Ethics Board issues reminder to council in Kierkiewicz case

  • Aaron Chung
  • Ashley Kierkiewicz

HILO — The county Board of Ethics on Wednesday finalized an order requiring Puna Councilwoman Ashley Kierkiewicz to file an after-the-fact written disclosure of a possible conflict of interest stemming from a vote she took earlier this year.

The board, which in June found Kierkiewicz in violation of the ethics code for not disclosing a possible conflict, also issued a strong reminder to the rest of the County Council to take the ethics code seriously.

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“We believe it is our duty to submit to council members a message to take notice that the appearance of impropriety … implies a mandate for the council, collectively and individually, to place a more focused perception regarding any potential or existing conflict of interest,” the 11-page order states. “Every member of the council needs to adhere to and nurture a personal code that will promote a culture of proud, reflective and ethical public servants.”

The board did not rule on whether Kierkiewicz had a conflict of interest based on her relationships with people who could be affected by her vote, but said her relationship with the owner of the land at issue “might reasonably tend to create a conflict with the public interest,” under the county charter.

In addition, the board said, the County Council had no way to judge whether she had a conflict or not because she didn’t file the required written disclosure.

“Without disclosure you don’t get to the question of recusal,” said board member Larry Heintz. “I don’t think the chair understood that nor did fellow members. … Disclosure by itself is the first step.”

The board agreed that Chairman Rick Robinson would make a presentation to the council to reinforce the opinion.

“We don’t want to come across as preaching to them,” said board member Nan Sumner-Mack, adding that she particularly liked the portion of the board’s opinion that stated, “An ethical imperative is part and parcel of the democratic tradition and one needs to be reminded from time to time that public service is indeed public trust.”

Council Chairman Aaron Chung said he’s long considered the Board of Ethics one of the most important boards in the county because it deals with issues of public trust.

“I’ve been waiting patiently for over two months for a written opinion from that board so that I could properly examine the scope and content of their decision and advise my colleagues accordingly,” Chung said. “Although I disagree with their application of the term ‘personal interest,’ they are the final arbiters and we will abide by their directions.”

Still, he said, he has questions about how the board arrived at its opinion. He questioned why members held an executive session, generally reserved for discussion of legal matters with the board’s attorney, on a personnel matter that would become a public record anyway.

He also questioned how the council should apply the law in small-town Big Island.

“But think about it. Politicians by nature know a lot of people — that’s why we get into office,” Chung said. “Personal friendships do not in and of themselves constitute an interest which would constitute a conflict of interest. I just foresee a lot of unnecessary paperwork based on this decision.”

The Ethics Board took on the case after a petition signed by 39 people questioned whether Kierkiewicz had a conflict of interest in introducing a bill, chairing a committee considering the bill and voting on the bill without disclosing that she was employed by a public relations company that represents officers of the landowner in the zoning application.

The council subsequently postponed action on the bill that would give a five-year extension to a light industrial zoning on the Hilo property.

After the ethics complaint was filed, Kierkiewicz announced her resignation from Hastings &Pleadwell and orally disclosed her connections to Steve Ueda, president and CEO of Matsuno Enterprises, which owns the property where another company seeks to install a potable water well and build a bottling plant.

Kierkiewicz had voted for the bill in committee, saying it would open the land up for other uses even if the bottling plant failed, according to the committee report.

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“I am more than happy to submit an after-the-fact written disclosure to my colleagues of my non-connection to the applicant requesting the rezone extension for a water bottling plant,” Kierkiewicz said Wednesday, “a project which I have emphatically stated I do not support.”

The Ethics Board’s opinion is based on Kierkiewicz’s relationship with the owner of the land that would benefit from a rezoning extension, not the applicant, which is the water bottling plant operator.

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