Mayor Mitch Roth wants to oust Mark Van Pernis from the powerful Leeward Planning Commission, in what could be an unprecedented action that is, however, within the authority of the mayor and County Council as defined by the county charter.
In a letter Monday to Council Chairwoman Maile David, Roth said Van Pernis was disrespectful to fellow commissioners, Planning Department staff and applicants.
“At Commission meetings, Mr. Van Pernis behaves as if he is opposing counsel performing cross examination, and even badgers applicants that do not answer his questions to his liking,” Roth said in the letter. “His frequent disruptions, speaking out of turn, and ignoring the direction from the Chair has resulted in the need to mute his microphone. Such behavior distracts from and compromises the important work of the Commission.”
Roth had asked that the issue, Communication 183, be put directly on the council agenda. But Council Chairwoman Maile David instead put it on the Planning Committee agenda to allow more time for discussion.
North Kona Councilman Holeka Inaba said he was “shocked” to see the letter.
”In my attendance of the commission meetings, I have seen Commissioner Van Pernis bring balance and a unique perspective to the group,” Inaba said. “I look forward to further explanation for this request during the April 6 Planning Committee meeting.”
Van Pernis, a former Mayor Harry Kim appointee whose term runs until Dec. 31, 2024, is a retired attorney who previously served on the Kailua Village Design Commission and on the boards for the Kona divisions of the Hawaii Health Corporation and the American Red Cross. He was also a member of the West Hawaii Bar Association Courthouse site selection committee.
He’s shown himself on the planning commission as someone who has done his homework. He asks pointed questions about projects seeking approval and often brings up historical issues other commissioners have missed.
“It’s true I ask a lot of questions, but it’s my job,” Van Pernis said Wednesday. “If questions are asked and responded to with words of avoiding an answer, more questions may follow.”
Kailua-Kona resident Janice Palma-Glennie, who closely follows land-use issues in West Hawaii, said she’s had her disagreements with Van Pernis, but she believes all voices should be heard.
“Mr. Van Pernis may not be the lamb or sycophant our mayor would like, but his questions on the planning commission are important and enlightening,” Palma-Glennie said. “Residents have a growing sense that the mayor wants to be surrounded by people who agree with him and he goes so far as to expecting them to have the demeanor he prefers. That’s not how a healthy democracy works.“
At the end of the March 18 Leeward Planning Commission meeting, Van Pernis requested two items be placed on the next commission agenda, dealing with questions about potential conflicts of interest for Planning Director Zendo Kern and Deputy Corporation Counsel Jean Campbell. Kern subsequently in a March 25 West Hawaii Today article acknowledged he as director “inadvertently” signed off on a preliminary plat map for a project where he previously served as consultant.
The county’s two planning commissions — Leeward and Windward — are charged with advising the mayor, council and planning director on planning and land-use matters. But they’re not just advisory panels; they also have the authority to approve certain applications and planning director recommendations that don’t go before the council. Unlike some commissions such as the Police Commission and Fire Commission, the planning commissions don’t oversee the department or director.
Commissioners serve five-year staggered unpaid terms and thus overlap the terms of a mayor.
Roth said Tuesday he is taking the action because of “numerous complaints” from staff, the public and commissioners that Van Pernis is creating a hostile workplace. He said he called Van Pernis after the March 18 planning commission meeting and asked for his resignation but Van Pernis declined.
“The code of ethics demands we treat people with dignity and respect and with fair treatment,” Roth said.
Van Pernis said he asked Roth for specifics during that telephone call and the mayor couldn’t provide details about who complained, what the complaint was about and when the supposed inappropriate action occurred.
Van Pernis’ confirmation before the council last year was rocky, with the prior council in January, 2020, confirming him on a 6-3 vote. The three dissenters — Hilo Councilwoman Sue Lee Loy, Kohala Councilman Tim Richards and Puna Councilwoman Ashley Kierkiewicz — are still on the council, while two council members who previously supported him are not.
The council Planning Committee is scheduled to take up Roth’s request at 3 p.m. Tuesday. The public can comment on Communication 183 via Zoom by registering by noon Monday with firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 961-8255. Written testimony can be emailed to email@example.com.