Mayor-elect Mitch Roth drew from both government and private sectors in his choices for Cabinet officials, but some people think his appointees to head two key departments — Planning and Public Works — sway too far pro-development.
Zendo Kern, Roth’s appointee for planning director, seems to be drawing the most heat. But Public Works Director-nominee Ikaika Rodenhurst, whose business-backed campaign forced incumbent Puna Councilman Matt Kanealii-Kleinfelder into a run-off, is also getting a close look from some members of the public.
Roth has stated from the beginning of his campaign that “the foundation of a safe and healthy community is an economically vibrant community.” He said Tuesday that his appointees represent a diverse mix from all over the island.
All had to apply for their position and more than 100 applications were vetted by a committee that conducted interviews and ranked them for his decision, he said. All department heads except for the head of Research and Development had been selected by Friday, with deputy directors and assistants in the mayor’s office also remaining to be announced.
“Some of the (appointees) may seem business oriented and some may seem too liberal,” Roth said. “I tried to pick a cabinet that reflects the island. We wanted to be reflective, but we wanted the best people we could find, too.”
Roth tapped his own Prosecutor’s Office as well as Mayor Harry Kim’s and former Mayor Billy Kenoi’s cabinets in selecting some of his closest aides. He also picked former 3rd Circuit Court judge Elizabeth “Betsy” Strance to be the county’s corporation counsel, the top civil attorney representing both the mayor and County Council.
The appointees face confirmation by the County Council sometime next month. Council members are mixed in their views on their role in confirming appointees.
“I will give Mayor-elect Mitch Roth great latitude on his Cabinet picks. He won the election and has the right to assemble his Cabinet to implement his vision of a safe and thriving Hawaii Island,” said Puna Councilwoman Ashley Kierkiewicz, chairwoman of the council Planning Committee. “So long as the candidates are qualified, credible and experienced, we owe it to the mayor-elect to give his team a fair shake.”
Puna Councilman Matt Kanealii-Kleinfelder emphasized that the county charter gives the council a role in the process and he doesn’t believe council members should abdicate that responsibility. He noted both Kern and Rodenhurst live in his district and he’s familiar with their backgrounds.
“There’s a really strong push for pro-development people in government right now. … It’s not that pro-development is a bad thing; it’s the off-island special interests,” Kanealii-Kleinfelder said. “You’ve got to see it for what it is.”
Council Chairman Aaron Chung, who will be vice chairman when the nominees face confirmation votes, described the Cabinet picks as “balanced” and “middle of the road,” rather than pro-business.
“I wouldn’t say they’re more pro-business. I just think they’re more balanced, with an eye toward strict adherence to the law, and it excites me,” Chung, an attorney, said. “I’ve been troubled by some of the decisions that were made or not made by the Planing Department. “They’ve got to adhere to the law. People have to have a reasonable expectation that the people who are administering are doing it in furtherance of the letter of the law. I think Zendo is a great selection.”
Hilo Councilwoman Sue Lee Loy praised Roth’s selections, but added she’ll be asking questions of the nominees during the confirmation process. She’s chairwoman of the Committee on Public Works and Mass Transit.
“I’m encouraged by the high caliber of the mayor-elect’s appointments so far,” Lee Loy said. “The people of Puna in particular should be excited that both Planning and Public Works directors will be from Puna, and walk into the job understanding the work that needs to be done for that community. I’ll be sure to ask community questions around both nominees.”
Other council members aren’t so sure.
“Since the mayor-elect’s most recent Cabinet announcements, I have been inundated with emails from concerned constituents who oppose his director appointments to DPW and Planning,” said Kona Councilwoman Rebecca Villegas. “These concerned constituents have expressed deep disappointment as they have been huge supporters of the mayor-elect.”
An email campaign has already started, primarily on the west side of the island, opposing Kern’s nomination.
Kern, a planning consultant, frequently represents clients seeking to create new developments. As a member of the Water Board, Kern has also been pushing to open up water availability so more areas can be developed. No stranger to how government operates, Kern also served as chairman of the Windward Planning Commission as well as a two-year term on the County Council before choosing not to run for reelection.
Kern couldn’t be reached last week for comment.
Kern’s representation of developers of Royal Kona Village has raised flags with neighbors there. In a letter to the editor published Wednesday, Author and Maureen Felix said Kern, along with Royal Kona Village developers, contributed more than $10,000 to Roth’s campaign.
“We urge the council to reject this nomination and urge the mayor-elect to nominate a person who has the community’s interests, rather than his own gain, at heart,” they said in the letter. “We supported Roth and sincerely expected more concern for the community and transparency from the incoming administration.”
Constituents on the east side of the island weighed in as well.
Tiffany Edwards Hunt, who served as chairwoman of Kern’s council campaign, said she has “grave concerns” about his lack of engagement with the community and his insufficient management experience. She also worried that he’d be beholden to the former clients he helped shepherd through the planning and permitting processes.
“I just think it is a poor choice and there are so many more qualified, more educated, more thoughtful people who don’t have as much debt to pay as he does,” Edwards Hunt said. “It’s really going to end up being an embarrassment for the county of Hawaii to have someone like him in the mayor’s Cabinet.”
Rodenhurst, a licensed engineer who works for Waipahu-based Bowers + Kubota, has experience with state and county road construction. He garnered $43,692 in campaign contributions to Kanealii-Kleinfelder’s $26,821, with most of Rodenhurst’s money coming in $1,000-$2,000 chunks from businesses and construction unions.
Kanealii-Kleinfelder acknowledged that it’s “weird” to be in the position of voting on his former political opponent. But he’ll stick to the issues, he said.
“I’m not going to lie — it’s weird — but I’m not going to hold grudges,” he said. “I don’t have anything personal against him and yes, it was a tough race.”
Rodenhurst agreed the situation could be somewhat awkward, but he appreciated Kanealii-Kleinfelder for running “a good, clean race.” He said the two might have different views on policy, but in the end, it’s all about serving the public.
“It’s definitely a unique position to be in, but the election process is about democracy,” Rodenhurst said. “I’m for responsible development. … I think we need to work together with the public and private sectors to get what we need done.”
Other appointments Roth has announced include Ramzi Mansour, currently division chief of Wastewater Treatment and Disposal for the City and County of Honolulu, for director of the Department of Environmental Management.
Others are Lee Lord, longtime business manager in the Prosecutor’s Office, as managing director, Bobby Command as deputy managing director and senior policy advisor. Command served a similar position in Kenoi’s administration and also did a stint as deputy Planning director there.
Deanna Sako, who’s serving as Finance director in Kim’s administration and was deputy Finance director in Kenoi’s, will continue to lead that county department. Maurice “Moe” Messina was named director of Parks and Recreation. Currently chief of staff for Kim, he started his career with the county in the prosecutor’s office and later served for two years as deputy director of Parks and Recreation.
Scott Uehara, named director of Information Technology, has been information systems analyst for the Hawaii Police Department since 2012.
Susan Kunz was named Housing administrator. Another veteran of the Kenoi Administration, Kunz was the administrator for the Office of Housing and Community Development as well as the deputy.