Kauai County has begun the second year of a search for a new fire chief—to replace Chief Robert Westerman, whose retirement became effective in January. At its April 1, meeting, the Fire Commission confirmed that it “… is at step one of its hiring process.”
Westerman made his intention to retire known to the commission in early 2018. In May 2018, the commission posted a personnel vacancy announcement, and went through a hiring process of some kind, and according to its minutes, seriously considered about 40 applicants from Hawaii and the Mainland.
On Jan. 9 of this year the commission held a meeting at which it was widely-expected to vote to make an offer to a new chief, who at the time was rumored to be John Blalock, a retired deputy chief. The commission has never confirmed whether Blalock was the frontrunner or whether it made him a formal employment offer.
But no new hire of a chief materialized, and Deputy Chief Kilipaki Vaughan was moved into the acting chief slot, which he occupies to this day. In anticipation of a new administrative regime, however, Vaughan had already taken an exam for the permanent rank of captain. That was necessary because the highest administrative ranks in the department serve at the pleasure of the chief, and they may be reduced to their most recent formal ranks at the pleasure of the chief. Vaughan’s formal rank was firefighter.
Vaughan is an engaging, talented guy whose mastery of the administrative nuances and subtleties of the fire department has surprised some. His community relations skills are strong. He has proved adept at wrangling the fire department’s relationship with the county council. He has won the allegiance of many of his personnel. Locally born and raised, he has slowly worn down the most vocal objection to being named permanent chief, which was that he had never officially attained the captain’s rank.
But that criticism ignores that the May, 2018, personnel posting for fire chief didn’t make captain’s status—or any other specific rank—mandatory.
The department in question is one of the county’s largest. Its budget of more than $39 million is higher than the police department’s. When everyone is counted, the fire chief supervises more safety personnel than the police chief. KPD has 168 sworn positions. When firefighters and lifeguards are both counted, KFD’s authorized strength is 205. Firefighters account for 144 of those positions and lifeguards for 61, according to this year’s county budget.
It’s not known what happened with any offer of employment the fire commission may have made. But a clue might be found in the experience of the Kauai Police Department, which recently welcomed its new chief, Todd Raybuck, a retired captain in the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department.
Raybuck will receive his full Kauai County salary as chief, but also continues to get whatever pension payments he was entitled to from his Nevada service. But to keep his pension in any new law enforcement job, Raybuck knew he could not remain in Nevada under pension rules that affect all public employees and are intended to deter so-called double dipping. Similar laws barring this practice exist in Hawaii, according to a Kauai County spokesperson.
In other words, any retired Hawaii fire department employee—from anywhere in the state—would have to give up his pension to join KFD as its new chief.
County employee pensions are computed based on average compensation for the final few years of their service. Such averages include overtime pay, which chiefs do not receive. This applies to everyone below the actual rank of chief and creates the phenomenon called salary inversion, in which a department head actually makes substantially less than many subordinates.
In the case of the fire department, a March 11 report of the Kauai County Salary Commission noted that while the fire chief gets $127,313 in salary, the assistant chief actually earned $186,586 including overtime and other allowances, and a fire captain can make $179,771. Even some firefighter rank personnel earn more than the chief when their overtime is included.
Without knowing how many years of service a retired fire official seeking to lead KFD might have been receiving in pension payments, it’s not impossible that the chief’s salary would represent a cut.
How much this anomaly of salary inversion may have affected the failed effort to hire a new fire chief is hard to know since the Fire Commission has held all specifics in confidence. It’s not possible even to confirm that Blalock—or anyone, for that matter—actually got a job offer.
But what it IS possible to say is that our Fire Commission has handled this situation poorly. The original search said applications were due May 21, 2018. But then, it wasn’t until nearly a year later that the Fire Commission realized it had failed to meet its objective and decided it had no choice but to start the process all over again.
A county statement last week said: “The Fire Commission is at the early stages of the hiring process. They are currently determining the selection criteria and how they will be advertising the position.”
The police and fire commissions enjoy unprecedented autonomy in their power to hire and fire their respective chiefs. Their decisions in that regard can’t be countermanded by either the mayor or the County Council. The Police Commission did its job and found a new chief whose early reviews have been excellent.
The mayor appoints the Fire Commission’s members, even though he can’t overrule their personnel decisions. There is a saying in county government that in the complex system of voluntary citizen commissions on which Kauai County relies, the mayor “has a voice, but no vote.”
If the chief’s office remains vacant for much longer, Mayor Derek S.K. Kawakami may want to speak up about the Fire Commission.
Allan Parachini is a Kilauea resident.