The county Board of Ethics, deluged with written testimony about Planning Director Zendo Kern’s fitness for the job, on Wednesday asked Kern for an “exhaustive list” of projects he’s worked on, then delayed a decision until next month.
Kern, a former planning consultant, had asked the board for an informal advisory opinion on potential conflicts of interest when former clients come to the Planning Department for permits or other entitlements. He’d requested a hearing closed to the public, but he agreed to it being open after questioning by board Chairman Rick Robinson.
“I think if you’re applying for a public position you’d want an open hearing,” Robinson said.
Kern said he terminated contracts with all his clients before stepping into the position Dec. 7. He still faces County Council confirmation. He said he has been scrupulous about staying away from any applications coming into the department from former clients, saying he turns those over to Deputy Director Jeff Darrow to handle.
“I don’t look at them. … I don’t want to hear about it. Send it to Jeff,” Kern said he tells his staff. “I don’t touch it.”
Board member Larry Heinz, who asked for the complete client list, told Kern he wanted the list to be “open and public and in writing.”
“Some of our public officials are not the best judge of when they should (disclose a conflict of interest),” Heinz said. “We’re very concerned as our charge as an ethics commission is for open and fair government and to promote trust in the community.”
Robinson said he’s seen over the years, people “drift between public service and private service.”
“The concerns are real concerns. They have the perception that there could be a wink and a nod in the Planning Department,” Robinson said. “A wink and a nod that gives preference to someone and not someone else.”
Kern was adamant that’s not the case under his leadership.
“My philosophy has always been to treat people fair. … I don’t really believe in the nod wink situation. … I just want to treat people fairly — that’s always been my thing,” Kern said. “This is my home. If you think for a minute I would go do something like that. … I just wouldn’t do that.”
Most of the five people who testified in person had concerns about Kern’s background, experience or their own particular experiences with him, issues outside of the scope of the Ethics Board.
“The Board of Ethics is very limited in what they may consider. The consideration is conflicts of interest,” said board member David Wiseman.
The other issues, Wiseman said, are up to Mayor Mitch Roth and the County Council.
Testifier Cory Harden addressed his possible conflicts of interest.
“How often will Mr. Kern have to recuse himself?” Harden asked, adding she feared he’d be doing the job “with one arm tied behind his back.”