The Hawaii County Board of Ethics on Wednesday charged former Mayor Harry Kim with ethics violations for failing to enforce state laws during the 2019 protests against the Thirty Meter Telescope, but Kim was unlikely to face any consequences since he already has left office.

Kim was accused of non-enforcement toward protesters, laying gravel for a makeshift road near the base camp at Mauna Kea Access Road and communicating with the protest movement ahead of any law enforcement action, which the board said violated the Hawaii County Charter.

“Honestly, if I felt it was a violation I wouldn’t have done it,” Kim said in a phone interview Wednesday evening.

Rick Robinson, the board chair, said the charges carried no fines and Kim won’t face any penalties because he has already left office.

Hawaii Island Mayor forum Harry Kim portrait. 14 july 2016
The Hawaii County Board of Ethics charged Big Island Mayor Harry Kim with ethics violations that carry little weight related to the TMT protest in 2019. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“He’s gone, he’s not subject to them now, but it was the decision of the Board of Ethics,” Robinson said.

Kim, whose last day in office was Monday, said he accepts the board’s decisions, but also defended his own actions. As law enforcement activity was getting ready to wind down in December 2019, Kim got word that cabins would soon reopen on Mauna Kea.

To ensure public access, while also allowing the protest to continue, he struck a deal with the movement’s leaders to move their encampment to the side of the road. Since there were some potholes, he also ordered road crews to patch them.

He assured the protest leaders that law enforcement wouldn’t be ramping up again, and would notify them if that were happening. He said that, given the weeks it takes the state to get ready for such operations, it was inevitable that word would get out regarding the movements of law enforcement.

Kim was tasked by Gov. David Ige with finding a way for TMT to move forward on Mauna Kea, but so far, that hasn’t happened.

The largely symbolic vote on Wednesday was unanimous and came nearly a year after the ethics board attempted to launch an investigation into the county and state authorities tasked with clearing the road for TMT to be built on the mountain, which is considered sacred by many Native Hawaiians.

At the time, the protest had reached a stalemate with protesters refusing to budge and construction crews and law enforcement unable to clear the road to Mauna Kea’s summit.

State law enforcement pulled back in December 2019, and the protesters, who call themselves kiai, also vacated their campsite in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Earlier this year, the board asked county lawyers for special counsel to investigate the mayor’s actions after receiving a complaint about the protests from a Hawaii county resident.

That request for outside legal help was denied, according to Robinson.

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