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2 Roth Cabinet Appointees Face Strong Opposition During County Committee Meetings

January 6, 2021, 6:00 AM HST
* Updated January 6, 5:57 AM
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Steven Ikaika Rodenhurst

Two of Mayor Mitch Roth’s cabinet appointments were met with opposition from the community and County Council during committee meetings on Tuesday.

Community members came forward to oppose the appointment of Roth’s picks for Public Works Director Steven Ikaika Rodenhurst and Planning Director Zendo Kern.

Roth introduced all his cabinet members during committee meetings on Tuesday. The County Council must confirm the positions by Feb. 3.

The mayor explained his process for his cabinet selections.

“We didn’t just go out and choose friends,” Roth said.

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Roth explained how he reached out to the community to create a panel of individuals from across the island to conduct interviews for those applying to the various county head positions.

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“It wasn’t just Hilo-based, Kona-based or Puna-based,” Roth said. “It was every place-based. The effort to do this was to make sure that the entire island got a voice.”

Zendo Kern

As a result, Roth said, he thinks they came up with the best cabinet.

The Public Works and Mass Transit Committee voted 5-4 to give Rodenhurst a positive recommendation. Councilmembers Maile David, Holeka Goro Inaba, Matthew Kaneali‘i-Kleinfelder, and Rebecca Villegas were the dissenting votes.

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Roth told the committee he had no question about Rodenhurst’s experience and ability to lead the department. The mayor said he’s been excited to get to know Rodenhurst and watch him with his team.

Rodenhurst, who is a civil engineer with Bowers and Kubota, told the committee he is grateful for the opportunity to serve the public.

As his experience was called into question, Rodenhurst explained, he’s always had some level of administrative capacity — managing other engineers, managing contracts, coordinating projects. He explained how he’s worked on a variety of projects — each one involving a different level of county, state and public partnerships.

“I applied to serve the community to the best of my ability with the skills I possess,” he said.

One of Rodenhurst’s top priorities is addressing the permitting process. He also plans to look at the needs of maintaining and repairing aging structures on the island. Communication to his job is key, he added, noting his responsibility to bridge the gap between his department and other county departments.

Mitch Roth

Testifiers opposing Rodenhurst’s appointment took issue specifically with his experience and donations made to his campaign while running for Council against Kaneali‘i-Kleinfelder.

“He doesn’t have the administrative experience,” one testifier stated to the committee via Zoom. “I respect his background, but don’t think he’s the right choice.”

Rodenhurst was peppered with questions from all committee members.

Kaneali‘i-Kleinfelder told Rodenhurst that he was a nice person but noted concerns about him running the Public Works Department, pointing specifically to campaign donations he received from a union that represents employees who work for the county.

“It’s a concern,” he said, questioning if he would have an issue holding his employees accountable.

Kaneali‘i-Kleinfelder held up a stack of papers, which he indicated were emails opposing Rodenhurst’s appointment.

“It makes me hesitant to say yes today coupled with the community outcry,” he said.

Rodenhurst disagreed that his campaign donations would have any sway over his ability to hold employees accountable.

“I’m here to direct this department, and manage the department effectively — it has nothing to do with my campaign contributions,” he said.

Councilwoman Rebecca Villegas said she didn’t see evidence of five years capacity at the level that should be required to become the next director of DPW. Because of that, Villegas said, she wouldn’t support Rodenhurst.

Councilman Tim Richards, who was listed as a reference on Rodenhurst’s application to the county position, believed he is qualified for the position.

“We’re talking about credentials for a job, not a campaign,” Richards said. “To infer that we’ll make an ethical miscalculation is not correct.”

Councilman Aaron Chung remarked the conversation regarding Rodenhurst’s positive recommendation had degenerated into personal undertones.

“Whenever we deal with these types of appointments we’re taking a leap of faith, and I’ve been disappointed on many different occasions,” Chung said.

There is nothing in the county charter, Chung added, that precludes Rodenhurst from being appointed.

“In this situation, I would like to defer to the Mayor’s Office,” the councilman said. “If it doesn’t work out, you won’t be the first person to disappoint us.”

The recommendation for Roth’s appointment of Kern to Planning Director was postponed to Jan. 19 as Kern was out of town.

Kern is currently a planning consultant with Kern and Associates. There were testifiers who opposed and supported Kern’s appointment to the position.

Those who opposed the nomination felt he didn’t have the minimal training required by the county charter for the position, as he hasn’t received a high school diploma. Additionally, testifiers questioned his ethics.

Roth said he feels comfortable that Kern meets the minimum requirements to do the job, adding Kern has been a councilmember and has had sufficient experience on the planning and water commissions.

“He’s not your typical person who runs a county department, but we know what typical has gotten us,” the mayor said.

Roth said he believes Kern can do the job and isn’t worried about the conflicts voiced during public testimony, noting the issues mentioned were projects Kern was a consultant on where there were additional mechanisms in place through the county for the public to take their concerns.

“He has a varied background,” Roth said. “As we move forward we have to think about sustainability. If we keep on going the way we’ve gone, we’re not going to get there.”

All other cabinet appointments were given positive recommendations with overall support and enthusiasm.

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