Lawsuit: County crew risked more damage following September flood

A Lahaina Department of Public Works crew defied its supervisor following September’s torrential rains and flooding and risked further environmental damage from brown-water runoff, the department’s former chief of field operations and maintenance charges in her federal whistleblower lawsuit filed this week against Maui County.

Lesli Lyn Otani maintains that department Director David Goode removed her from her position March 29 and demoted her to the position of civil engineer V because she investigated employee misconduct, including alleged theft and illegal use of county-issued procurement cards, also know as pCards.

Torrential downpours Sept. 13 inflicted severe damage at Kepaniwai Park in Iao Valley where the swollen Wailuku River tore away part of the park’s parking lot. Elsewhere, there was widespread flash flooding and landslides; homes were inundated and roads were closed.

According to Otani’s lawsuit, the Public Works Department was faced with an emergency. Among other things, stream areas needed to be cleared quickly to prevent more muddy water from aggravating an islandwide brown-water emergency.

The lawsuit says that the county sought guidance from an environmental consultant, who told officials that the Clean Water Act and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers required emergency work to ensure that sediment was not discharged into a stream or wetland.

Otani “understood that material could not be pushed into piles within the stream, and that the material must be quickly removed,” the lawsuit says. “Failure to remove stockpiles could result in mud dewatering or having water seep out and flow back into the stream, causing sediment-laden water to be discharged into the environment, causing a brown-water event.”

The consultant advised county officials that although there was an emergency, “reasonable measures” needed to be taken immediately to protect water quality, and those measures included starting excavation upstream, according to Otani’s lawsuit.

By Sept. 19 and 20, Otani had problems with a Lahaina work crew not following the environmental consultant’s instructions, her lawsuit says.

Her “Lahaina subordinate was not following directions and refused to bring himself and his crew to work the necessary overtime to address the emergency,” the lawsuit’s complaint says. “Community members were expressing their concern that the environment was not being protected.” It says that Otani believed that Goode should have stepped in to reprimand and/or take disciplinary action against the Lahaina subordinate “for his willfully disregarding the instructions of the environmental consultant and plaintiff (Otani).”

Instead, Goode prohibited Otani from taking action against the subordinate and instructed her instead to give him “a day or two,” the complaint says. “Plaintiff believed that would only do more harm to ocean waters and the environment.”

The danger of the ocean becoming more polluted worsened as the week went on, the complaint says. The Lahaina crew did not want to work overtime, especially on the weekend of Sept. 24-25. In fact, the crew appeared to “have abandoned the project.”

Otani reported that she made numerous attempts to warn Goode and department Deputy Director Rowena Dagdag-Andaya about the environmental hazards, but “neither one would return her text messages or inquiries.”

Otani’s complaint says that, in discussions about the lack of progress in mitigating flood damage, “Goode, in front of her subordinates, including the Lahaina staff, repeatedly accused plaintiff of being ‘hypersensitive’ to environmental concerns and the county’s potential/actual violations of law.”

As a result of inaction, “brown water (was) being discharged down the river and into the ocean, which was completely avoidable had the defendants taken plaintiff’s complaints seriously,” the complaint says.

It says that emergency flood work was not completed in Kahoma Stream until the end of October, “at least two to three weeks longer than it should have taken.”

Otani reported that because the Lahaina District crew refused to work as directed, she had to bring in the Wailuku, Hana and Makawao crews to do the work.

Her complaint says that her concerns about negative environmental impacts and violations of environmental laws led to her probation being extended beyond Sept. 30.

“The reason given at the time for the extension of probation was that plaintiff had an inappropriate/romantic relationship with a male subordinate, the same Lahaina subordinate that was causing problems during the emergency work and who essentially abandoned the project along with his crew,” the complaint says.

Otani maintains that the accusation of her having an inappropriate/romantic relationship with her subordinate “was made falsely and spread maliciously by the subordinate.”

Earlier this week, county Communications Director Rod Antone released a statement about Otani’s lawsuit. It pledged that the county would aggressively defend itself against “any and all lawsuits.” And, he said the county could not comment on pending litigation.

Goode and Dagdag-Andaya did not immediately return phone calls seeking comment Friday.

Otani is a St. Anthony Junior-Senior High School and University of Notre Dame graduate. Her career has included being named the Hawaii Society of Professional Engineers, Maui Chapter, “Young Engineer of the Year,” and receiving an award as “Land Use & Codes Employee of the Year.”

In federal court, Otani is seeking punitive, special and exemplary damages, and she’s asking a judge to award her back pay and future loss of earnings. She remains employed with the county.

* Brian Perry can be reached at bperry@mauinews.com.

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