Water director files suit to return to work
Maui County Director of Water Supply David Taylor, who has been on administrative leave for three months, has filed a lawsuit against Mayor Alan Arakawa and the county over Arakawa’s attempts to remove him from his position.
The lawsuit, filed Tuesday in 2nd Circuit Court, includes various claims, including defamation, slander and wrongful termination by Arakawa and also violation of Taylor’s due process rights.
On Nov. 15, Arakawa wrote a letter to Taylor to tell him he was removed from his position and placed him on indefinite administrative leave, the lawsuit said. In the letter, there were no reasons for removal.
Since then, Arakawa has publicly said that Taylor lacks management abilities and cited low morale in the department and a failure to complete projects as promised and plan for the future. Arakawa has twice appointed Taylor as water director, once in 2011 and again in 2015.
On Dec. 15, the Maui County Council voted to retain Taylor as director. The Maui County Charter states the director can be removed by the mayor only with the approval of the council.
Despite the council’s vote, Taylor remains on administrative leave. Arakawa’s office has said there are unspecified ongoing administrative and criminal investigations.
A Dec. 18 letter from Arakawa to Taylor reported that the mayor has learned of “irregularities in the operation” of the water department and an investigation would begin immediately. Taylor was told he would be on paid administrative leave.
“Taylor is demanding that he be allowed to return to work as the director of water supply until the expiration of Arakawa’s term on January 2, 2019,” according to a news release on the lawsuit.
The complaint was filed by Margery Bronster, Lanson Kupau and Melinda Weaver, attorneys with the Honolulu-based law firm Bronster Fujichaku Robbins. The attorneys initially sent a letter to the county asking to reinstate Taylor by Jan. 12.
The county said at the time that it was working on its investigation, and once the investigation was concluded the mayor would take appropriate action, if any.
In an email statement Wednesday, Managing Director Keith Regan said: “It’s unfortunate that Mr. Taylor has taken this approach just as the county was in the process of completing its investigation. At this time, we are reviewing the complaint and will respond accordingly to the allegations.”
Taylor’s attorneys could not immediately be reached for comment. Earlier this month, Taylor said he would not be making any more public statements.
In an email Wednesday afternoon, council Chairman Mike White said: “The council made a clear decision in its vote to retain Dave Taylor as the director of Water Supply. It is unfortunate that this matter has now escalated into a legal battle. A resolution must be reached swiftly and without costing taxpayers any additional dollars.”
Council Member Kelly King, who has been critical of the removal, said the suit is not unexpected and that Arakawa has given different reasons for the removal at different meetings.
King said she agrees with Taylor’s lawyers that “there are no solid reasons” for Arakawa’s actions.
“Furthermore, it is a senseless waste of taxpayer dollars to keep Mr. Taylor out of work for such a flimsy ‘investigation,’ “ she said.
Taylor earns $135,884 annually.
King pointed out that former Department of Finance Director Danny Agsalog was not fired after violating state procurement laws when he used his county-issued purchase card to buy plane tickets for himself and his family.
At the time, the administration said Agsalog wrote a check to the county for the funds before the credit card transaction went through, and that Agsalog used the county card to ensure his family could sit together on the airplane.
“This situation makes a strong case for consideration of a professional county manager system that would mandate performance-based management and help to de-politicize county governance,” King said.
The lawsuit says Arakawa’s comments have hurt Taylor’s credibility and damaged his reputation as an engineer. The mayor’s comments have held Taylor up to scorn and ridicule, the lawsuit says.
It says Arakawa has made “false and defamatory statements” against Taylor, “claiming that he committed criminal acts that resulted in the loss of his employment.”
Arakawa made the statements “knowing that they were false or without using reasonable care to determine whether they are false.”
The suit also claims the county is in violation of Hawaii law because it is using Taylor’s engineering license and title on official county documents without Taylor’s approval.
The County Charter requires that either the director or deputy director be a registered engineer. Current acting Water Director Gladys Baisa is not an engineer.
Taylor’s attorneys said that since the November announcement of his termination, Arakawa has given varied and different explanations for the removal.
“These varied explanations are not supported by the facts and demonstrate Arakawa’s personal animus towards Taylor,” the attorneys said.
Most recently, Arakawa explained Taylor was under criminal investigation for issuing extensions for water improvement systems, the lawyers said.
Arakawa’s office earlier this month provided The Maui News a letter from a Maui attorney to the Department of Water Supply claiming Taylor violated county law when granting a Kula property owner a two-year extension to complete water improvements.
The administration has not disclosed which investigation the letter relates to.
Taylor’s attorneys say issuing extensions is a long-standing practice that allows residents to make necessary improvements and overcome delays oftentimes caused by the county itself.
The extensions were approved and made at the advice of county attorneys and were ongoing prior to Taylor’s tenure as director.
Taylor’s attorneys argue that the letter was sent to the water department on Dec. 7, long after Arakawa handed Taylor the termination letter on Nov. 15.
The lawsuit also contains a detail not initially brought to light publicly.
It says that two weeks prior to Oct. 9, Taylor was repeatedly contacted on behalf of Arakawa to attend a campaign function in support of Arakawa’s run for lieutenant governor. Because of a prior commitment for the county, Taylor was unable to attend.
On Oct. 10, a day after the campaign function, Arakawa asked to see Taylor in his office. Arakawa then demanded Taylor’s resignation. He did not give Taylor a reason.
In November, Taylor told Arakawa that he would not resign, the lawsuit said.
* Melissa Tanji can be reached at email@example.com.