A reprieve for Van Pernis: Council Planning Committee postpones action on ouster of commissioner

Mark Van Pernis was called rude, crusty, insulting, confrontational and condescending, among other adjectives, during a grueling three-hour Tuesday evening session of a County Council panel that ended with a recommendation to not immediately remove him from the powerful Leeward Planning Commission.

Instead, the council Planning Committee voted unanimously to defer action until May 4 on Mayor Mitch Roth’s request and give Van Pernis another chance to rectify his behavior.

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Hamakua Councilwoman Heather Kimball asked about whether special accommodations were made for Van Pernis’ speech impediment. She said Van Pernis seemed to be experiencing frustration with not being able to get his points across. She said he now seems contrite and ready to work on his style.

“A meeting obviously includes decorum, but it also includes compassion,” Kimball said. “I feel like this was the nuclear option and I think there are stages that could be taken if the council were to defer it today.”

Council Chairwoman Maile David, of South Kona/Ka‘u, agreed removing Van Pernis is premature.

“I don’t think we in this body are a disciplinary body,” she said, adding the commission should work with corporation counsel to instruct Van Pernis as well as support Chairman Michael Vitousek in his authority as chairman.

“Everyone talks about aloha, but it goes both ways,” David said. “You don’t get it if you don’t give it.”

But Hilo Councilwoman Sue Lee Loy said Van Pernis, as an attorney, should know better, saying the committee was “providing a commissioner a lot of latitude for what is bad behavior.”

Roth said he’s received numerous complaints. He said his administration has to set a standard of conduct in light of state and county laws governing fair treatment and the aloha spirit. Van Pernis, he said, is creating a hostile work environment.

“This is not about any decision that Mr. Van Pernis has made. It is not about any of his opinions,” Roth said. “Mr. Van Pernis can make some really good points but his behavior is what we’re talking about here. It’s not OK to harass and bully people.”

The Leeward Planning Commission chairman and two former chairmen also voiced concerns about Van Pernis’ behavior, as did Planning Director Zendo Kern and Deputy Director Jeff Darrow.

Van Pernis, addressing the committee, said it was “unfair” to show selected clips without context. He asked about the timing of the request for his removal more than a year into his five-year term, noting he’d recently been asking questions about Kern’s possible conflicts of interest.

“I bring to the commission information they would otherwise not get. There should be room on the commission for diverse styles and compromise,” Van Pernis told the committee.

He asked the committee to give him another chance, noting the council had approved his confirmation.

“I want to serve and I have the qualifications to serve. I am very willing to moderate my behavior and be more reasonable in every respect,” Van Pernis said. “I will go along to get along and I will do much better.”

Testifiers were almost evenly split between those supporting and opposing Van Pernis’ removal.

Testifier Tiffany Edwards Hunt called the mayor’s action a “hit job” and “public shaming.” She and several testifiers mentioned Van Pernis’ speech impediment, which gives him an abrupt speaking style and may make him hard to understand.

“Pot, meet kettle. Ironically we’re here to discuss the mayor’s allegations that a Leeward Planning commissioner is disrespectful to staff and applicants and needs to be removed. And, yet, our mayor and his team are arguably being disrespectful, and just downright nasty to this commissioner,” Edwards Hunt said. “But that’s supposed to be okay. … I’ve heard the mayor and his team have put together a compilation of Mark Van Pernis’s supposed Zoom meeting bloopers, as an attempt to show you why they think that this curmudgeon needs to be kicked to the curb.”

Former Leeward Planning Commission Chairwoman Nancy Carr Smith said she’d given Van Pernis several warnings about “being very confrontational, condescending to the applicants, and he brought things up in the meeting that was insulting to the applicant, things that were not a part of the application.”

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“Mark Van Pernis, while a potential asset to the community, has no business being on a volunteer Planning Commission because he just doesn’t have the ability to behave himself and be fair and impartial. Period,” she said in testimony. “I have witnessed it time and time again, and it’s clear that it must end.”

(This article has been edited to delete references to a video that the Clerk’s Office states was available in the online records system as of Monday afternoon.)

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