The Silent Treatment Is No Way To Run A Maui County In Crisis - Honolulu Civil Beat

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About the Author

Richard Wiens

Richard Wiens is an editor at large for Civil Beat. You can reach him by email at

The county won’t talk about its communications strategy regarding the deadly Lahaina fire, including who is making decisions on what to tell the public.

News reporters were relieved when Mahina Martin was appointed last year as Maui County communications director for the incoming administration of Mayor Richard Bissen.

Martin was far more responsive to media inquiries than her predecessor, and county department heads were easily accessible for interviews. She’d done this job before, after all, during the mayoral administration of Charmaine Tavares, and also had extensive public relations experience working on Maui for Hawaiian Electric.

In the early morning hours after Lahaina burned, Martin appeared on one media outlet after another, despite having just spent all night inside the county’s Emergency Operations Center. Information was limited so far, and we’d all know more once daylight arrived, she told CNN.

Mahina Martin appears on CNN at about 3:30 a.m. the morning after the Lahaina fire. (Screenshot)

But when the sun rose on a beloved town that was mostly in ruins, everything changed at the Maui County Office of Communications and Public Affairs.

Martin and her assistants receded into the background, suddenly allergic to reporters just as a media horde descended on Maui.

News conferences were coordinated by Makana McClellan, communications director for Gov. Josh Green, who commanded much of the podium time.

A state Joint Information Center was established and operated at almost all hours to respond to hundreds of media inquiries during the first couple of weeks.

A county Joint Information Center was set up as well to deal with county-centric issues, but the person often handling reporters’ questions to the JIC for almost a month was not Martin but Jon Heggie, part of a 69-member Cal Fire incident management team on loan to Maui.

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Even though she said she’d been there that night, Martin deferred questions about what was going on in the EOC during the firestorm to Heggie, who said he wasn’t authorized by the county to release any timeline information. File a formal records request, he suggested. Civil Beat has done so, and has been told the matter is in the hands of county lawyers.

This silent treatment from the county communications office seems to violate the basic tenets of crisis communication laid out over the years by public relations experts and easily found online. Among them:

  • Openly provide as much information as possible as quickly as possible. “Be honest, and communicate in the way you would want to be communicated with,” advises Firstup, a PR consulting company.
  • Don’t hunker down and adopt an us-versus-them mentality. “We find that crisis communication leadership involves crisis perceptiveness, humility, flexibility, presence and cooperation,” write University of Maryland academics in a 2019 study, “Leadership Under Fire: How Governments Manage Crisis Communication.”
  • Make sure people, especially representatives of the news media, know where to turn for information. “At the core of managing a government crisis is cooperation between government departments,” advises Tucker/Hall, another consulting firm.
Mahina Martin at a recent news conference at the Lahaina Civic Center. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023))

It’s not as if Martin doesn’t know what it’s like to deal with uncooperative bureaucrats. Back in 2012, she was one of the most animated critics of the state’s short-lived Public Land Development Corp., a quasi-independent state agency set up to develop public land and buy more of it through public-private partnerships to increase state revenues. Environmentalists and community activists hated the PLDC for its lack of transparency.

“We are expected to trust a new agency that seems to be unable or unwilling to comprehend the level of value the public places on genuine, good-faith community engagement,” Martin said during a hearing on how the PLDC could move ahead.

Now she’s on the wrong side of the public’s distrust. Civil Beat reached out to several of the state officials who have been involved in helping Maui deal with media requests and communications about the Lahaina fire, but no one would speak openly about the county communications office.

They’ve never dealt with a large-scale community burning, and truthfully not a lot of people in the United States have.

Jon Heggie, Cal Fire

Neither does Martin, who finally responded to Civil Beat via email but only to inquire about the subject of the story. We told her, but then she never acknowledged repeated requests for an interview.

Mayor Bissen hasn’t been able to keep as low of a profile as his communications director, although he’d clearly like to when the subject of real-time responses to the fire comes up. He was often on the defensive during those early Green-led news conferences, and since then has often made his public pronouncements through written statements and prerecorded videos.

When he did hold a couple of recent media availabilities, reporters were limited to one question apiece — a restriction that may have made sense during the initial national/international media frenzy but doesn’t anymore.

Bissen, Martin and other county officials are no doubt being advised by lawyers to say as little as possible about the response to the fire. Lawsuits are already swirling, and there could be millions or billions of dollars in liability to be sorted out.

Meanwhile, Hawaii Attorney General Anne Lopez is promising a thorough probe of what led up to the conflagration and how the county responded. “If during the course of the investigation criminal or civilly unlawful acts are discovered, they will be dealt with accordingly,” she told Civil Beat.

Beyond the legal worries, it’s not hard to imagine that the scope of the disaster is overwhelming county officials who never signed up for this.

Here’s how Cal Fire’s Heggie put it while he was still taking fire for the local folks:

“We’re here to prop up our brothers and sisters in Maui to try to get them to a point where they understand this process, because they’ve never dealt with a large-scale community burning, and truthfully not a lot of people in the United States have.”

The fire aftermath along Lahaina’s Front Street on the day after fire swept through the town. (Ku’u Kauanoe/Civil Beat/2023)

The problem with following that legal advice to clam up, or lying low as long as possible because this tragedy is just too much to deal with, is twofold:

• People who have lost homes, jobs and even loved ones deserve answers now, not at the end of a lengthy investigation.

• Withholding basic information about how leaders responded in real time to the disaster lends credence to ridiculous but hard-to-tamp-down conspiracy theories on social media, such as the fire being ignited by laser beams from space or by wealthy speculators who wanted to buy land at bargain prices.

Even the Maui County Council, tasked with figuring out how the local government can survive a massive loss of revenue while paying for recovery efforts, is frustrated by the lack of communication.

When Council Chair Alice Lee was asked if the council was having trouble getting information from the mayor’s office, she responded with a simple, “Yes.”

Then she added, “I can understand why you have to be extra-cautious about what you say, especially if there are lawsuits pending. But if I were a member of the public, I feel I have a right to know at least the basics. I have a right to know because it’s my taxpayer dollar that is going to end up paying for all of it.”

In a possibly hopeful sign, Lee said at a council news conference last week that “I think the mayor is realizing that there’s another branch of government that you need to confer with going through this disaster and through anything. And I believe he has made an attempt lately to stay closer.”

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by grants from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.

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About the Author

Richard Wiens

Richard Wiens is an editor at large for Civil Beat. You can reach him by email at

Latest Comments (0)

Under Hawaii Revised Statutes, it was Mayor Bissen's role in the Lahaina fire to act, not Governor Green. Bissen failed to do so. He did not even divulge where he was that night. of Lahaina town fire. He should be having town hall meetings on the Lahaina side that allow question and answers not just council and committee meeting that only allow testifiers, who cannot inquire or raise any other questions. People impacted by the fires want answers

pitcaith · 2 weeks ago

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck in March 2020, I was serving as the Honolulu City Council's senior public policy analyst under then-Chair Ikaika Anderson. Likewise, I never signed up for pandemic duty, either. It didn't matter, though. It is what it is, and I did my job and took on the necessary additional responsibilities, often working 60 hours / week without whining about how hard it was.If the good folks in Maui Mayor Richard Bissen's office, including Hizzoner himself, can't do the same, then they should resign and make room for people who will do the job. Otherwise, they're just taking up space and wasting everyone's time.

DRKoelper · 2 weeks ago

The people of Lahaina will not forget the ineptitude, arrogance and dishonesty of this mayor among others, in response to this preventable tragedy. Let’s all hope the truth floats to the surface, sooner than later. That we are litigious society is no excuse for the mayor to run and hide, and no excuse to project blame on to the media for asking pertinent questions. To be accountable is to be a true leader. Maui deserves better. And yes, there are those in power that absolutely deserve blame.

Arok2112 · 3 weeks ago

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