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Kau confirmed as water director for remainder of mayor’s term

She served as deputy director under Jeffrey Pearson, who left for a state job

Helene Kau

Helene Kau was confirmed by the Maui County Council Friday as director of the county Department of Water Supply for the remainder of Mayor Michael Victorino’s current term, which ends this year.

Kau had served as the deputy director for the department under Director Jeffrey Pearson, until he resigned in March to take an engineering program manager position with the state Department of Accounting and General Services.

Since then Kau has been serving in the interim with appointed Deputy Director Shayne Agawa, a licensed engineer, who had been working as the deputy director of the county Department of Environmental Management. Agawa does not need council confirmation.

The council voted 7-2 to confirm Kau at its full council meeting. Those who voted in favor were Chairwoman Alice Lee, Vice Chairwoman Keani Rawlins-Fernandez and Council Members Tasha Kama, Mike Molina, Kelly King, Yuki Lei Sugimura and Shane Sinenci. Those opposed were Council Members Tamara Paltin and Gabe Johnson.

During the vote, Paltin said her opposition was nothing personal with Kau but that “I don’t think it’s the best fit for us.”

Because there are only about eight months left in Victorino’s current term, she preferred for continuity’s sake that Kau remain in the deputy spot instead. She reiterated that this is the type of situation that happens without a county manager as directors change over with a different administration.

Johnson also said it was nothing personal but that he wasn’t satisfied with Kau’s answer to his question on how the water department can assist with affordable housing. He explained that Kau said she would support projects that are viable, but he wanted more and to have the departments think of creative solutions.

Continuity was also a point for council members who voted in favor, saying that with only eight months left, they wanted to keep people who are already on the job. They also said it would be difficult to get others to fill that position for only a short time.

Sugimura said she believes Kau will “do her very best” in the eight months left and that with the short amount of time, Kau cannot be expected “to change the whole department.”

Rawlins-Fernandez said Kau and Pearson have worked with her on her ideas and helped with legislation to bring to the full council. She said she hoped to continue that with Kau for the remainder of her term.

The council’s Government Relations, Ethics and Transparency Committee on Wednesday took up Kau’s nomination from Victorino. The council had 60 days, or until May 15, to make a decision on the appointment.

Committee Chairman Molina deferred action on the matter until Friday’s full council meeting. The matter was discharged from the committee Friday and council rules were waived so the members could vote on the resolution.

At Wednesday’s meeting, Kau said: “I’m proud to lead a fine team of dedicated people, who work tirelessly to provide clean and safe drinking water.”

Kau said she has worked for the county for 17 years, including more than 13 years in the water department.

She said she and Agawa have a goal to “do what we can knowing we have at least eight months to ensure the department will continue to move forward with initiatives and source development.”

This includes prioritizing the water main breaks that upper Kula suffered in the December storms.

During the committee discussion, Kau was asked about her priorities along with how her department will handle vacancies.

“One of the things Shayne (Agawa) and I need to get done is to ensure that we have adequate succession planning for some of these long-term staff who will be retiring imminently,” Kau said.

Kau later added that there are at least six fairly high-level vacancies that will occur in the department in a 24-month period.

The department is identifying other personnel in the department who could fill those positions as well as “shore up” job descriptions in case recruitment goes outside the county.

“Our first preference in all cases is to recruit internally, to provide other people with opportunities as well as to provide some succession in terms of knowledge and experience and whatnot,” Kau said.

When asked about the long-term vision for the department, Kau said that “source development will continue to be a high priority for this department.”

She added that the ongoing dry conditions are also going to be a challenge. Maui County has been facing some of the most severe drought conditions in the state that have led to recent water restrictions in West and Upcountry Maui, among other areas.

Kau also told committee members that the department is seeking to improve communication with the community and is also working with the Maui Emergency Management Agency to get alerts out to the public. Upcountry residents had criticized the department for a lack of communication when water service was down after the storms in December.

Council members also brought up an anonymous letter that some of them had received from water department employees concerning morale issues and projects in the department.

“I am keenly aware of some of the morale issues that we have,” Kau said. “Unfortunately, some of them are directly related to pending litigation and so oftentimes we cannot directly address some of these matters, as there is before us ongoing investigations and litigation.”

Kama asked how Kau could help improve morale.

“Perhaps some subtle changes in how we interact and manage some of our employees,” Kau responded. “And again, most of the employees are doing a great job and they communicate well and they get along. But I have a few employees that are disgruntled and it’s difficult to deal with those employees who are attempting to influence their co-workers, not always in a positive manner.”

Neither Kau nor committee members specified the litigation matters. However, there is a pending lawsuit from February 2021 in which a former Department of Water Supply employee accused the county of “unlawful termination” in retaliation for reporting contamination of the Makawao water system in 2020.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews.com.

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