Ethics complaint targets Puna councilwoman

  • New council member Ashley Kierkiewicz receives lei after the County of Hawaii County Council Inaugural Ceremony at Afook-Chinen Civic Auditorium in Hilo in December. (HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald)

  • Koohan Paik-Mander holds up a photo in February of an albatross feeding its baby plastic while testifying in opposition of the Piilani Partners’ application for a Special Management Area Use Permit to develop a potable water well and bottling facility during a County of Hawaii Windward Planning Commission meeting at the Aupuni Center in Hilo. HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald, file)

HILO — Opponents of a water bottling facility proposed for Hilo have filed an ethics complaint against Hawaii County Councilwoman Ashley Kierkiewicz.

The petition to the county Ethics Commission, signed by 39 people, says it is inquiring as to whether Kierkiewicz should have disclosed her past media relations work for Suisan, which is indirectly tied to the project through its owners, and whether she should continue to take action on a bill affecting the project’s future.

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The complaint follows Kierkiewicz introducing a bill that provides a five-year construction timeline extension in order for developers to utilize the site’s light industrial zoning.

The bill passed the council’s Planning Committee, which she chairs, on Feb. 19. It requires two votes by the full council to be adopted, and it was previously given a positive recommendation by the Windward Planning Commission.

The Puna councilwoman said she did nothing wrong and is not in support of the project. She said the legislation addresses land use, and not the merits of the proposed facility, which is why she voted in favor.

“I conduct myself in an ethical way, and I have nothing to gain financially,” she said.

“The merits of the project are before the Planning Commission.”

However, developers Piilani Partners need the construction window — initially set for an unrelated project — extended in order to build on the property located near Wailoa State Recreation Area, said petitioner Koohan Paik-Mander. The project also faces regulatory hurdles before the Windward Planning Commission.

“We think this is a consequential vote, because what is hinging on it is the future of the virgin artesian well that is the Maunakea aquifer,” she said.

Paik-Mander said Kierkiewicz should have disclosed professional associations with people involved, even if she doesn’t directly benefit.

“It’s not up to officials to cherry pick which conflicts warrant disclosure,” she said. “It’s plain and simple in our code and rules and laws, and that’s what we follow.”

The Planning Committee’s agenda says the bill is requested by applicant Piilani Partners so it can build a potable water well and bottling facility.

Alleged conflict

The alleged conflict is based on Suisan sharing many of the same board members — including the same president, Steve Ueda — as Matsuno Enterprises, which owns the property where the bottling plant would be built. Ueda is the grandson of Rex Matsuno, a former longtime president, CEO and chairman of the board of Suisan.

Suisan is not associated with Piilani Partners.

The property was previously zoned resort, but received a change in zoning to light industrial in the 1990s to allow Suisan to build a fish processing plant there. That project never happened, but the zoning change remains tied to construction deadlines set two decades ago.

An amendment, which the bill seeks to provide, is needed for any project that requires light industrial zoning, such as the bottling plant, to proceed.

Suisan has been a client of communications firm Hastings &Pleadwell, which employs Kierkiewicz. She has been on leave since joining the County Council last December.

Kierkiewicz is listed as the media contact on Suisan press releases as recently as 2017 regarding the company’s 110th birthday and Ueda being named president.

Barbara Hastings, one of the communications firm’s partners, acknowledged her company did provide Suisan with “messaging points” last September regarding the company’s role, or lack thereof, in the proposed bottling facility.

Kierkiewicz, who defeated incumbent Eileen O’Hara during the August primary, said she was part of those discussions, which involved crafting a message to clarify that Suisan is not developing the proposed bottling plant, in response to a media report to the contrary.

During the Planning Committee meeting, Kierkiewicz sought to clarify that issue again by stating Suisan is not the landowner. She didn’t disclose the relations between Suisan and Matsuno.

That was done later at the meeting by Kona Councilwoman Rebecca Villegas, who noted, after some research, that they share many of the same board members.

Kierkiewicz said she didn’t think she needed to disclose her past work for Suisan because she is not benefiting from the bottling plant project and Suisan is not the developer.

“They are neither the applicant nor the landowner,” she said of Suisan.

“I have nothing to gain financially by taking action on Bill 16.”

The petition cites the county’s ethics code and charter, which states in part that any council member “who knows of a personal interest, direct or indirect, in any action proposed or pending before the council shall disclose such interest prior to the taking of any vote thereon.”

Kierkiewicz said she doesn’t think that applies in this situation. However, she said she will discuss the matter with Council Chairman Aaron Chung before the full council votes on the bill.

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Hastings said Suisan changed this week from an “active client” to being on call with the firm.

Email Tom Callis at tcallis@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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