KAILUA-KONA, Hawaii — Hawaii County Mayor Mitch Roth wants to kick a commissioner off a planning board for being rude to his colleagues and acting like a hostile attorney rather than a volunteer board member.
Roth outlined his unusual request in a letter to Hawaii County Council Chairwoman Maile David and the eight other council members, saying he wanted to relieve Leeward Planning Commission member Mark Van Pernis of his duties for his mistreatment of fellow commissioners, planning department staff and applicants.
“At Commission meetings, Mr. Van Pernis behaves as if he is opposing counsel performing cross examination, and even badgers applicants that do not answer his questions to his liking,” Roth wrote in his letter. “His frequent disruptions, speaking out of turn, and ignoring the direction from the Chair has resulted in the need to mute his microphone. Such behavior distracts from and compromises the important work of the Commission.”
The issue is scheduled to go to the council planning committee at 3 p.m. Tuesday. Roth originally requested the matter go before the full council, but David scheduled it for the committee for more discussion.
The seven-member Leeward Planning Commission is one of two planning commissions on Hawaii island. The boards advise the mayor’s office, county council and the planning director on planning and land use issues. The leeward board deals with matters around the highly developed western side of Hawaii. The boards also have the authority to approve certain applications and planning director recommendations.
On Thursday, Roth said that an hour-long video of examples of Van Pernis’s behavior had been sent to council members for review.
Civil Beat reviewed the video. It showed meetings last year where Van Pernis interrupted other speakers and was interrupted himself.
“This is all about behavior,” Roth said. “This has nothing to do with personality or decisions … On the record, there are points (Van Pernis) brought up that I agreed with.”
Van Pernis’s five-year term is scheduled to end Dec. 31, 2024. The retired attorney was appointed by former Mayor Harry Kim and he was last confirmed by the County Council in a 6-3 vote.
A previous volunteer on the Kailua Village Design Commission as well as the Kona divisions of the Hawaii Health Corporation and the American Red Cross, Van Pernis is an active commission member who is known to share his views. He frequently voices his opinions on community issues in letters to the editor and op-ed columns for the local newspaper, West Hawaii Today.
Roth called Van Pernis before filing the letter to ask for his resignation, which Van Pernis refused. The mayor said he did so after receiving a litany of complaints from the public, staff and commissioners. He said Van Pernis’s actions have created a “hostile work environment.”
“We have a duty to act,” Roth said. “I feel that duty is what I’m doing.”
Van Pernis said he asked for but didn’t receive specifics about any of the alleged complaints during the phone call with the mayor.
The dispute comes shortly after Van Pernis attempted to question one of Roth’s new cabinet members, Planning Director Zendo Kern.
At the end of the March Planning Commission meeting, Van Pernis requested that two items be placed on the planning commission’s next agenda for further discussion, including questions about potential conflicts of interest for Kern as well as for Deputy Corporation Counsel Jean Campbell.
The item wasn’t scheduled.
But shortly after Van Pernis’s attempt, Kern acknowledged to West Hawaii Today that as director he “inadvertently” signed off on a preliminary plat map for a project for which he previously served as consultant.
Van Pernis attempted again on March 25, after his phone call with Roth, to schedule the Kerns issue at the next meeting.
Less than a week later, Roth’s letter was sent to the council.
Reached by phone on Thursday, Van Pernis pointed to the timing of Roth’s request on the heels of his attempts to question Kern on conflict-of-interest matters, but declined to answer other questions, including whether he had seen the video of his actions.
The County Council approved Kern early this year.
Roth said Van Pernis’s questioning of Kern did “not at all” factor into his decision to send the letter. Rather, he said, it was about the commissioner’s pattern of conduct.
“We’re supposed to treat people with dignity and respect,” Roth said.
Supporters of Van Pernis have already spoken up in his defense.
Kona Councilwoman Rebecca Villegas said she was “appalled” at the request for a number of reasons.
One was that the mayor sent the video example via email to the councilors instead of through the clerk’s office as is proper protocol for agenda item documents. It’s another example, she said, of the mayor sidestepping proper procedures when communicating with the legislative branch.
“There is a pattern of the mayor’s office doing things, sending things, operating in ways that are outside the natural process and protocol which has made some of my council members and staff uncomfortable,” she said.
She also called Van Pernis an “intelligent” commissioner with personal connection to the land issues brought before him, though at times he can be “ornery.” Van Pernis also speaks slowly due to a physical condition, and accommodations haven’t been made for that, she said.
She also said she was concerned about the request considering the Kern controversy. The ouster would appear to be a move toward a more pro-development commission.
“My constituents are on high alert right now for what they feel could be the ramifications of the mayor’s office as it relates to West Hawaii,” she said.
Harassment claims against Van Pernis aren’t without precedent. As an attorney, the Hawaii Supreme Court suspended him for three months for such behavior.
Van Pernis, who has lived in Kailua-Kona since 1976, was issued the 90-day suspension for harassing a court-appointed foreclosure commissioner and “used means that had no substantial purpose other than to embarrass, delay, or burden the commissioner,” according to an Office of Disciplinary Counsel order issued in 2003 in Honolulu.
The order also stated that Van Pernis “demonstrated a pattern of recidivism in his professional misconduct, as evidenced by the three previous letters of informal admonition.”
Roth, who was Hawaii County Prosecutor before becoming mayor in December, said he never witnessed such a reprimand from the high court in his decades as an attorney.
“I never saw anybody get to the stage where they were (suspended) for being a jerk, basically,” Roth said.
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