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Kai Pelayo New Community Affairs Manager For Maui Monsanto

It’s true – Alvin Kaimi (“Kai”) Pelayo has accepted the post as Community Affairs Manager for Monsanto Maui. Effective Jan 18 Pelayo has taken on possibly the most high profile and contentious job on the island. He will serve as spokesperson and lobbyist for the local arm of the chemical and agricultural products giant whose best known local activity is the production of genetically modified seed corn. The seed is produced on approx. 600 acres that the company farms on the Valley Isle in four different locations. Presently on the island of Maui, Monsanto has about 300 local employees.

Monsanto’a activities, GMO labeling and regulation as well as their use of pesticide and other related subjects have been the topic of ongoing controversy, legislation, and legal action. This is not a job for the faint of heart. The last person to hold the post, Carol Reimann, was also a transplant from the visitor industry. Her tenure was marked by a steady flow of hostility from without and a fortress mentality from within. She lasted from 2013 to 2015. During that period, she was the recipient of a number of death threats.

GMO crops on Monsanto fields in Kihei
GMO crops on Monsanto fields in Kihei

Pelayo, who will be 59 in March, is a native of Lahaina where he currently lives with his wife and daughter. The veteran hotel executive has had a long and progressively more responsible career in the visitor industry. His most recent post was as operations director for the Grand Wailea where he worked for almost 11 years. Prior to that, he did stints with the Westin and Hyatt properties. He’s worked extensively in the islands and in other parts of the world, or as he puts it: “It’s like the military, you move a lot.” He is a graduate of Lahainaluna High School class of ‘76. He attended Transylvania University in Lexington, KY where he studied hotel administration. His father, Alvin Pelayo, is also a well-known figure in the local hotel industry with strong ties to West Maui.

In early March of 2016 when MAUIWatch spoke with him, he had been in the Monsanto post for almost six weeks. No formal announcement of his hiring has been issued by the company. How well his former career in the visitor industry prepared him for  his new job is not exactly clear.

What is clear is that Pelayo has impeccable local credentials. Every single person that MAUIWatch spoke with had good things to say about him and his ability to get along well with others.

Kay Pelayo speaking at Hui Holomua 2014. Photo: Maui Native Hawaiian Chamber of Commerce
Kai Pelayo speaking at Hui Holomua 2014. Photo: Maui Native Hawaiian Chamber of Commerce

To a substantial list of favorable personal recommendations, Pelayo added that he was a founding member of the Maui Native Hawaiian Chamber of Commerce and is presently vice president of the Chamber’s foundation, a charitable offshoot of the main organization. In other community service, he is just finishing up a five-year term as a Maui Economic Opportunity (MEO) board member; he has been president of the board for the last two years.

So just how did Pelayo  find out about the job and decide to put himself on the hot seat? According to him, a friend in hotel management on Kauai notified him of the vacancy, and after some thought, he put his name in for the position. “After 30 years in the hotel industry I was wondering what I was going to do with the rest of my life….I am open to fresh challenges,” he said.

“After 30 years in the hotel industry I was wondering what I was going to do with the rest of my life….I am open to fresh challenges,” he said.

The reaction from his circle of friends was not long in coming. They ranged from “Are you out of your mind?” to “WTF?” Pelayo said he believes he can represent the company in good faith and could, at minimum, transition to an atmosphere of more open communication and transparency. He has already registered as a Monsanto lobbyist.

As for gaining a perspective on the company, “I prepared,” he said, “by asking people I respected, in the UH system, in ag, reading about GMO, not just here but in the world. Trying to understand where we are today, realizing that there are opposing views.”

Pelayo said that in his new post he has no employment contract and serves ‘at will’ as a regular employee. He declined to disclose his compensation package, adding, “in my mind I feel I am fairly compensated.” He shook his head when asked if the salary was in the $150,000-$200,000 range – figures that other lobbyists and PR pros had indicated would be the appropriate minimum level of pay for a job of this kind.

Should you want to contact him, unless you actually know Pelayo’s phone number, or his email address (both located at the end of this article) it is virtually impossible to reach him through the company switchboard – which is an endless loop of recorded announcements, and requires typing his name into the system – a system that does not recognize him as “Kai.” He is also not listed on the company website.

Pelayo is aware of the shortcomings of past Monsanto communications efforts at the local level and is also in the planning stages to make the Monsanto properties on Maui more open to visits and tours on a regular basis by members of the general public. He also knows that a great many people on Maui voted for the GMO moratorium legislation that passed in the 2014 election (but was struck down in court). These are Mauian who hope those results will eventually prevail and Monsanto will cease their operations here.

In the meantime, his own take away is, “I see something bigger, something that I can support, something to feed the world and provide for a better future.”

As for whether he will follow the orders of his corporate bosses, Pelayo said that in other jobs he had been willing to resign if asked to act in a manner he felt either unfair or unethical and would do the same in this post. “I won’t say it if I don’t believe it’s the truth.”

In the company chain of command he reports to George Gough, Monsanto’s west coast governmental affairs representative. His counterparts on other the islands are Dawn Bicoy – Molokai and Alan Takemoto – Oahu. His media statements are released by Luly Unemori of Pono Communications in Kahului.

Perhaps the most hopeful sign coming from this new hire is a level of openness and dialogue not previously seen from Monsanto. Pelayo does not shy away from the hard questions. He was willing to share the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) regarding just what chemicals Monsanto uses, a document that is now in the final review stages – saying he hopes to make it available to the County of Maui soon and MAUIWatch will receive a copy.

On the topic of improving communication, he hopes for “less vitriol and more respectful conversation – where we agree to disagree.” He understands that the GMO moratorium “split the community at the time and is still splitting the community today.”

PC: S. Halas
PC: S. Halas

In his small sparsely furnished industrial style office, the only signs of a personal touch are a few Hawaiian implements displayed on a low table. These include a wooden paddle engraved with the words: “It is through the way you serve others that your greatness will be felt.” (“Ahuwale ka po’okela i kau hana ia ha’i”).

Contact info:
Kai Pelayo
Community Affairs Manager
Monsanto Maui
2111 Piilani Highway
Kihei, HI 96753
Office: (808) 874-2632
[email protected]

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About Susan Halas

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Susan Halas is a Senior Political Contributor at MAUIWatch. She has followed Hawaii politics since 1976 when she moved to the Valley Isle. She was formerly a staff writer for the Maui News as well as other local print and digital publications.

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