LIHUE — A year after he retired, former Kauai Fire Department Chief Robert Westerman is back on the job.
A county spokesperson said Westerman was hired Jan. 7 on an 89-day contract while the Fire Commission continues its search for a permanent replacement, a process that started over a year and a half ago when he announced his retirement in June 2018.
Battalion Chief Solomon Kanoho, one of the department’s most senior firefighters, recently volunteered to fill in as chief until a replacement could be found, but the commission rejected that option in favor of Westerman, despite testimony backing Kanoho from several of the KFD’s highest-ranking firemen.
Until last week, the vacancy was filled by Deputy Fire Chief Kilipaki Vaughan, but that arrangement ended Jan. 1 when he was promoted to captain at the Hanapepe fire station. Vaughan said he is still in the running for fire chief but declined to comment further.
Meanwhile, the Fire Commission is still far from selecting a permanent replacement for Westerman, and many in the KFD’s rank and file have begun to question their process.
The commission appeared on the verge of hiring one candidate a year ago, but the deal fell through after an executive session last January. The agenda of that meeting said the executive session was being held “to deliberate and make a decision on the hiring of a new fire chief,” but the hour-long private discussion did not produce any clear result.
Battalion Chief Gary Hudson, a 26-year veteran of the fire department, testified before the commission during a December meeting to express concerns about the hiring process.
According to the minutes of the Dec. 12 meeting, Hudson told the fire commissioners he and other senior officials in the KFD were confused about why two highly qualified candidates were eliminated during the early rounds of the fruitless search that ended a year before.
Hudson said that during last year’s search, there was a lack of communication from the commission, which didn’t notify any of the candidates about the status of their applications and, according to Hudson, “it seems like it’s happening again.”
One of the two qualified candidates Hudson mentioned was former Maui County Fire Chief Jeff Murray, who applied for the position after retiring in June 2018. Murray also addressed the Fire Commission at its last meeting, saying he sent letters to the mayor’s office and several county government agencies, requesting they look into how the commission handled the search.
According to the meeting minutes, Murray accused the commissioners of unfairly screening the candidates and asked for a written response explaining “what the process entailed because he doesn’t understand it.”
Battalion Chief Jason Ornellas, who has been with the KFD for over 30 years, testified at the meeting as well, telling the commissioners that his fellow firefighters had concerns about the lack of progress made in the search and supported Kanoho’s proposal to fill in as acting chief in the interim.
The proposal should be viewed as a “smart spending initiative,” Ornellas said, because it would save the department from having to pay overtime and wouldn’t cost more than $120 a day. Westerman’s contract will cost more than three times that amount.
After turning down Kanoho’s offer, the commissioners voted to pay Westerman based on the maximum allowable fire chief salary, which comes to around $34,000 for three months. But that number could end up being substantially higher because, unlike a regular fire chief, Westerman will be an hourly employee and therefore eligible for overtime. A county spokesperson said Wednesday Westerman will make $65.88 an hour.
Retired fireman Stan Koga explained some of the concerns within the department in a letter to The Garden Island that began, “What is the Kauai Fire Commission actually doing?”
According to Koga, who spent over 20 years with the KFD before retiring last month, the commission “literally had dozens of applicants both from Kauai and throughout Hawaii and the mainland, that have offered their services to our county and has yet to find a single person qualified to do the job!”
On Wednesday, Koga said he believes the reason for the commission’s lack of progress over the past year and a half is actually related to one commissioner’s close connection with Westerman.
Koga said Fire Commission member Thomas Nizo and Westerman have a “much-too-close” relationship, and that Nizo and other commissioners may have been stalling since Westerman’s retirement until he could be hired again and get paid for the contract and his pension.
“For whatever reason, they dragged their feet and let Westerman get his mandatory one-year retirement,” Koga said. “And here he is.”
According to Koga, the fact that Westerman was hired, despite the viable and more-cost-effective option proposed by the battalion chiefs, is particularly egregious, considering the fire department’s budgetary concerns brought to light by recent allegations of pension spiking.
“Westerman is the very chief who the so-called spiking happened under. It was his administration,” he said. “It just doesn’t look good, and it’s flying under the radar.”
Nizo called Koga’s allegations “just ludicrous,” and said he and his fellow commissioners are working to fill the position as quickly as possible.
“Why would I want to stall the process when I’m not getting paid? I’m a volunteer,” he said. “I work for a living.”
Asked why the former Maui fire chief was eliminated as a candidate, Nizo said that the material submitted in his application packet wasn’t strong enough to make the cut.
“It is what it is,” Nizo said. “Did you see what was in his packet? No information about the candidates being considered has been released to the public, and all discussions have been held during closed executive sessions.”
According to Nizo and the minutes of the December meeting, the decision to hire Westerman was related to the commission’s reluctance to disrupt the hierarchy within the fire department’s leadership structure. He said the commission is preparing to start a new round of interviews and is about three or four months from selecting a new fire chief.
Caleb Loehrer, staff writer, can be reached at 245-0441 or firstname.lastname@example.org.