Zendo Kern was confirmed Wednesday as county planning director by the skin of his teeth, after Hamakua Councilwoman Heather Kimball switched her vote and decided to support him.
Kern’s confirmation was the culmination of weeks of accusations, recriminations, lawsuits and ethics questions that even brought Mayor Mitch Roth to the Hilo chamber for one last push of his nominee to a reluctant council. Roth, recovering from a heart attack that sent him to the hospital for 11 days, said his doctor granted him five minutes to talk to the council because the mayor thought it important to be there.
The council voted 5-4 to confirm Kern, after a 4-5 vote by the council Planning Committee last month had seemed to doom his appointment. At issue for the dissenters is whether Kern’s education and experience meet the minimum qualifications set by the county charter.
Dissenters also had concerns about potential conflicts of interest when Kern’s former clients as a planning consultant came to the county for permits. Kern has asked the county Board of Ethics for advice on how to handle potential conflicts.
Joining Kimball voting yes were Kohala Councilman Tim Richards, Hilo Councilman Aaron Chung, Hilo Councilwoman Sue Lee Loy and Puna Councilwoman Ashley Kierkiewicz.
Kimball said she asked the administration for more information after she voted against Kern in committee, and the new information about what kind of training he’s received as well as other factors satisfied her that he met the minimum charter requirements.
“We have a very specific job as council members. … Our obligation is to vet that person to determine if they met the minimum qualifications,” Kimball said. “We don’t have to like them.”
North Kona Councilman Haleka Inaba said he personally liked Kern, but he had to vote no based on the charter.
“I have a lot of aloha for you; I think you do a very good job leading the department,” Inaba said. “Just with the charter language, I won’t support you today. … I mahalo you for leaving your business to kokua us here. … It’s not personal, it’s just how I’m reading this, which is the most basic way.”
The county charter requires a minimum of five years of training and experience in a responsible planning position with no less than three years in an administrative capacity for candidates who don’t possess a relevant college degree. Kern has a high school diploma, with his last two years home-schooled, but he does have more than 15 years experience in land use professions.
Kern’s confirmation to the $132,744 position drew tremendous community feedback, about evenly divided between supporters and opponents. One supporter filed a lawsuit seeking to stop the vote, accusing council members of violating the state Sunshine Law when they talked among themselves during the committee meeting vetting Kern.
“I’m astounded, I’m baffled,” Kona Councilwoman Rebecca Villegas said about, “the level of overcompensation, what feels like manipulation, and drama.”
Corporation Counsel Elizabeth Strance said her office called the state Office of Information Practices to get an opinion on the Sunshine Law issue. Strance noted that no judge had issued a restraining order, so the council was free to move forward on a vote.
“At this stage, you simply have to know that a lawsuit has been filed and allegations have been made,” Strance said. “Without a court order directing you to stop, there’s nothing requiring you to stop.”
Roth told council members it was their responsibility to treat his appointees in a fair and impartial manner and he thought some council members violated that precept for political reasons.
“I believe a couple of members should recuse themselves and not take part in this vote,” Roth said, saying he had envisioned a county of “all of us working together and trying to be a county that cooperates with each other.”
Chung agreed it wasn’t the County Council’s finest hour.
“Look what is happening to our council. I’m kind of embarrassed, quite frankly. … I just wish we’d be more respectful at the way we throw stuff at each other,” Chung said. “I’m sorry the mayor had to come here from his sickbed.”