Ethics Board weighs in on Van Pernis complaints

  • Michael Vitousek

  • Mark Van Pernis

  • Kathryn Hickey

Leeward Planning Commissioner Mark Van Pernis was in the hot seat again Wednesday, this time before the county Board of Ethics.

The board found Van Pernis didn’t violate the code of ethics in one petition, and it postponed action on a second petition in order to review videos of planning commission meetings where Van Pernis was accused of acting inappropriately.

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The first petition, filed by Leeward Planning Commission Chairman Michael Vitousek, questioned whether Van Pernis violated the county ethics code when he didn’t disclose he lived in a neighboring subdivision to the 725-acre Palamanui development before he sponsored amendments that could reroute Palamanui traffic away from his subdivision.

“We believe the commissioners would have a duty to disclose that information when they’re being questioned on whether they’re being impartial,” Vitousek said. “He used his position on the commission to request changes to an application that affected the subdivision he lives in.”

Vitousek’s petition asked specifically whether Van Pernis violated parts of the ethics code related to conflicts of interest and use of position to secure some unwarranted favor or privilege.

Van Pernis said he lives about a mile away from the project in Makalei Estates subdivision.

Palamanui (developers) is obligated to build a bypass road to Palamanui,” Van Pernis said. “They did not affect Makalei Estates whatsoever.”

The ethics board unanimously agreed there was no ethics violation.

“From the information we have, I fail to see there is a conflict of interest here. I think the question of fairness is also not clearly demonstrated and I speak as someone who is concerned about that,” said board member Larry Heintz. “I think people need to be disclosing and recusing themselves more than they have been. … but when I look at what’s here, I don’t see that the code as currently written is violated.”

The second petition was filed by Kathryn Hickey, an applicant before the planning commission who unsuccessfully sought an after-the-fact special permit for a wedding business on agricultural land. She said she didn’t file the complaint because the commission denied her application, but because of how Van Pernis treated her.

Hickey wanted the Board of Ethics to remove Van Pernis from his position, something beyond the board’s authority.

“I would like the harshest penalty,” Hickey said, adding the County Council was awaiting an ethics ruling before it decided whether to remove the commissioner.

Her petition alleged violation of fair treatment and conflict of interest portions of the ethics code, but she withdrew the conflict of interest allegation. Fair treatment allegations center 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 are only farming in coffee 8 acres. They may be farming elsewhere, but I don’t know that they can’t make a living farming properly.”

Hickey said Van Pernis’ comment about “farming properly,” implying they wouldn’t need the wedding business if they farmed better, especially rankled.

“He said mean and rude things to us for no reason,” Hickey said.

Van Pernis said his questions were “proper and reasonable.”

“It’s the job of a commissioner to ask questions whether they’re pleasant or unpleasant,” he said.

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Van Pernis, whom Mayor Mitch Roth has been attempting to remove from office, has twice been rescued by a reluctant County Council, where a bare majority of members have postponed action on Roth’s request. It’s unprecedented for a mayor to ask a council to remove a sitting official appointed by a prior administration.

Email Nancy Cook Lauer at ncook-lauer@westhawaiitoday.com.