Maui News

Maui’s Gladys Baisa remembered as a trailblazer, pioneer for women leaders

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Former Maui County Council Chair Gladys Baisa left a legacy of leadership in Maui County government and with Maui Economic Opportunity Inc., which she led as chief executive officer from 1983 to 2005. She passed away Monday morning. She was 83.

Former Maui County Council Chair Gladys Coelho Baisa is being remembered fondly as a strong community leader, and a pioneer for women in politics and nonprofit leadership. She passed away Monday morning. She was 83.

Mayor Richard Bissen expressed deep sadness at the passing of Baisa, “whose contributions to Maui County are many and significant.” He extended condolences to Baisa’s husband, Sherman, and the rest of her ʻohana.

“I am grateful for her sage advice over the years and the friendship she extended to my family and I,” Bissen said. “Maui has lost an iconic leader, and she will be greatly missed.

“Throughout her decades-long service to Maui County, her compassion for community members stood out, whether it was by starting services for families at MEO, serving on associations and boards, or working with other leaders to make sure residents were a priority,” he said. “She took on many roles, including MEO Executive Director, Council Member, Council Chair and other county leadership roles.

“She will be remembered for her incredible leadership, kind heart and unwavering integrity,” Bissen said.


Council Chair Alice Lee said Baisa was a dear friend with whom she worked on many projects for decades.

“She was a champion of the underprivileged and underserved,” Lee said. “She was a visionary, created many programs to help others that truly changed the course of their lives. She was a dear friend. My heart goes out to her family, loved ones and especially her husband, Sherman.”

After a 22-year career of service as Maui Economic Opportunity Inc. chief executive officer from 1983 to 2005, Baisa was elected to serve on the Maui County Council in 2006. She was Council chair from 2013 to 2015.

Debbie Cabebe, MEO’s chief executive officer, said Baisa’s leadership helped set the foundation for the agency that today provides transportation, early childhood, youth and community services, as well as business development.

“She was a true trailblazer, advocate for low income, disadvantaged and seniors; and she was a role model for women leaders,” Cabebe said on the agency’s Facebook page. “Gladys dedicated a good portion of her life to MEO and many of the programs that we administer today were started under her leadership.”


Baisa served five consecutive two-year terms in the Council’s Pukalani-Kula-ʻUlupalakua residency district, beginning in 2007. During her term as Council chair, she was credited with uniting county leaders statewide and raising awareness of county needs among officials in the State of Hawaiʻi. She also launched a regular column “Chair’s Three Minutes” in The Maui News. She was also deputy and then director of the Department of Water Supply from 2017 to 2018. Later, she was an executive assistant in the Office of the Mayor under former Mayor Michael Victorino.

Council Member Tamara Paltin said: “Maui County has lost one our great women trailblazers.  Gladys Baisa was a mentor to me through her work in founding the Ka Ipu Kukui fellowship program and later as I became a Councilmember myself she became more of a good friend with whom I could commiserate the struggles of public life with.

“I will always fondly look back on my memories of her coming to west Maui Kaunoa senior center and MEO functions where we could catch up,” Paltin said. “She was a great role model of leadership and community service, and she will be missed.”

“Maui is a small community and Gladys Baisa was my grandmother’s high school classmate (Old Maui High). She was a trailblazer for women in politics for Maui County,” said Council Member Nohe Uʻu-Hodgins.  Upon making the decision to run for office, Uʻu-Hodgins said Baisaʻs firm and supportive words “meant a lot to me when I needed it the most.”

Bill Snipes, also a former executive assistant in the Mayor’s Office, recalled working with Baisa fondly.


“Gladys was always available for advice and counsel during our time working together on the ninth floor of Kalana O Maui,” he said. “In particular, she was instrumental as a bridge to the Portuguese-American community in obtaining their participation in the 2020 Census. She will be greatly missed.”

Kit Furukawa, who worked with Baisa, recalled her being “classy and sassy.”

“We all have our real moms; then there’s Gladys,” Furukawa said. “She would give firm yet gentle advice, treat you like her own son or daughter. She led and transformed organizations, brought sense and collaboration to government as an elected official and water director. She inspired us all. I witnessed her fight and lobby for her community — for fairness, for representation, for a better deal. She built bridges with sister cities overseas and supported many cultural programs.”

Baisa retired in June 2020 and received a congratulatory resolution from the Maui County Council. The resolution honored Baisa for her life, accomplishments and many years of community service.

She was born in Pāʻia to Thomas and Virginia Coelho. She was a third-generation Mauian of Portuguese descent. She was class valedictorian of Maui High School’s Class of 1958. She went on to earn a certificate as a licensed practical nurse from St. Francis School on Oʻahu and later an accounting certificate from Maui Technical School.

She began working at MEO in 1969, advancing in the agency by virtue of her strong work ethic and keen management abilities. In all, Baisa’s career at MEO spanned 37 years. She was the agency’s first full-time accountant and later served as fiscal officer before succeeding Joe Souki as executive director.

Baisa created the “Being Empowered and Safe Together” program at MEO. The program continues to help incarcerated men and women reintegrate into society upon release.

Baisa brought the MEO Business Development Center Microenterprise program to Maui. That program continues to provide micro-loans, the Core Four business planning course and business expertise to support low-income residents, while generating jobs and strengthening the economy.

In the early 1990s when there was a shortage of agricultural workers, Baisa helped bring in several thousand Mexican immigrants to work in the pineapple fields and many decided to stay.

Baisa’s work at MEO included securing the donation of 11.5 acres in Waiehu for affordable housing. That property is planned for the 120-unit, 100 percent affordable rental project, the Hale Mahaolu Ke Kahua Affordable Housing Community.

In 2020, the Council resolution credited Baisa, during her Council service, for leading the passage of the Bed and Breakfast Home ordinance, overseeing entitlements for the new Kīhei Police Station and spearheading the adoption of the first Maui Island Plan.

Baisa’s community service extended to membership on dozens of boards and organizations, including Kula AARP; the Kula, Pukalani and Makawao community associations; the American Association of Retired Persons; Maui Filipino Chamber of Commerce; Rotary District 5000; and Lahaina Honolua Senior Club.

Her awards included the Maui High School Outstanding Alumni Award; Maui Weekly’s Person of the Year; the Association of Farmworkers Lifetime Achievement Award; the Maui County Centennial Committee’s 100 Outstanding Centennial Mauians; the Maui Fair Parade Grand Marshall; and the Maui United Way Gold and Appreciation Awards.

In 2018, Akakū: Maui Community Media honored Baisa in its “Walk of Heroes.” During the event recognizing Baisa, she said: “I’ve always liked to bring people together to focus on a goal. I’m Ms. Fix It! If there’s a community problem, I’ll find a way to get involved because that’s what aloha is all about. If you want to do it well, you must commit your life to the job. My advice to the youth of today is to focus on appreciation. Be kind and do what’s right.”

Funeral arrangements have not been announced.

Editor’s note: This post was updated to include additional comments that were received after publication. Also, her age in an earlier post was incorrect.

Brian Perry
Brian Perry worked as a staff writer and editor at The Maui News from 1990 to 2018. Before that, he was a reporter at the Pacific Daily News in Agana, Guam. From 2019 to 2022, he was director of communications in the Office of the Mayor.
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