Member Profile – Mahina Martin

POSITION: Director of Government & Community Relations Maui Electric

I believe that the public deserves a voice, and I also believe that not all governments and companies are ill-intended. There’s so much energy spent on conflict, and we have better things to do, like being with our families, having fun, pursuing personal passions; so participating with so little time and interest can get in the way. I also like that P2 is a good way to guide a process to a good resolution.

How long have you been in P2, and where have you worked?

I’ve been practising P2 for over 30 years. I’ve always been in community relations: I’ve worked in government, non-profit, private and public sectors. I’ve really been blessed to have had the benefit of all those different sectors. I believe that regardless of the sector, in order to do the P2 work, you have to be part of the community – it’s more than just a job.

What turned you on to P2 in the first place?

I believe that the public deserves a voice, and I also believe that not all governments and companies are ill-intended. There’s so much energy spent on conflict, and we have better things to do, like being with our families, having fun, pursuing personal passions; so participating with so little time and interest can get in the way. I also like that P2 is a good way to guide a process to a good resolution.

I started at Maui Electric five years ago. It’s a changing world, and no utility is going to do business in the same way, and with the State of Hawai’i’s mandate to have 100% renewable energy by 2045, we have to be engaged with the public in order to be successful at the transformation. Right now, our state imports fossil fuel, which means we are among the highest electricity rates in the country. The cost of fossil fuel fluctuates and gets passed through with no markup to our customers, but Hawai’i is truly subject to the varying lows and highs of fuel costs.

Because we have such distinct cultures in Hawai’i, our challenge is to meet the State’s mandate while acknowledging the economic realities and cultural sensitivities that exist in an island state. Doing business in Hawai’i is unlike any other state in our nation.  Island economies, community traditions and use of natural resources can be difficult to balance. Hawai’i’s unique geographic location in the middle of the Pacific Ocean means that a vast majority of consumer goods come by way of ship or plane.

As part of moving towards the goal of reaching 100% renewable energy for Hawai’i, we know that working with our different communities is critical. We knew it would require intensive effort – not just technologically, but with our consumer base and the public in general to make such an extraordinary transformation.  

The island of Moloka’i in our county, is economically disadvantaged. With a population of just over 7,000 residents, over fifty percent live below the poverty level.  Transitioning the island to renewable energy would not be a simple feat and community support would make the process a win-win for all involved. For the past year, a team of Maui Electric staff representing different parts of our company have been traveling to Moloka’i, hosting community roundtable sessions. This team included staff from planning, community relations, system operations, and renewable energy development.

From thirteen roundtable sessions our team conducted, we received the perspectives of over 150 residents and business owners and managers on what the future of renewable energy on their island could look like and matters most to them when it comes to clean energy. The collected input was then provided to our company’s experts in planning and engineering to help determine a list of options that would be feasible for Moloka’i, from both the technical perspective and the community’s perspective.

In August, we shared the outcomes of the roundtable sessions. We had over 475 comments and put them all on the wall, so people could see what their neighbours were saying. We to Moloka’I recently to continue the discussions. In three days of community-wide meetings our team was joined by our company president. This is all highly unusual for a utility to be doing, bringing the people into the conversation as much as we are.

The key is to focus on building trust and transparency and you have to do that deliberately and thoughtfully. Our approach on Moloka’i was respectful and open. Our team was well prepared to answer any and all questions as best we could and if we didn’t know the answer and needed to get back to someone, we’d say so – no guessing.

Building a stronger relationship with the community takes years of effort.  I remember one community meeting a couple of years ago, there was no PowerPoint: just a team of department heads and our company president sitting on folding chairs in a community center, answering questions people had. It was a great dialogue with a crowd that lasted for nearly 90 mins.

To me, there’s a big difference between dialogue and discussion. We want to find a balance between providing information and what I think people are there for: meaningful dialogue. We try to keep in mind that it shouldn’t be a one-way conversation, but two-way.

What other projects have you worked on?

I’ve worked on the county government as communications director, and in local government there’s always opportunity for engagement. I’ve worked on projects in smaller remote communities, like community planning, emergency preparation. All of that requires buy-in both from the community and from management. The question is, how do you convince management that this approach is what the public needs?

On the flip side, I’ve been involved in repealing two laws — one state and one county. The state law involved the establishment of a Public Land Development Corporation (PLDC) using funds set aside for public land conservation and preservation of sacred historic sites. The public did not like that the government did not provide readily-accessible information, and expected that people would have studied a 100-plus-page document; they didn’t like it, either, that they came to the hearing with questions, but got no answers. Ultimately, opponents from all islands convinced legislators to repeal the law and the PLDC office was shut down.

This all could have been avoided if there’d been proper public consultation in the first place.

The (Maui) County Law was one that allowed 24-hour liquor sales. The local county liquor department ran a small classified ad, saying there’d be some changes described as “housekeeping” items. In fact, part of that involved changing a law governing the hours alcohol could be sold in retail outlets. The irony is that despite operating an active anti-drunk driving program, our police chief found out about the change in the law when a reporter called for comment. That took a few months to repeal: again, they didn’t bother to meaningfully take it to the public and it turned into an embarrassment for the department and the mayor’s administration; and again, had they put in genuine P2 it could have been avoided.

What’s the state of P2 in Hawai’i?

Hawai’i is at a pivotal point.  Mounting public frustration with one of the country’s highest cost of living combined with unprecedented growth in population and tourism are creating a climate for public participation. To be able to successfully navigate through the current conditions, companies and government entities need to plan and commit to effective public engagement.

Last year, Maui Electric conducted close to 30 public engagement sessions. We managed to avoid them becoming contentious by ensuring that our teams were well prepared with information and had an outlook of being helpful. When we were doing the outreach on Moloka’i, we sent postcard invitations to all our customers on the island – 3200 people. We counted on the fact that most folks won’t want to spend an evening attending a meeting, but wanted to at least be invited. If we want to build trust, we must welcome community members to our meetings and be mindful of their time; we have to make that kind of effort.

There definitely is a need for more P2 practitioners – but locally-grown and based practitioners. There are a few who are into engagement, but they’re more general PR-related. There is a void in the business right now. I’ve gone in pro bono and helped friends who try to run processes and find themselves in trouble. The public can be mean-spirited and if you don’t “know the territory”, you can become a subject of public ridicule.

Many consultants have their training and their skill-sets and follow a tried-and-true process, but it’s not deep enough for what today’s world requires. I think we need to invest more in training on-island. We need practitioners who go beyond the academics, who can relate to the community. Otherwise, it’s a struggle from the get-go.

If you had anything to say to someone just getting into the P2 business …

A few things come to mind. What are your intentions? A community can sense if you are truly supportive and have good intentions. Don’t be so academic: you should be a part of the community where you want to do business. And I try to tell everyone that the only thing predictable in this field is that people are unpredictable.

P2 is an emerging field in Hawai’i. No one has actually formalized it or identified what it is that we’re doing, but the public can sense when something is wrong – something is missing, although they can’t put their finger on it. We can change that.

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