A bare majority of County Council members remained unwilling Tuesday to take the unprecedented step of removing a sitting planning commissioner, and instead by a 5-4 vote deferred Mayor Mitch Roth’s request until August.
At issue is Leeward Planning Commissioner Mark Van Pernis, who Roth maintains needs to be removed because he’s disrespectful to applicants and staff.
“This is really about a standard of conduct, about how we in government should be treating people,” Roth told the council Tuesday. “It has nothing to do with positions on votes or how things went.”
The council Planning Committee previously deferred the request a month in order to give Van Pernis a chance to modify behavior others found objectionable. But Roth remained unconvinced after viewing the April 15 planning commission meeting. Three commissioners, including the chairman, also testified in favor of Van Pernis’ removal.
“There was still this behavior that is really unacceptable to us in government,” Roth said.
In particular, Roth and those testifiers seeking Van Pernis’ removal pointed to comments the commissioner made about five hours and 30 minutes into a six-hour meeting, just before the commission voted to uphold the Planning Department’s recommendation and deny a special permit for a wedding business on agricultural land owned by Kathryn Hickey and her husband in Holualoa.
Hickey, who broke into tears during her testimony before the council committee, said Van Pernis had also reduced her to tears during the planning commission meetings by comments he made. She filed a complaint against him with the county Board of Ethics, alleging violation of fair treatment and conflict of interest portions of the ethics code.
Fair treatment allegations centered around comments Van Pernis made during the planning commission hearings such as “the commission is here to represent West Hawaii, not the Hickeys and we need to represent all of West Hawaii and not the Hickeys,” and “they bought agricultural property here with the road; they knew what they were buying; they knew they weren’t necessarily absolutely entitled to any kind of a permit.”
The ethics allegation stemmed from Van Pernis’ comments about two of the property’s neighbors, indicating he knew them. That implies a personal relationship and he should have recused himself, Kathryn Hickey said.
The Board of Ethics has not yet taken up Hickey’s petition.
Van Pernis told the council committee that he had modified his behavior as was requested of him at the last committee hearing and he didn’t feel he was out of line. Some residents submitting testimony in his favor charged the county with bringing politics into play by seeking to remove Van Pernis because he asked tough questions about applications.
“My activities were completely reasonable and civil,” Van Pernis said. “My behavior has been modified and it can be modified further because I want to serve.”
He added, “the crying in the prior hearing was not the result of my questioning,” but because the application was voted down by a 4-2 vote.
Kona Councilwoman Rebecca Villegas, noting along with Puna Councilman Matt Kaneali‘i-Kleinfelder that testifiers at the County Council also cry sometimes, praised Van Pernis for his work, which included probing questions such as whether fire hydrants and roads are sufficient to sustain a business on remote agricultural land.
“I feel you’ve been painted out as somebody who caused her such emotional distress,” Villegas said.
Hilo Councilman Aaron Chung, who made the motion to defer the issue until Aug. 3, said there were a lot of “red herrings” being thrown around. He said he saw no credible evidence that Van Pernis was creating a hostile work environment.
“This really is a matter of style, I think it’s not substance,” Chung said, adding, “We are not the arbiters of ethics.”
Voting to defer, along with Chung, Villegas and Kaneali‘i-Kleinfelder, were South Kona/Ka‘u Councilwoman Maile David and North Kona Councilman Holeka Inaba.
Voting not to defer, Kohala Councilman Tim Richards, Hamakua Councilwoman Heather Kimball, Puna Councilwoman Ashley Kierkiewicz and Hilo Councilwoman Sue Lee Loy, all indicated they were in favor of his removal.
Kierkiewicz called Van Pernis a “square peg in a round hole.”
“It’s not what you’re asking; it’s how you’re asking,” Kierkiewicz said. “I believe reasonable accommodations have been made and you had every opportunity to improve your behavior, but unfortunately you failed to do so.”
Email Nancy Cook Lauer at firstname.lastname@example.org.