KAILUA-KONA, Hawaii — A Hawaii County planning commissioner accused of being too combative and rude promised to improve his behavior after being given three months to act more professionally or lose his position.
Last month, Big Island Mayor Mitch Roth asked the county council to remove Leeward Planning Commissioner Mark Van Pernis from the voluntary position, accusing the retired Kailua-Kona attorney of mistreating fellow commissioners, planning department staff and applicants.
The County Council voted 5-4 Tuesday to give Van Pernis until Aug. 3 to prove he can conduct himself in a more professional manner should he wish to remain on the commission he has sat on since January 2020. His term is scheduled to end in 2024.
“My behavior has been modified,” Van Pernis told the council on Tuesday. “I will continue to do so because I want to stay.”
The Leeward Planning Commission is one of two planning commissions on Hawaii island. It deals with the western side of the island, an area that is more actively sought for major developments than the eastern side.
The commissions advise the mayor’s office, county council and the planning director on planning and land use issues. They also have the authority to approve certain applications and planning director recommendations.
Roth submitted to the council an hourlong video clip showing Van Pernis interrupting and otherwise disagreeing with other commissioners and members of the public.
Before the vote Tuesday, Roth reiterated his call for the council to remove Van Pernis from the role due to his past conduct as well as a recent planning commission meeting in which he badgered an applicant who broke down in tears.
The applicant has since filed an ethics complaint against Van Pernis, Roth said, noting the meeting occurred after a council subcommittee issued Van Pernis a strong warning to change his behavior.
“At the end of the day, he was still disrespectful, not treating people fairly, enough so we have an ethics complaint that I think is a pretty good ethics complaint,” Roth said.
During the hearing on Tuesday, Van Pernis said “the crying in the prior hearing was not the result of my questioning,” noting that the application had been rejected in a 4-2 vote.
Four other current or former planning commission members joined the call to remove Van Pernis, saying his behavior was disruptive. “He is abusive to people and disrespectful,” commission member Barbara DeFranco said.
Honokaa Councilwoman Heather Kimball also told Van Pernis she was shocked he “did not rise to the occasion” and conduct himself graciously when he knew he was under the council’s microscope.
“It’s about the decorum and it’s about the respect,” said Kimball, who cast one of the no votes.
Puna Councilwoman Ashley Kierkiewicz also voted against giving Van Pernis a probationary period, saying more time wasn’t going to solve the problem.
Other councilors supported Van Pernis, known for his in-depth knowledge of the Kona District, saying he asks probing, thoughtful questions on pending projects and is too much of an asset for the commission to push away.
Kona Councilwoman Rebecca Villegas said council members and commissioners shouldn’t have to worry about acting with the utmost “aloha” when asking tough, uncomfortable questions on at times controversial topics.
She also worried that removing a member from the commission for stepping on people’s sensitivities would set a precarious precedent.
Hilo Councilman Aaron Chung said he didn’t see examples of hostility by Van Pernis at meetings but three months should be enough time for Van Pernis to prove himself in a manner that would not leave any doubt.
Harassment claims against Van Pernis aren’t without precedent. As an attorney, he was suspended three months for such behavior by the Hawaii Supreme Court.
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 Order issued in 2003 in Honolulu.
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