Amid calls for accountability, Maui’s mayor steers clear of spotlight and avoids news conferences

He also wasn’t present at two significant announcements last week.
Published: Sep. 19, 2023 at 5:18 PM HST|Updated: Sep. 19, 2023 at 7:12 PM HST

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - A month and a half after a wall of flames tore through Lahaina town, killing at least 97 people and erasing the town, scores of key questions linger. Despite that, Maui Mayor Richard Bissen hasn’t publicly answered questions at a news briefing since Aug. 29.

He also wasn’t present at two significant announcements last week.

One was about the ongoing search for those missing after the wildfire.

The other was an update on a county plan that would allow residents to enter the burn zone.

Heather Ferguson, director of state operation for the non-partisan government watchdog group Common Cause, said the public expects more from its elected officials.

“It’s leaving a lot of folks feeling confused, wondering if there’s more happening behind the scenes that they’re not being informed about,” Ferguson said.

“Hearing something from the horse’s mouth, hearing it directly from the source is really important,” she said. “They want accountability. They want transparency in the process.”

The last time Bissen attended a news conference three weeks ago, he got into a tense exchange with a reporter after failing to answer basic questions about where he was or who was in charge as Lahaina burned. Those questions are key to understanding the county’s response to the blaze.

Mahina Martin, the mayor’s spokesperson, told HNN in an email that Bissen’s absence is not an attempt to dodge questions from the media but because he’s busy.

“Every day has been dedicated to emergency response and recovery efforts,” Martin said.

She added, “Bissen has spoken with members of the press frequently. He’s also attended community events and answered a few questions from residents on social media.

However, when HNN Investigates asked the mayor to do an interview for this story, he declined.

In addition to the lack of official briefings, the majority of HNN’s public records requests surrounding the Lahaina wildfire remain unanswered.

Brian Black, executive director for the Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest, said it typically takes at least 10 business days for a government agency to respond to a public records request.

But requests made during a disaster often take longer, Black said.

Special Section: Maui Wildfires Disaster

“They can take up to an additional 10 business days. So in total 20 business days,” he said.

Time isn’t the only obstacle.

Government often puts a price on its information charging for things like paper, thumb drives and any manpower it takes to compile those public records.

Currently HNN Investigates has seven requests into the county. All are awaiting responses.