Puna Councilwoman Ashley Kierkiewicz violated the county ethics code when she didn’t disclose a potential conflict of interest in a bill being considered by the County Council, the Board of Ethics ruled unanimously Monday.
The 5-0 decision came after a petition signed by 39 people questioned whether Kierkiewicz had a conflict of interest in introducing a bill, chairing a committee considering the bill and voting on the bill without disclosing that she was employed by a public relations company that represents officers of the landowner in the zoning application.
There are no penalties or fines associated with the board’s ruling.
After the complaint was filed, Kierkiewicz announced her resignation from Hastings &Pleadwell and disclosed her connections to Steve Ueda, president and CEO of Matsuno Enterprises, which owns the property where another company, Piilani Partners, seeks to install a potable water well and build a bottling plant.
Bill 16 gives a five-year extension to a light industrial zoning on the Hilo property. The council postponed action on the bill.
The Ethics Board didn’t address the conflict of interest issue, but agreed to submit a letter to the County Council reminding the legislative body that the county charter requires disclosure up front and recusal from voting if there’s a potential conflict between public and personal business. Kierkiewicz and petitioner Cory Harden said council leadership didn’t clearly advise the freshman member on her ethics question.
“She should have disclosed the business transaction — her financial interest directly or indirectly that might have been incompatible with the discharge of her official duties,” said board member Nan Sumner-Mack.
Board member Rick Robinson agreed.
“Disclosure should have been made upfront. … I was moved by the discussion of public trust,” Robinson said. “Disclosure is really the key as it speaks to the public trust.”
That public trust is important to Sherri Thal, one of Kierkiewicz’s District 4 constituents.
“The basic principle of representative democracy is that Ms. Kierkiewicz is my voice and she’s here to serve the people in District 4,” Thal said. “I want to make sure Ms. Kierkiewicz is serving the people of Puna and not a client or corporate interest.”
Another Big Island resident thinks the relationship concept goes too far, especially on an island where everyone knows each other. Deron Akiona asked the Ethics Board to formulate clear guidelines for elected officials, adding he didn’t see any wrongdoing by Kierkiewicz.
“I think this is a classic example of how the interpretation of politics has changed,” said Akiona. “Relationships in Hawaii go on for years, I mean decades. … How far are you going to stretch, how far are you going say, how long is a conflict after you leave?”
Kierkiewicz had much the same response to the ethics complaint.
“I’m thankful the board found no conflict of interest, and offered clarity as to the level of disclosure they’d like to see from the entire council given we live in a small community where connections run wide and deep,” Kierkiewicz said after the hearing. “I am grateful this learning experience happened early in my term so I can continue to work hard to serve my island home.”
Email Nancy Cook Lauer at firstname.lastname@example.org.