The County Council Planning Committee was passing its third full hour of grilling Mayor Mitch Roth’s choice for planning director with no clear end in sight by press time Tuesday evening, an indication of the controversy surrounding former planning consultant Zendo Kern.
During a hearing that sometimes grew tense, Kern described growing up in dirt shacks, often having to do without and being unable to afford college.
“It’s been an interesting, interesting journey to come to this place. I’ve developed myself over the years by doing,” Kern said. “Doing, doing, doing and learning from my mistakes.”
He assured the council he’d keep the interest of the county foremost.
“As planning director, I will represent the county to the very best of my ability,” he said. “There’s been a lot of negativity coming my way, a lot of challenging my integrity. … I just want to do the very best that I can do.”
Three West Hawaii council members appeared to be heading to a “no” vote.
Some council members quizzed Kern on affordable housing, the general plan, community development plans, building codes and climate change issues. But Council Chairwoman Maile David of South Kona/Ka‘u said the charter requires the council to vet candidates against the charter requirements.
“I appreciate your sensitivity to this island and everything you stand for, but I’m having difficulty seeing the qualification aspect according to the charter,” David said.
Kona Councilwoman Rebecca Villegas said the administration was “overcompensating” in its backing of Kern and it was making her uncomfortable.
“I really appreciate the passion you have and obviously you’re well-versed in the vocabulary,” Villegas said. “For me, I have issues with how the charter is written and whether you meet those qualifications.”
North Kona Councilman Holeka Inaba questioned whether Kern had taken any training, inasmuch as he didn’t have the required education.
“I think you would do a fine job, but I don’t get to vote based on what I feel,” Inaba said. “Nothing shows you’ve had training at all.”
The council will likely make its final vote in two weeks.
Managing Director Lee Lord, acting mayor as Roth is recovering from a heart attack, described how a group of seven or eight candidates was vetted in a “rigorous” manner by a selection committee that forwarded Kern’s nomination to Roth, who made the appointment. Lord said Kern has 20 years experience in construction and planning and three years in an administrative capacity.
The county charter requires a minimum of five years of training and experience in a responsible planning position with no less than three years in an administrative capacity for candidates who don’t possess a relevant college degree. Kern has a high school diploma, with his last two years home-schooled.
“In all, Mr. Kern not only meets the requirements of the Hawaii County charter but embodies all the aspects we were looking for in this administration,” Lord said.
He said the administration hadn’t expected Kern’s appointment to be controversial.
To unsuccessful objections from Puna Councilman Matt Kaneali‘i-Kleinfelder, who called the display out of order, Lord had Human Resources Director Bill Brilhante, Deputy Planning Director Jeff Darrow and two members of the selection committee explain why Kern was qualified. Selection committee member Craig Takamine, a builder, said the committee was unanimous in its choice for Kern.
“I thought Zendo by far was the best,” said committee member Ken Van Bergen, a commercial real estate broker. “Where we are now as a county, I think it’s very important that we have someone who has experience on both sides of the counter.”
Several council members expressed dismay when Lord declined to name who else was on the selection committee. Lord agreed to seek their permission to disclose their names.
“The community elected Mr. Roth,” said Hamakua Councilwoman Heather Kimball. “You have now taken some of that public information out and put it behind closed doors.”
Testifiers opposed Kern by a 9-7 margin, saying Kern’s education and experience fall short of what’s required in the county charter.
“There’s an incorrect assumption the council is here to be nice to the mayor. … The power given by constituents is that you provide the check and balance,” said testifier Janice Palma-Glennie. “This appointment of Mr. Kern would be a huge mistake as well as might be illegal. It not only causes bad will but undermines our democracy.”
They also worried that Kern would have too many conflicts of interest when his former clients come before the department for permits and considerations.
Testifier Tom Bierlein said even if Kern recused himself and handed cases off to his deputy, “his subordinates are going to want to please the boss.”
“He’s going to spend more time at the ethics board than he’s going to spend at his own desk,” Bierlein said.
Supporters disagreed, saying Kern’s work as a planning consultant, chairman of the Windward Planning Commission, member of the County Council and member of the county Water Board is experience enough.
“Let’s not talk about what Zendo can’t do, but let’s talk about his vision for the future of the county,” said testifier Steve Hirakami, citing sustainable agriculture, green energy and more sustainable communities as Kern priorities.
“Most of the testifiers here are glomming onto the education requirement,” said Mathias Kusch, “but they all have an ax to grind.”
Email Nancy Cook Lauer at [email protected].