Leeward Planning Commission at a crossroads: County Council scrutinizes Roth’s nominees

  • Mayor Mitch Roth

  • Council Chairwoman Maile David

The spotlight has been on the membership of the Leeward Planning Commission lately, not because of actions they’ve taken, but because of who they are.

Currently, the seven-member commission is two members short and a sitting member is under pressure from Mayor Mitch Roth to be removed. Roth has brought forth two nominees for vacant seats but many members of the County Council have been less than thrilled with his choices for the powerful board.

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Roth’s latest choice, Shani Armbruster, squeaked through a preliminary vetting Tuesday on a 5-4 vote by the council Planning Committee and faces one more vote before being confirmed. Roth’s nominee before that, Dana Asis, was rejected on a 4-5 vote.

Armbruster is a project manager at Tinguely Development in Kailua-Kona; Asis is a Waikoloa real estate broker specializing in luxury homes.

Some members of the community haven’t been happy with Roth’s nominees.

“It’s come to my attention that Mayor Roth has again nominated a person straight out of the development community,” Janice Palma-Glennie, a Kailua-Kona resident who’s long been active in coastline preservation projects, said in testimony. “What doesn’t he understand about residents wanting someone to represent more than just developers and Realtors on our important (and, in this case, powerful) boards and commissions?”

Roth defended his choices, saying the current board has a diverse mix that doesn’t tap too heavily into the development sector.

“We’re trying to get people who have some knowledge and education who also care for our communities. We want to make sure that we have a more sustainable Hawaii Island,” Roth said Friday. “The way we use our lands, we want to make sure we don’t overdevelop but develop at a rate that our kids can have affordable housing, a place where our kids can have meaningful jobs. It takes a little bit of development to do that.”

Council members voting against the nominees are almost all West Hawaii representatives. Kohala Councilman Tim Richards has voted for both candidates, while Puna Councilman Matt Kanealii-Kleinfelder, has sided with the westside council members voting no.

Richards, whose district Armbruster would represent, praised her planning background and her involvement in local charities such as the Hawaii Island Humane Society and Three Ring Ranch Wildlife Sanctuary. He said the island is crying for affordable housing, and he thinks Armbruster could help make that happen.

Hamakua Councilwoman Heather Kimball, who’s lately found herself the swing vote between the more pro-business East Hawaii council members and the more environmentally conscious West Hawaii, voted against Asis and voted for Armbruster. She said she liked her planning background.

Kona Councilwoman Rebecca Villegas and South Kona/Ka‘u Councilwoman Maile David wanted assurances that the nominee would be focused on Hawaiian culture.

“West Hawaii has been at the heart of land use decisions and Supreme Court decisions that basically ratify the culture here and government’s duty to preserve and protect cultural practices and traditions,” David said.”Are you familiar with the Planning Department’s responsibility in upholding those?”

Villegas asked similar questions.

“So you understand the concerns expressed by different constituents of the west side with their desires to have that diverse group of people on this Leeward Planning Commission and their concerns about it being tilted to the side potentially of reflecting the desires of developers?” Villegas asked.

Armbruster pointed to her planning background and master’ s degree in urban and regional planning as a plus.

“I don’t necessarily agree I am tilted. I can see why people would think so,” Armbruster replied. “I’m not a treehugger and I’m not a child of hippies but I know who I am and I think I bring a unique perspective and an experience and background that will be unique, but I do see their concerns.”

North Kona Councilman Holeka Inaba said he thinks Roth has a half-dozen applicants to the commission, and he knows there is at least one Hawaiian cultural practitioner among them, a role he thinks would add greatly to the mix on the board.

Currently, all of the members of the Leeward Planning Commission except one were appointed by former Mayor Harry Kim. They include:

• Barbara DeFranco, founder of Paleaku Gardens Peace Sanctuary and manager and design consultant for Indich Collection, a carpet and rug company, a Kim appointee.

• Clement CJ Kanuha, a professional surfer and owner of a surfboard and surfing business, a Roth appointee.

• Mark Van Pernis, a retired attorney appointed by Kim and under pressure from Roth for the County Council to remove.

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• Faith Yates, a retired administrative assistant with Prudential Locations Inc. real estate company and former president of the Kona Hawaiian Civic Club, appointed by Kim.

• Michael Vitousek, former lead archaeologist for the state Historical Preservation Division, former cultural resource manager and now manager of land and development for 1250 Oceanside LLC, developers of Hokulia, a Kim appointee.

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