A lawsuit filed in a Honolulu court on Monday says former Water Deputy Kaleo Manuel was illegally removed from his position.
Department of Land and Natural Resources Chair Dawn Chang, who is also the chair of the Commission on Water Resource Management, reassigned Manuel on Aug. 16 to a different DLNR division — a week after the Maui wildfires destroyed Lahaina.
The lawsuit argues Chang did not have the authority to transfer or terminate the deputy.
According to the lawsuit, Hawaii’s Sunshine Law requires the Commission to make decisions in open meetings, which includes notifying the public and providing the opportunity for testimony. Attorney Lance Collins, who filed the lawsuit, said for Chang to transfer the deputy she needed to present her reasoning to the six members of the Commission in an open meeting. Then, the Commission’s members would have voted on whether to remove the deputy from his position.
The complaint was brought on behalf of two Maui residents, Kekai Keahi and Jennifer Kamaho‘i Mather. Collins said Keahi and Mather are working daily on disaster relief in West Maui and asked not to be contacted for questions regarding the lawsuit.
The lawsuit asks the court to void the transfer of the former Water Deputy.
The Hawaii Attorney General’s office said in a statement the lawsuit is “wholly without merit” and would file a motion to dismiss.
“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 statement said.
In a statement from DLNR regarding the “re-deploying” of Manuel, the agency said changing his job would “permit CWRM and Department to focus on the necessary work to assist the people of Maui recover from the devastation of wildfires.”
“This deployment does not suggest that First Deputy Manuel did anything wrong,” the statement continued. “DLNR encourages the media and the public to avoid making judgments until all the facts are known.”
His reassignment followed several news articles regarding a request made to Manuel on Aug. 8 by the West Maui Land Co. executive Glenn Tremble to divert water from streams in order to fill the company’s reservoirs with water to fight the Maui wildfires. After about five hours, the request was granted, but by then, the fires had burned through Lahaina. During a press conference held by community activists on Aug. 18, Keahi said the rerouting of the water would not have helped fight the fires.
“None of these streams are connected to any county facility or fire hydrants,” said Keahi.
Tremble was contacted by Spectrum News Hawaii for comment, but did not respond before publication.
The fight over Maui’s water stems back to the late 1800s when sugar plantations diverted streams. In more recent years, the Commission has limited the amount of water a West Maui Land Co. subsidiary could take from Kauaula Stream in West Maui, which is also used by kalo farmers. But the battle over the stream flow continues to this day.
However, Collins said it is unclear why Manuel was transferred from his job since there was never an open meeting.
“It’s all speculation,” said Collins.
On Saturday, DLNR said in a news release it had appointed Dean Uyeno as the interim Deputy of the Commission on Water Resource Management.