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County Council Appoints Zendo Kern Planning Director

February 4, 2021, 6:00 AM HST
* Updated February 4, 7:50 AM
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Zendo Kern

After lengthy, and at times contentious discussions, the Hawai‘i County Council approved the confirmation of Zendo Kern as planning director with a 5-4 vote on Wednesday.

The council initially submitted a negative recommendation to Kern’s appointment during a planning committee meeting in January with a 5-4 vote. On Wednesday, however, freshman Councilwoman Heather Kimball tipped the balance in Kern’s favor with an aye vote.

“I’m disappointed at some of the behavior around this particular issue,” Kimball said. “It doesn’t matter if we like that person or not…we can’t make assumptions on what they may do.”

Kimball’s initial reservations to supporting Kern stemmed from the fact that she wasn’t clear on the type of training he’d had that qualified him for the position. The county charter indicates the planning director must have five years of training and experience.

The county has since provided Kimball with a list of Kern’s past training, which was shared with the council. Kimball also expressed concern over Kern’s possible conflicts of interest. Ultimately, she decided to support Mayor Mitch Roth’s appointment.

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Councilmembers Holeka Inaba, Rebecca Villegas, Maile David and Matthew Kaneali‘i-Kleinfelder maintained the nay votes they initially provided during the planning committee meeting in January.

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Testimony supporting and opposing Kern’s nomination as planning director has overwhelmed the council. which has been divided on the issue.

Mayor Roth addressed the council Wednesday as well as Kern. It was Roth’s first appearance since suffering a heart attack last month. During the meeting, he said the county is trying to be one that cooperates with each other.

“We don’t want to be like congress where they’re fighting for no good reason,” Roth said.

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Roth said the council has heard from several attorneys speaking to Kern’s qualifications as met by the charter.

“As councilmembers at this stage, you sit kind of like judges,” Roth said. “To be judges you have to be fair and impartial.”

Throughout the council’s discussions of Kern’s appointment, Roth noted that there were some members who have shown they are unable to do this, specifically noting that Kaneali‘i-Kleinfelder could not be fair and impartial.

The mayor said he believed there were a couple of members who should recuse themselves and not take part in the vote, believing their opposition to Kern’s appointment was retaliation due to Kern’s campaign donations to certain council candidates during the last county election.

Councilwoman Rebecca Villegas said she was astounded and baffled at the level of manipulation, drama and “consistent chaotic desperation” surrounding the county’s push for Kern as planning director.

Villegas said there is a common sentiment that the process of Kern’s appointment has been viewed as out of the ordinary.

While David and Inaba told Kern they respected him and think he’d be good at the job, they maintained their nay votes because they felt he didn’t meet the qualifications of the charter.

Kaneali‘i-Kleinfelder said nothing during the entire discussion on Kern’s appointment. However, the councilman told Big Island Now Wednesday evening he was happy to have participated in the confirmation hearings for Kern and the administration.

“This was true public process at work and I want to mahalo everyone who participated,” Kaneali‘i-Kleinfelder stated.

On Feb. 2, a lawsuit was filed against the county council for violating the Sunshine Law, accusing councilmembers in Kona of discussing Kern’s appointment during January’s planning committee meeting while their mics were off. The lawsuit also alleges councilmembers opposed to Kern’s appointment were texting each other.

The lawsuit also cites an email Kaneali‘i-Kleinfelder sent to testifiers as well as other councilmembers declaring his reasons for voting against Kern.

During Wednesday’s meeting, there was a concern as to whether or not the council could move forward on voting on Kern’s nomination due to the lawsuit. However, under the advisement of Corporation Counsel, there was nothing that appeared to keep the legislative body from proceeding ahead with the vote.

Additionally, Corporation Counsel noted Kaneali‘i-Kleinfelder’s email alone didn’t disqualify him from voting. However, it was suggested that the councilman announce to his colleagues what happened and provide a copy of the email.

The council moved forward acknowledging the lawsuit and email with no further discussion.

“Despite a truly meritless complaint brought forward by supporters of Mr. Kern, Corporation Counsel’s wise input allowed the council to move ahead with a vote,” Kanealii-Kleinfelder said Wednesday evening. “We shall move forward with Budget hearings. Critical spending decisions lie ahead for the County of Hawai‘i and I look forward to the budget proposals from the Roth Administration.”

Where there was hesitation and adamant opposition from some councilmembers, there was support from others.

“From my perspective, he qualifies,” Councilman Aaron Chung said of Kern. “I think he’s a good man … and I’m certainly willing to give him a chance.”

Councilwoman Ashley Kierkiewicz was unabashedly supportive of Kern, who has been proactive in working in her district to move recovery from the 2018 eruption forward.

“You are the best person for the job,” she said. “We would be lucky to have the planning department led by you.”

Kern has been acting director of the planning department since December. He told the council he knows the land-use issues are constantly moving and a challenging process.

“I know we’re facing a lot,” Kern said, adding he’s not perfect but open to collaboration.

Kern said they want the same thing, to have the Big Island be amazing, thrive and offer opportunities.

“I would love the opportunity to work on this problem,” he said as he held back tears.

Following the meeting, County Managing Director Lee Lord said the mayor’s office is pleased with the council’s confirmation.

“We believe Zendo meets the expectations of the charter and is the best candidate to be confirmed as planning director,” Lord said. “We appreciate all support that came from community and council.”

Lord said he was surprised by the opposition Kern was met with. However, the mayor’s office continued to provide the necessary documents and testimony that spoke to Kern’s qualifications as set by the charter.

“I believe (the council) will work with Zendo after this,” Lord said optimistically. “I’ve seen differences in opinion among county employees in the past but believe we’ll get the unity and collaboration we so need in our county.”

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