LIHUE — Charles Rapozo is feeling better these days.
“I feel like I got out of a cage and I feel more at peace,” he said Tuesday at the Historic County Building. “People treat me with respect over here and the workers are kind to me, with ‘good mornings’ and ‘thank yous,’ and just being polite to me.”
The long-time County of Kauai employee filed a lawsuit against the county last year, claiming he was retaliated against for bringing up concerns about asbestos at Kauai War Memorial Convention Hall.
For over a year, Rapozo said he sat in his truck while still getting paid and still getting satisfactory work evaluations.
But shortly after The Garden Island published a story on Jan. 7 about his situation, Rapozo was moved to a new worksite, is doing better and is greatly relieved.
Within two days of his new assignment, Rapozo said he had his safety equipment and his bosses call him regularly to check up on him. He said he was also trained within that time frame.
During last Wednesday’s county council meeting, Rapozo said what happened to him was real.
“I was out there for 13 months,” he said. “I was punished, I was retaliated against, I was ostracized and by the administration, took it to the personal level.”
As he waited for over a year, Rapozo told the council one of the things he did to pass the time was removing human waste from the convention hall parking lot. The only protective gear he had to protect himself was leaves from the trees, he said.
Since being transferred, the difference is palpable. Rapozo told the council he feels like he just got out of a prison.
“I feel I was tortured. That was inhumane, illegal and criminal by the county administration. In two days, I come here, I have all my protective gear,” Rapozo said.
The public had a lot to say on the matter, including emotional testimony from Charles Rapozo’s daughter, who said that over the course of the past year, she saw a dramatic change in her father.
“Not only was his life put at risk and other people’s lives as well, but he didn’t even get the proper equipment that he needed and all that. But besides that, they left him in the parking lot for over a year,” Faith Rapozo said.
Though he was dealing with these issues, Faith Rapozo said he still got up at 4 a.m. every day and came to work, because he had to put food on the table and help her pay college tuition.
“If I had the money and didn’t make $10 an hour, I’d say, ‘go home dad,’ and he was only relocated after the article was posted in The Garden Island,” Faith Rapozo said. “What took so long?”
In the past, Faith Rapozo said she and some friends have put together suicide awareness groups around the island and part of suicide awareness is knowing the warning signs.
“I’ve lost family and I’ve lost friends before, but, I’ve never told my dad this, but I see warning signs in him. I see the depression in him. He’s not the same as he was,” Faith Rapozo said through tears.
“And nobody cares,” she said, banging the desk in front of her.
Arlene Ligby said her first and foremost concern was for Charles Rapozo and the way he’s been treated.
“When I read the article in the newspaper about what was going on, quite frankly, I couldn’t believe it and I drove down to meet him and see for myself and what I’d like to learn today is, what happened?” she said. “Who’s responsible, who’s accountable?”
The issue, said resident Lonnie Sykos, is fiscal irresponsibility. He said he spoke last year when this issue was before the council stating he hoped the administration would not engage in retaliatory actions against Charles Rapozo for bringing the asbestos position to the forefront.
“But we do see that retaliatory actions have been taken against him, an extraordinary waste of our human capital to have him sit in his pickup truck for a year,” he said.
Sykos said it was stunning that whatever managers were involved in the decision to keep him there, haven’t been fired.
“This is a joke,” Sykos said.
Retired health educator Gabriela Taylor said Charles Rapozo did the county a favor by calling this to their attention.
“Yet he’s being punished for it. It seems incredible,” she said.
Speaking directly to the Rapozo family, Ana Mo Des said clarity and peace comes when people step forward and say the truth.
“If it took a year, it’s your sacrifice for the island, for all of us to know that it is worth saying the truth no matter how hard or how uncomfortable and retribution for your family will be received and your father will be restored,” she said.
What happened with this situation, said Council Vice Chair Ross Kagawa, is unfortunate. He said in the last five years, he’s seen a lot of settlements. He said asbestos is a real killer and he had a family member die of an asbestos related illness.
“You cannot replace life. We have to do better and treat our employees with respect, especially when it comes to health and having families,” he said.
Councilmember JoAnn Yukimura said what they’d just heard is extremely disturbing.
“It’s hard to imagine that this county has allowed that kind of situation to occur,” she said.
Council Chair Mel Rapozo apologized to the family on behalf of the county, saying this is one of the most embarrassing times he’s had as a councilmember.
“You know why? We knew about this last year,” he said. “The council knew about this. Chuckie actually came up to me and told me what’s going on and I spoke to the mayor and I don’t really care if this hurts us in court, because the truth needs to be told.”
The issue, he said, came up on the agenda a year ago, yet the county administration tried to convince them there was no asbestos, but Charles Rapozo independently had tiles tested and they came back positive for asbestos.
“If it were me,” Mel Rapozo said, “I’d fire people because of this. Exactly what Lonnie said. Everything he said, happened. You put the guy in a parking lot, you make him sit in a truck for eight hours a day, you give him a satisfactory evaluation. This is not only embarrassing, this is despicable,” Mel Rapozo said.
The bottom line, Mel Rapozo said, is they had an employee who called out for help and he got sent to the parking lot instead. He said an apology isn’t enough.
“I’m so inclined to do an open investigation on this matter right here on the council floor,” he said.
Kauai War Memorial Convention Hall was closed earlier this year for asbestos abatement. The cost of the project is estimated at $181,000. The hall is expected to remain closed through June 30 for the cleaning.
Pacific Concrete Coring and Consulting Inc. and Creative Partition Systems are completing the cleanup.
In an interview with TGI, Charles Rapozo said he is still planning on moving forward with a lawsuit against the county he filed last year. He says his family still worries about his health.
“My main concern was for the public. The kids,” Charles Rapozo said, “and the safety of me. If I had to do it again, I’d do it again for the safety of the public.”