Fire chief hiring process handled poorly

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.

10 Comments
  1. Failed To Mention June 25, 2019 4:42 am Reply

    This article fails to mention the audit of the Kauai Fire Dept and the salary and overtime spiking.

    This is something that needs attention and there has to be a thorough investigation and people need to be held accountable for fraud, waste, and abuse.

    The county of Kauai practices Fraud, waste, and abuse like grade school kids with an unlimited credit card. It’s so juvenile that one has to wonder how hasn’t this gone for so long and no one had raised concerns.

    The county council did at one point but those toothless greased palmed good ol boy and gals are stuck in the plantation mentality.

    The county and the people of Kauai cannot go on with civil disobedience.


  2. Tell the truth June 25, 2019 5:21 pm Reply

    Where are you getting your info ? Our ACTING Chief May seem good in the community with his hugs and hand shakes but don’t be fooled. Ask the men that work with him what’s he all about. Most will be scared to speak up but all agree he brings the moral of the department way down. All the problems that we face is because of him including the spiking which is a direct reflection of him not the former chief. Do a survey and you will see if he really is chief material. He needs to learn to be a captain and lead a crew before he can lead a department. Do your homework before you write a bias article.


  3. No can June 25, 2019 5:23 pm Reply

    Totally not qualified to be our chief. Ask around. He may sound good but he’s really not.


  4. Too much detail June 25, 2019 8:57 pm Reply

    Can tell our acting Chief is behind this article.


  5. brothers in overtime spikes & inflated salaries June 26, 2019 8:43 am Reply

    Not qualified because his last name is not………???
    We all know KFD like to keep their firehouses tight.


    1. just not June 26, 2019 3:51 pm Reply

      He just not qualified nothing to do with last name. Ask around.


  6. Wa Hine June 26, 2019 9:01 am Reply

    The Fire Commission is not there to rubber stamp someone else’s choice for Fire Chief. Their job is to find the BEST candidate for the position, which means they must and SHOULD go through the process of posting, going through applications, interviewing, final interviewing, making and negotiating a job offer. Its a long process that takes months and months and hours and hours of their time which, by the way, is a volunteer job. I can’t say whether or not the Deputy Chief is qualified or not because I’m not in the fire department, but I do applaud the commission for taking their time and not letting themselves be bullied or politically pressured by anyone. Lets go back out to hire (which I understand is in the process) and get the best man or woman for the job. Criticizing the commission, when you don’t even know what happened behind the scenes, is just not pono.


  7. County of Kauai HR are behind the sneakiness of the hiring of F1 June 26, 2019 2:58 pm Reply

    Blame County of Kauai HR for the poor hiring process. HR department specifically Janine Rapozo, who is unqualified to oversee the process, did things with Westerman to assure that Vaughn would be hired despite vaughnʻs inability to lead a command as a former firefighter. When that didnʻt happen, vaughn had access to personal information that would make him think heʻs the lead. The reason why they started from scratch is because Paki thinks heʻs gaining the years of service as a Fire chief to qualify him for the position, but he has never driven a fire truck or in command of a fire or anything else. Heʻs a fire fighter that thinks he can be chief with help of the county of kauai HR department. Wake up Kauai….itʻs not the commission itʻs HR. Ask KFD men, they all know paki needs to go back to the line as Paki may have passed the fire captainʻs exam but he turned it down to continue as the deputy hoping to “work the system” without paying the dues. Vaughn is the one over this last year that authorized all that over time pay which means heʻs incapable of keeping a budget, itʻs deadly.


  8. harryoyama June 27, 2019 8:59 pm Reply

    Sounds like its not what you know, but who you know that gets you into the door of Fire Chief. Yeah, scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours. Typical hiring process of corrupt Hawaii politics.


  9. Nice guy June 28, 2019 7:51 am Reply

    Nothing to do with being a nice guy. He’s a nice guy. It’s his self centered stupid decisions that brings the departments morale down.


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