Lifeguard back to work after lengthy dispute

A former county lifeguard supervisor has been put back on the job more than one year after he was dismissed.

Through a settlement with the county, Kaleo Ho’okano said he was officially reinstated Dec. 16, 2002. He is currently on sick leave.

The Westside resident and longtime Kaua’i waterman was dismissed from his duties for alleged insubordination and for allegedly circulating a survey asking whether the county fire department should lead training programs for lifeguards.

Ho’okano, who was represented by the Hawai’i Government Employees Association, contends he was put back on the job because the charges against him were found to have no merit.

The controversy was troubling and took its toll on him and his family, said Ho’okano, a lifeguard for more than 15 years. “I just want to thank people, my family and friends who supported me through hard times, for believing in the truth.”

Deputy county attorney Margaret Hanson declined to discuss matters related to the allegations, noting “the county doesn’t want to reopen the issue, but, of course, Kaleo is entitled to his opinion.”

“We agreed to the settlement to make this thing go away, because it is causing morale problems for the departments,” Hanson said. “The settlement represents a clean slate for both parties.”

Hanson also said that “we hope with the new administration (of Mayor Bryan Baptiste), we would try to continue to integrate water safety people with the fire department.”

The lifeguard division, now known as the Ocean Safety Bureau, was added to the county fire department in recent years to improve response time to ocean incidents, including drownings.

The merger of the division and department was made in attempt to curb drownings on Kaua’i.

Hanson also said Ho’okano will have to resolve workers’ compensation issues before he is officially put back on the job.

Ho’okano and Myles Emura, a temporary lifeguard supervisor involved in the controversy, were put on a 30-day leave effective Dec. 31, 2001. A department investigation into the charges followed.

Ho’okano said he never circulated the survey and only “agreed with the idea.”

“I agreed to the idea that we (the lifeguard division) should continue training our guys, but not for the fire department to take over the training,” Ho’okano said.

Ho’okano said his division has been certified by the U.S. Lifeguarding Association to train lifeguards for “ocean lifeguarding.” It is not known whether the fire department has the same type certification at this point.

Emura, meanwhile, contended he and Ho’okano were not charged with “anything” between January and April of 2002.

Between February and the end of April that year, Emura said he was put on stress leave, surviving on sick leave and vacation time. During one of the months he received no paychecks, Emura said.

Emura, a veteran lifeguard and waterman, like Ho’okano, was put back on the job in April and has been reassigned to Po’ipu Beach Park as a lifeguard. He said he has gone through arbitration proceedings to try to resolve the county accusations concerning his circulation of the survey and his talking with the media about his situation.

Emura said an arbitrator’s decision is anticipated in early February. If he prevails Emura said he would file a lawsuit against the county on the grounds the county had no policies in place in 2001 that prevented him from circulating the survey and talking with the media. He would seek punitive and special damages in his lawsuit, he said.

“I feel I had the right to do both, to improve the program,” he said.

Emura said the county made life difficult for him and that he was unnecessarily put through a 14-month grievance procedure which affected his well-being and that of his family.

Ho’okano said when gets back on the job, he would push the fire department to develop polices on ocean safety policies and a career ladder for county lifeguards.

Staff writer Lester Chang can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 225) and mailto:lchang@pulitzer.net

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