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Council Wary of Mayor’s Pick for Planning Director

January 20, 2021, 3:47 PM HST
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Zendo Kern

The Hawai‘i County Council Planning Committee voted 5-4 to provide a negative recommendation of Zendo Kern as planning director.

On Tuesday, the committee discussed and questioned Kern for several hours to get a sense of his training and qualifications and what his plan was for the department. Ultimately, several council members felt Kern was unqualified to take up the position according to the county charter, despite testimony from Human Resources and Corporation Counsel saying he does meet the minimum qualifications.

Dissenting votes came from Council Chair Maile David, Councilwoman Rebecca Villegas, Councilwoman Heather Kimball, Councilman Matthew Kaneali‘i-Kleinfelder and Councilman Holeka Inaba.

David told Kern her job was to address what the county charter is directing the council to do based on verifications and qualifications. As such, she explained she was having a difficult time figuring out whether his work in the private sector fulfilled those qualifications.

“I appreciate your experience, I appreciate your sensitivity to this island and everything it stands for, but I’m looking and having difficulty with the verification,” David said.

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Kaneali‘i-Kleinfelder agreed.

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“After countless emails and hours of deliberation, I cannot say you meet the qualifications to the charter,” he said. “We need to look at the charter in the simplest language. The people you’d be overseeing would be more credentialed than you.”

Kern’s selection as planning director garnered a lot of attention with testifiers coming forward showing their opposition and their support to this appointment. On Tuesday, testifiers argued Kern simply didn’t meet the minimum qualifications for the position and his appointment would be illegal as Kern doesn’t hold a college degree.

The committee also sought an explanation into how Kern was selected. A panel of five community members chose Kern unanimously among seven applicants. Craig Takamine, a member of that panel, testified to the committee explaining each applicant was given one hour to interview.

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“I firmly believe the committee was unbiased,” Takamine said, adding they felt Kern had the right mix of experience from private and public sector.

Kern had the chance to address the committee saying he was humbled, honored and taken aback at moments. He told the council of his upbringing and growing up in poverty in Puna.

“I didn’t have this opportunity to go and get an education, I had to survive,” Kern said. “I developed myself over the years through doing.”

Through his private consulting firm, Kern said he helped solve land use problems for people. He also served on the planning commission and the county council, which he said provided him insight from the county perspective.

“My minimum qualifications have be questioned. I feel like I’ve been vetted over and over again,” Kern said. “I didn’t need the job, but I wanted the job. I love this island.”

Throughout this process of Kern’s selection, he said, there’s been a lot of attacks on his character, ethics and integrity, all of which he found interesting and disheartening.

“Moving forward I just want to do the very best I can do,” he said.

Kern selected Jeff Darrow as his deputy planning director. Darrow was planning on retiring from his position as planning program manager, however, he decided to stay because of Kern.

While the decision to postpone retirement was tough, Darrow explained to the council that he believes in Mayor Mitch Roth’s direction for the county and choice for the department.

“I’ve worked with Zendo on many projects — what he brings is a perspective that there can be change for the better,” Darrow said. “I feel I can assist. I feel strongly this planning director can make those changes.”

Councilman Tim Richards disagreed with the assessment of his colleagues that Kern lacked the qualifications.

“The fact that the mayor puts you forth, he believes you meet the qualifications, I accept that,” Richards said. “I’m going to support you Zendo. I’m convinced that if you don’t do your job the mayor won’t keep you around.”

Councilman Aaron Chung said he was troubled that council members were adding “more to the pot” when it came to the charter’s required qualifications and training for planning director.

“Let the mayor try,” Chung said. “You can’t judge a person on the front end. Give him a chance. It’s a vote of confidence to the mayor.”

Councilwoman Ashley Kierkiewicz felt his training came while he worked on the commission and council, adding she thinks he exceeds the minimum requirements.

“Where you lack in a degree you make up for real world experience,” Kierkiewicz said.

Kern’s nomination will go before the council for official confirmation next month.

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