Colin Yost says he’s committed to fairness and impartiality in decision-making including when it comes to the state’s largest electric company.

Hawaiian Electric has raised concerns that one of three members on the state Public Utilities Commission may have a personal and professional “partiality or bias” due to his history of advocating for the solar industry.

Colin Yost, a lawyer who joined the commission last October, has a background as a businessman and solar energy proponent. But he denies that he has any conflicts and says he acts fairly and impartially.  

The matter has been brewing for months with back-and-forth letters between the electric utility and the commission.

HECO HEI Hawaiian Electric power plant located along Ala Moana Boulevard.
Hawaiian Electric is concerned a member of the Public Utilities Commission has conflicts of interest due to his past solar work. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2023)

In December, Hawaiian Electric sent a letter to the PUC saying it did not question Yost’s intention to be fair and impartial in a case before the commission involving integrated grid planning. But the utility wondered if he could really do so given his 12-year history of advocating before the PUC on behalf of solar industry players, including the Hawaii PV Coalition, Hawaii Solar Energy Association and Blue Planet Foundation.

“Given Commissioner Yost’s personal and professional relationships with these parties, an objective person might reasonably have cause to perceive an appearance of partiality or bias,” wrote Kevin Katsura, Hawaiian Electric’s director of regulatory non-rate proceedings.

Colin Yost is one of three commissioners with Hawaii’s Public Utilities Commission. (Courtesy: PUC)

In November, Yost wrote a letter saying he would recuse himself for six months from a docket called Performance-Based Regulation, which sets a framework of penalties, rewards and incentives on Hawaiian Electric’s performance at meeting established targets.

Yost said he would refrain from signing any orders or participating in any decision-making discussions on the matter and would “remain in the background.”

By that he said he meant not participating in any hearings, working group meetings or technical conferences and limiting his role to reviewing docket filings, watching recordings of hearings and obtaining factual information from commission staff to understand the record.

Yost said in an interview Friday that he recused himself for half a year in order to get up to speed on the various matters he’d be asked to make decisions about that might overlap with his past work in solar energy.

“I wanted to make sure that I gave myself time to really dig into all of the stakeholders’ perspectives, all the parties’ perspectives and make sure that I understood them,” he said.

In his Nov. 16 letter to Hawaiian Electric, Yost said he had divested himself of his former employer, RevoluSun, a Honolulu-based company that describes itself as Hawaii’s leading residential solar experts.

Hawaiian Electric wrote to the commission again on May 5 saying it didn’t question Yost’s sincerity, integrity or commitment, or whether he’s been serious and deliberate in deciding to recuse himself from a docket involving rooftop solar policies.

But the electric utility still noted that Yost had been the point of contact for Hawaii PV Coalition before joining the PUC and that he had filed public comments as chief operating officer of RevoluSun that expressed “concerns with the impact of Hawaiian Electric’s actions on the solar industry.”

HECO HEI Hawaiian Electric power plant located along Ala Moana Boulevard.
Hawaiian Electric questioned PUC member Colin Yost’s personal and professional background even after he recused himself for six months from certain dockets. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022)

Katsura said it’s important that the public feel confident that any decisions the PUC makes conform with applicable rules of conduct.

Yost responded with a letter saying he had reviewed all the rules and statutes related to ethics and found nothing that would preclude him from fully participating in the matters at hand.

His perspective as a commissioner “is focused on the broader public interest and should not be presumed to align with any specific party,” Yost said in his May 10 letter.

“As far as I know the concerns were resolved by my final letter,” he said Friday.

Hawaiian Electric spokesman Jim Kelly declined to comment before the story’s publication. Update: On Thursday, Kelly said in a statement that as far as Hawaiian Electric is concerned, “this issue has been satisfactorialy resolved. We’ve appreciated Commissioner Yost’s candor throughout the process, he listened to our concerns, and his responses gave us confidence that we can all work productively together.”

Robert Harris, executive director and general counsel of the Hawaii State Ethics Commission, also declined to comment on the specifics of Yost’s situation.

State Ethics Commission Director Robert Harris speaks to editors during ed board meeting held at the Civil Beat office.
Ethics Commission Executive Director Robert Harris says state employees have no conflict of interest if they have divested themselves from their prior work. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022)

But under the state ethics code, Harris said no employee can take any official action directly affecting a business in which they have a substantial financial interest. They also cannot take official action on a matter in which they are engaged as legal counsel, adviser, consultant, representative or other agency capacity.

If they have divested themselves, then they have no conflict of interest even if in the past they had a financial interest or acted as legal counsel or as an adviser or consultant.

“There are a number of people who come into government service with extensive backgrounds and involvements with different issues and arguably that’s part of the reason why they’re selected for government service because they have all that experience,” Harris said.

He noted that Hawaii is a small state and finding people with the specialized skills and knowledge to be a PUC commissioner is not easy. Finding someone to serve who has no past involvement with issues that come before the commission would be a tall order, Harris said.

Harris himself was director of public policy for the solar company SunRun and executive director of the Hawaii Sierra Club before being hired by the state ethics commission.

Isaac Moriwake, an attorney for Earthjustice who frequently intervenes in matters before the PUC, said he can personally vouch for Yost’s integrity.

Isaac Moriwake, an attorney with Earthjustice, says Colin Yost is “one of the most ethical guys” he knows. (Courtesy: Matt Mallams/Earthjustice)

“He’s one of the most ethical guys I know,” Moriwake said. “He’s very much a Boy Scout. He’s super-overcautious about talking to me about any kind of pending issues in which I’m involved.”

Yost said all the decisions the PUC has made since he joined the commission on Nov. 1 have been unanimous.

“The three of us are working collaboratively and productively together,” he said. “I’ve really appreciated that. I don’t think any of us are unusual, controversial people. We’re trying to make the right decisions in the public interest in every single case and looking at all the facts and law in everything that comes before us and trying to do the best we can.”

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