A bullying leader trying to advance an agenda that lacks widespread public support and now faces potential legal action. An elected official who refuses to work with legislative branch members who disagree with him. Lawyers mandated to serve the public interest instead cater only to selected officials. Political toadies use script-like talking points to malign colleagues who don’t advance the administration’s objectives.
Yeah, Maui politics is a bitch right now.
There’s some synchronicity between the ongoing crisis in Washington, DC and the current mess in Maui, only instead of Ukraine meddling and Syrian pullouts, our local political maelstrom involves a tsunami of water issues that threaten to drown the county. The Lahaina injection wells case remains on the US Supreme Court docket, despite Maui County Council’s recent vote to settle the case. Water diverted from parched East Maui streams, then undiverted, has now again been waylaid to irrigate Central Maui cropland under marginal management by mainland-owned Mahi Pono – possibly for the next 30 years. These water issues are of extraordinary significance to Maui, yet Mayor Michael Victorino and his allies seem to prefer power politics over well-reasoned leadership, as demonstrated during a number of recent meetings.
Victorino claims he is the only Maui leader authorized to settle the injection wells lawsuit and – County Council decision be damned – he ain’t settling. Nobody puts Mikey in the corner. Apparently he feels the same way about other Mahi Pono-related water issues that various governmental bodies are trying to tackle, as all of them are hitting roadblocks erected by his minions and allies.
Since the McDonald’s Hamburger University graduate took office in January, critics say he is unattuned to the intricacies of governing and offer numerous accounts of his oafish behavior. The most public emerged in May when Councilmember Mike Molina, a pleasant, mild-mannered fellow, charged Victorino with being “bullying,” “rude,” “mean-spirited,” and “insulting” to him and a member of his staff.
Referring to Victorino’s campaign promises of collaboration as “empty,” Molina told journalist Susan Halas (who recounted it in MauiWatch), “He’s got an ego the size of Haleakala.”
His patronizing treatment of women has also been noted. One female elected official was only partially kidding when she told me, “I almost broke his finger the last time he put it an inch from my face.”
To deal with people he doesn’t care for, Victorino relies on his chief county attorney, Moana Lutey, who, like Attorney General William Barr, prefers defending one boss rather than representing the entire government of Maui, which is her mandate. After Council Chair Kelly King wrote to the US Supreme Court advising it that the injection well case had been settled and asking for dismissal, Lutey wrote a letter of her own on October 9. She apologized to the court for King’s letter, then added, “the County of Maui is not requesting a delay or dismissal.”
Lutey’s actions spurred local activist Sam Small to create a petition calling for a criminal investigation into Lutey and other corporation counsel lawyers. In addition, Wailuku attorney Anthony Ranken said Friday that he will soon file a lawsuit to compel Victorino to sign off on the settlement agreement.
Meanwhile, Mahi Pono continues its single-minded pursuit of Maui water. Earlier this month, it obtained a temporary state permit to pump 45 million gallons of water a day from East Maui to irrigate fields that currently hold a few acres of potatoes and citrus trees. In addition, it submitted to the state a monstrous 2,700-page draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) – originally compiled by previous landowner Alexander & Baldwin – in pursuit of a permanent 30-year water lease to do – well who knows what – with its 41,000 acres of ag land.
However, the Victorino Administration, through its corporation counsel and cronies on the County Council, is making every effort to keep Maui County from officially weighing in on the draft EIS or any other matter relating to Mahi Pono and its water needs.
Last week, a Board of Water Supply meeting was abruptly halted by Lutey’s colleague Ed Kushi, who threatened Chair Shay Chan Hodges with a Sunshine Law (a statute regarding government transparency) violation if she orally discussed the contents of a Temporary Investigative Committee (TIG) report that she and two colleagues had prepared for the board. The report addressed the potential purchase of the East Maui Irrigation Co. ditch system from joint owners Mahi Pono and Alexander & Baldwin. During this meeting, Kushi become so obstructive that board member Toni Eaton finally erupted. “I feel a little conspiracy going on here and it’s getting on my nerves,” she said. “I’m about to walk out.” Later, she did.
Chan Hodges asked Kushi for a second opinion on his ruling. He snidely retorted, “Well, I guess you can ask my boss.” (Shay: Don’t bother, the fix is in. Presentation of a different TIG report was allowed to be orally presented – as Chan Hodges wanted to do – at a September 19 Economic Development and Budget Committee meeting). It’s not the first time Kushi’s delivered bad counsel: He told Chan Hodges earlier this year that she couldn’t send a letter to Mahi Pono without approval from the mayor. That wasn’t true either.
Last Friday’s County Council meeting was similarly roiled by fake arguments. It was understood that the meeting would largely be devoted to debate on whether or not to hire an outside counsel to – among other things – resolve the injection well settlement dispute between the administration and the council. Instead, a simple motion to send comments to the state on Mahi Pono’s draft EIS – ones that had been compiled during two meetings of Shane Sinenci’s Environmental, Agricultural, and Cultural Preservation Committee – was quickly enveloped in a venomous snakeball of bureaucratic process.
Councilmember Yuki Lei Sugimura, acting every bit like a sanctimonious schoolyard snitch (“Teacher, Teacher! I saw Kimo chewing gum!”), repeatedly called out Chan Hodges, claiming that testimony she gave Sinenci’s committee on the EMI ditch purchase was tainted because she had violated the Sunshine Law – a patently false allegation.
Instead of correcting Sugimura, Corporation Counsel Richelle Thompson fanned the flames by suggesting, “Well, that could be a problem.” Later Thompson suggested that the County Council could get sued for any testimony from Sinenci’s committee that it forwarded to the state as part of the EIS process, which sent Councilwoman Tasha Kama into a tizzy. It was only much later in the meeting that Thompson acknowledged that the risk of such legal action was “very low.”
Councilmember Alice Lee tried to throw sand in the gears by saying that she didn’t want to forward any testimony from people “like Maui Tomorrow and the Sierra Club who frequently are involved in… challenges and lawsuits against us.” After Lee raised that issue a second time, Councilmember Keani Rawlins-Fernandez responded with the most eloquent comment of the day.
“I think it’s unfair to smear environmental organizations as ‘sue-happy,’” she told Lee. “They have a very important role in holding our government and corporations accountable for taking care of our environment… I think it’s important that we recognize their role as being a check on us. If the government is not taking care of the environment, then that’s when we will be held accountable.”
After a day-long string of motions and spurious accusations, the council ultimately voted to send in comments on the draft EIS and never did get to the main issue of hiring outside counsel. Sinenci later commented on Facebook, “Some people simply refuse to speak against a corporate giant and risk their financial ties over the health and survival of a natural resource and a public trust.”
Who benefits from all this shilly-shallying by Victorino, his corporation counsel, and his county council stalwarts? Mahi Pono. This cynically named corporation has done nothing but cost the county money since it arrived on island. Employees in the Real Property Division are pulling their hair out trying to untangle the mess of individual Mahi Pono-owned tax parcels dumped on the department after the December 2018 sale. How many times this summer has the county Fire Department fought blazes on Mahi Pono’s weedy, neglected acreage?
Mahi Pono has refused to engage with the community beyond an early round of handshaking and never met with entities like the Board of Water Supply which had valid questions about the company’s intentions regarding Maui’s water. Instead, company brass meets behind closed doors with Victorino and select county officials, who seem delighted to give Mahi Pono carte blanche when it comes to the future use of Maui’s most precious resource.
Image 1 by Sean M. Hower