Mayor Mitch Roth’s pick for Public Works director squeaked through a sometimes tense confirmation hearing Tuesday after more than two hours of grilling by a split County Council panel.
The council Committee on Public Works and Mass Transit voted 5-4 to favorably advance Steven Ikaika Rodenhurst to a final council hearing.
In other action, Planning Director Zendo Kern’s confirmation hearing was postponed until Jan. 19 after several council members objected to his appearing by Zoom from his vacation on the mainland instead of being there in person.
“When you have a job interview, you show up,” said Puna Councilman Matt Kanealii-Kleinfelder, the sole no on the 8-1 vote to postpone.
Rodenhurst and Kern drew the most testimony from the community, much of it expressing concerns about whether they met qualifications outlined in the county charter.
Seven other mayoral appointees during a long day of hearings found relatively smooth sailing in the first step of a two-step process to confirmation. Roth explained his hands-off process of having a committee vet candidates before he made his decisions.
“I neither put my foot on the gas nor the brakes,” Roth said.
Leading the pack for ease of confirmation was Finance Director Deanna Sako, who’s now on her third mayor while holding top positions in the department. She received a 9-0 favorable recommendation.
“This should be your easiest one of the day,” Roth said.
He said he didn’t even consider any other candidates for the $132,722 annual position once Sako agreed to stay.
“Such is the plight of the competent,” quipped Kona Councilwoman Rebecca Villegas about the popular department head.
The light-hearted treatment of Sako came as a welcome respite for council members and administrators alike, after elected leaders heard concerns from testifiers and council members about Rodenhurst’s and Kern’s qualifications for their positions, which pay $132,577 and $132,744 annually, respectively.
Roth said both candidates meet the minimum qualifications in terms of work experience, and Human Resources Director Bill Brilhante said his department’s informal review agreed with that.
But five council members pushed the administration on whether Rodenhurst’s description of how he coordinated road contractors, engineers, utilities and state and county agencies as a project manager qualified as the required supervisory experience specified in the charter.
Four of those council members — Villegas, Kanealii-Kleinfelder, North Kona Councilman Holeka Inaba and Council Chairwoman Maile David, representing South Kona/Ka‘u — voted no. Hamakua Councilwoman Heather Kimball, the apparent swing vote, pushed Rodenhurst with pointed questions before voting yes.
“I came in today undecided on your appointment. … On paper, your resume looks a little thin,” Kimball said, adding that she was impressed with how he handled his confirmation hearing, proving he can handle the stress of an important position.
Sparks flew between Villegas and Kohala Councilman Tim Richards when Villegas asked Richards to recuse himself because Rodenhurst had listed him as a reference on his resume for the position.
“In my mind, there’s a direct conflict,” Villegas said. “It seems inappropriate to me.”
Richards, who said he knew Rodenhurst’s great-grandfather, rebutted Villegas’ comments. People know each other’s families on an island, he said.
“To use me as a reference, I think it’s an honor and it’s not a conflict of interest because we’re on an island,” Richards said.
Hilo Councilman Aaron Chung said confirming mayoral appointments has always been a “leap of faith.”
“This discussion really has degenerated into one that has unfortunate personal undertones,” Chung said. “There is nothing in the county charter that precludes you from being appointed here. It’s a close call, sure, but I would like to defer to the mayor’s choice. … If it doesn’t work out, you won’t be the first to disappoint us.”
Parks and Recreation Director Maurice “Moe” Messina, pegged by Chung as a “go-to guy,” received a 9-0 endorsement for his $128,759 position.
Environmental Management Director Ramzi Mansour, whom Roth called “one of those unicorns, commonsense in government kind of guys,” won a 9-0 vote to advance his confirmation to the $132,741 position.
“I want to bring you all to the 21st century,” Mansour said, citing the county’s garbage transfer stations, open wastewater treatment ponds and sewer hookup fees that cost more than the homes in Ka‘u themselves as among the areas in need of improvement.
The Government Operations, Relations, and Economic Development Committee unanimously endorsed Corporation Counsel Elizabeth Strance, a former judge, to her $153,226 position. Strance said she’ll advocate collaboration and mediation over litigation.
Roth called Strance “not only a great legal mind, but a great human being who cares greatly about this community.” Strance “brings a lot of dignity, respect and just sound legal judgment to the table,” he said.
The committee also unanimously endorsed Managing Director Lee Lord to his $153,611 position, Director of Research and Development Doug Adams and Information Technology Director Scott Uehara to their $126,420 positions.
Adams advocated a diverse business base as one component of economic resilience.
“We need to get people back to work,” Adams said, “and we need to do it in a safe matter.”