lester “part of the transition team.” He said Lawrence would be valuable with “governmental relations and the legislative process.”
Tsutsui and Lester escorted officials from Mahi Pono and its parent organization through a series of meetings Thursday and Friday with various Maui movers and shakers. In town was Mahi Pono president Ann Chin, Ryon Paton – one of the principals in Pomona Farming and Trinitas Partners – and Allison Hoiberg, vice president of sales and marketing and wife of Paton’s business partner Kirk Hoiberg.
Albert Perez, executive director of Maui Tomorrow, spent an hour-and-a-half with the group at a lunch on Thursday. “My main goal was to establish a positive working relationship, and I think we achieved that.”
Tsutsui described the two days of meetings as “productive. I want them to learn about the history and different issues and concerns from different points of view. We met with a wide spectrum of folks,” from farmers to developers. He said the developers asked if Mahi Pono had plans for any affordable housing. “The answer was no.”
Maui County Council Chair Kelly King was candid with her visitors about the reasons behind some of the suspicion that has been expressed about the purchase and the new owners. “The mistake that some developers make when they come into our community is thinking they know more than we do.”
She advised them to meet and partner with different members of the community. “Then you’re building collaboration. You’re not coming in and doing something to us or for us, you’re doing something with us.”
She said she encouraged them “go meet with the community,” not just “stakeholders.”
“I told them to talk to local people and do it publicly, where the conversation can be heard by a lot of people. I want them to think more holistically and to be more proactive about talking to people instead of waiting until the ‘Facebook Fury’ erupts.”
King also advised them to talk to the community about what crops they wanted to see planted. “If we’re going to grow our own food, don’t just grow coffee – that’s not food. Find out from us what we want you to grow and what we’d like to eat.”
Mahi Pono has mentioned coffee as one of the crops it intends to grow. But King said she told them, “If you plant 20,000 acres of it, you won’t be growing it for Maui, you’re growing it for export.”
King praised Tsutsui’s hiring. “I know Shan and I know that he’s not going to make a commitment to the company unless he’s sure that they’re going to do the right thing. He’s not going to do anything that hurts his reputation, so that’s where a lot of my faith in the Mahi Pono people comes from.”
Venerated community activist and former Maui College professor Dick Mayer was also pleased with the announcement. “Of all the people on Maui that they could have chosen, Shan is probably the best person to do this in terms of his contacts. He’s not a farmer, but he knows the socioeconomic environment very well. Coming from the mainland, this group should pick a person who’s not just a technician, but actually a leader, and the former lieutenant governor of the state and a former state senator meets all those criteria.”
Newly-minted consultant Sean Lester was fervent in his praise for his new company’s executives. “They are strong Christians who believe they’re stewards of the earth,” Lester said Saturday. “There is a genuine humbleness to them and an honest sincerity.”
Lester said that prior to accepting this position, he had devoted himself to “trying to keep corporate structure in a place where Maui wasn’t totally overwhelmed. So after such a long time fighting for our basic existence as an island, to see the opportunity for everyone to come together was enough to make me put my reputation on the line with these folks and step forward.”
As far as plans go, Lester offered a lot of superlatives, but said people will have to wait for details. “They’re opening a blank book with a pen and saying, ‘What do you want your future to look like?’ No one has done that before.
“When this starts to unfold over a period of time, you’ll see the vision that’s going to be happening and it’s going to totally blow you away. For those who have been involved in farming and cattle, it’s simply a matter of allowing them to pour their mana‘o into the system. Our job is to skillfully weave that into what’s going to be happening for the next hundred years on Maui.”
Lester described his job as “making sure all of these interweavings come together in an effective way and to vet things to ensure that they are rationally viable. [His job] will morph into other things as necessary. We are all carrying a deep extraordinary responsibility here to be ethical and honest and transparent.”
Lester said that Mahi Pono wants “everyone’s best ideas.” But not just yet. The “principals” will be back at the end of January for more meetings, but not anything community-wide. “Right now the major stakeholders are all being listened to and then from there it will all go out to community meetings and others.
“Just be patient with us.”