Councilwoman’s former side job raises questions

  • Ashley Kierkiewicz

HILO — Community members who filed an ethics complaint against Puna Councilwoman Ashley Kierkiewicz told the Board of Ethics on Monday they want to pursue the complaint against her, even though she has since publicly disclosed a possible conflict of interest and resigned her position at a public relations company that represents officers of the landowner in a zoning application before the County Council.

At a March 28 County Council meeting on Bill 16, Kierkiewicz announced her resignation from Hastings &Pleadwell and disclosed her connections to Steve Ueda, president and CEO of Matsuno Enterprises, which owns the property where another company, Piilani Partners, seeks to install a potable water well and build a bottling plant.

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Bill 16 gives a five-year extension to a light industrial zoning on the Hilo property. The council postponed action on the bill.

“She has made corrections,” said Lelaini Lindsey-Kaapuni, one of the 39 petitioners. “However, had we not been vigilant by filing the ethics complaint … I wonder if she would have disclosed her conflicts.”

At the request of the petitioners, who asked for more time to study new documents released Monday, the Board of Ethics postponed action on the complaint until June 10.

The councilwoman’s previous relationship with Ueda included writing a 2017 press release about him in her paid PR role when he was named president and CEO of Suisan companies and serving as a co-chair with him in 2018 on the Government Affairs Committee of the Japanese Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Hawaii.

Kierkiewicz attended the ethics meeting but didn’t address the issue. In a March 18 letter released Monday by the Board of Ethics, she defended sponsoring the bill as chairwoman of the council’s Planning Committee and her subsequent vote.

“I do not believe that my participation in the vote on Bill 16 rises to the level of an ethics violation. … I have no personal or financial interest in the subject matter at hand,” she said in the letter.

Petitioners remain unconvinced.

“I don’t believe she has actually admitted to understanding the nature of the favoritism that she would be participating in,” said Claudia Rohr. “She wasn’t just a council member, she was the chair of the committee. That meant she was in control of the hearing. … She didn’t hold the council members to the agenda item. … She hasn’t really completed her obligation under the ethics code.”

Cory Harden, who filed a supplementary petition, said she thinks Kierkiewicz is proving to be a good council member, but Harden thinks the Ethics Board needs to provide guidance for the future.

In particular, Harden said, the board should advise Kierkiewicz on whether she should have refrained from introducing Bill 16, recused herself from chairing the committee where Bill 16 was heard and voting on the bill and disclosed her connections to the landowner.

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Harden said the board should also recommend that Kierkiewicz refrain from introducing bills that benefit clients with whom she worked at Hastings &Pleadwell, and make disclosures when taking official actions involving her past clients there.

“Ms. Kierkiewicz is a capable council member who works effectively for her constituents on many fronts, and she has already addressed some concerns, but official guidance would be helpful,” Harden said.

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