Maui mayor had to recuse himself from HECO suit because his daughter works for utility

More than three weeks after an inferno gutted Lahaina - Not one state or county leader has taken responsibility for the failures.
Published: Aug. 30, 2023 at 5:36 PM HST|Updated: Aug. 30, 2023 at 6:02 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Mayor Rick Bissen was not involved in Maui County’s decision to sue Hawaiian Electric because his daughter, Sayble Bissen, works for the utility on the island.

“With regards to the conflict, the mayor, out of an abundance of caution and to avoid the appearance of impropriety because of family ties within HECO, did not believe it appropriate to be involved in the decision to pursue or not pursue litigation against HECO,” said Victoria Takayesu, corporation counsel for Maui County, in an emailed statement to HNN.

Bissen’s spokesperson, Mahina Martin, also worked for HECO on Maui for a decade.

She told HNN the conflict was not her.

Maui County sues HECO, alleging negligence for ‘utility-caused’ wildfire that ravaged Lahaina

Meanwhile, when it comes to the legal battle over the Lahaina firestorm, Bissen and his administration won’t answer any more questions about HECO. On Tuesday, after more dodged questions and tempers flared, there was a show of unity in a joint statement.

The statement was from Bissen, Maj. Gen. Kenneth Hara, the state’s incident commander for the wildfire, and HECO President and CEO Shelee Kimura. They said they are “working together.”

In battling statements, however, Maui County attorneys said “HECO appears to blame the very firefighters who risked their lives trying to stop the fire that the utility caused.”

HECO said “it has not admitted to starting the Lahaina fire.”

The utility says the Maui County Fire Department reported the morning fire contained by 9 a.m. and then left the scene after declaring it extinguished. The deadly wildfire started about 3 p.m.

Bobby Lee, president of the Hawaii Fire Fighters Association, said a cause still hasn’t been determined. “It’s a little bit irresponsible for anybody to be making assumptions on how this fire started,” Lee said. ““Like any corporation you look to share liability,.”

Lee says firefighters did everything according to training to put out the morning fire.

“Because of the high winds, we had firefighters there for hours dumping thousands of gallons of water to make sure the fire is as out as it can be,” he said. “We cannot control something we cannot see. If there is something like a root burning underground, we cannot see it.”

After the morning fire, firefighters and HECO crews validated there was no fire or smoke, Lee said.

The afternoon fire turned into the deadly inferno. While the official cause of that fire is still under investigation, Lee says embers can spark a fire downwind even hours later.