During Tuesday’s County Council meeting, efforts to hire an independent lawyer to represent the County Council in its power struggle with Mayor Michael Victorino were stymied, and breaking news of a lawsuit filed against the mayor and Corporation Counsel Moana Lutey had just been distributed. “The drama will continue,” Councilmember Mike Molina foreboded. “More and more litigation. Unfortunately, we just don’t know when it will end.”
At the time, Molina wasn’t aware of just how prescient his comment was.
Minutes later, while the council meeting went on, Mayor Michael Victorino staged a press conference upstairs to announce that the County of Maui would be engaging in a new lawsuit – this time as the plaintiff against fossil fuel companies. The mayor said he hopes to file the lawsuit in “the next couple of days,” and did not name specific companies. The suit would require the County’s retention of (more) special attorneys, and would place Maui County on the growing list of cities and counties across the US that are pursuing litigation against fossil fuel companies.
“We in Maui County believe that fossil fuel is causing a lot of the climate change that is occurring around us, and that they need to be held accountable,” Victorino said. “If we don’t take action now, we will be in a world of hurt in five to 10 years,” he added, citing impacts of climate change like brush fires which this year have scorched about 23,000 acres compared to last year’s 4,000 acres, sea level rise which threatens infrastructure and property, and erratic weather.
A written statement distributed by mayoral spokesperson Brian Perry added that global sea level rise is expected to reach 3.2 feet as soon as 2060, causing an estimated $3.6 billion in economic loss to the county. “Someone needs to pay,” Victorino said. “Fossil fuel companies knew – their own experts warned them – about the potentially ‘severe’ or ‘catastrophic’ effects of doing business as usual… Instead, they’ve promoted and marketed their products and made billions in profits, all the while protecting their own assets from the damages they knew would occur.”
Victorino referenced Hokule‘a navigator Nainoa Thompson: “We are one island, the island is Earth. And if we don’t protect Earth, we will have a problem in a very short distance.”
However, Victorino’s announcement came at a time that he and his administration have been accused of thwarting efforts to protect that same planet Earth. With the Lahaina injection wells case scheduled for the US Supreme Court next week, Maui Tomorrow, along with Angus McKelvey and other community leaders, filed a new suit against the mayor and Corporation Counsel hours before his press conference, seeking a declaratory judgement to clarify whether the council’s Sep. 20 resolution to settle the lawsuit has the authority to force the mayor to accept the settlement.
Victorino and his lawyers have argued that he alone has the power to “control litigation,” a statement that has been met with concerns over the balance of power between branches of government, and also long-standing concerns that a Maui County win at the Supreme Court would “gut the Clean Water Act” and set a precedent allowing groundwater pollution nationwide.
Said one online commenter: “Today’s announcement [of litigation against fossil fuel companies] will not make up for a ruinous precedent that will have deleterious environmental impacts for many years. #Greenwashing isn’t only found in the private sector!”
The cynicism toward the curious timing of the press conference wasn’t unfounded.
“[Victorino] totally jumped the gun on this” remarked Council Chair Kelly King after the presser. “We had been working with one of the other counties. I think he went a little rogue and I don’t know why.” King declined to speak in depth, adding, “we had agreed not to talk about it publicly until we were ready to make a joint announcement.”
King noted that none of the councilmembers were invited, although Councilmember Alice Lee was in attendance. “A lot of his press conferences and meetings seem to happen when scheduled meetings are happening in the [Council] Chambers,” she said.
When asked about the council’s cooperation with the mayor regarding this litigation, which would include hiring special counsel to pursue the case, King said that she would have to wait “until I see what it is he’s planning to send to the council.”
In the meantime, it looks like I’ll be adopting a new mantra regarding local politics: “Unfortunately, we just don’t know when it will end.”
Image by MauiTime