Westerman rehired as fire chief

  • Contributed

    Robert Frank Westerman

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 cloehrer@thegardenisland.com.

14 Comments
  1. Uncleaina January 16, 2020 6:42 am Reply

    Lol!! Nothing happening here boss! No back room deals going on – that’s ludicrous! Yeah nobody getting paid or milking the system or nothing! Just go pay attention to something else.


    1. Ludicrous January 16, 2020 10:14 pm Reply

      What’s ludicrous is that Paki is still in the running and other highly qualified candidates is NOT. That’s ludicrous. You guys should start the hiring process over and allow the best candidates back in the running or the county would probably be facing a law suit which will turn into a settlement.


  2. Knowitall January 16, 2020 7:29 am Reply

    To sum up the entire article. The fire commission stalled the hiring process for over 1 year so Westerman could collect his pension and a salary for the same position. Corruption as usual


    1. Fire Commissioners January 16, 2020 10:03 pm Reply

      Fire commission thank you for volunteering your time and energy into the process we really appreciate your service. What we don’t appreciate is you eliminating 3 highly qualified candidates early on in the process. Clearly Paki has been hiding information from you folks about how we are trying to become more like MauiFire.
      Obviously Paki has the advantage and is your favorite because for the past 4+ years he has been kissing your butts, wine and dining, and taking you on trips all on TAX PAYERS money while he was deputy and acting chief.
      COMMISSIONERS PLEASE don’t be blinded by that it’s just smoking mirrors. Ask his men if he’s anything like that. No. That’s why we are confused why would westerman be endorsing him behind closed doors. Look at his experience 8yrs as a firefighter, 2yrs as a driver in the office, 2 yrs as a lieutenant in the office then straight deputy chief for the last 4 yrs or so in the office What make him qualified to run a department? No real world experience only a pencil pusher. Some of the other candidates came from big cities dealing with big incidents such as the Las Vegas shootings, some Afghanistan experience as a fireman. Paki has the least experience by far and he’s still in the running that tells you he put a lot of fluff on paper. Please please pick anybody but him we are willing to take that chance with a total outsider. Or start over and choose wisely.
      LOW MORALE IN THE DEPARTMENT WILL BRING POOR CUSTOMER SERVICE TO THE COMMUNITY. We wouldn’t want that right.


    2. Notalltrue January 16, 2020 10:09 pm Reply

      More like they stalled so Paki could get enough experience to qualify and apply for the job.
      Why else would he turn down his captain position that he got offered last year and stay as acting chief? We all know they had a closed door meeting about this plot.


  3. Kinaiahi January 16, 2020 7:30 am Reply

    It’s actually some of the fire commissioners is close with Paki and stalled so he could get enough experience as acting chief so he could apply for the job. Paki has no experience and no one likeS him or the job he did so far as acting chief. Garden island do your job and ask around the fire department and you will find out.


  4. Voice January 16, 2020 7:37 am Reply

    Whoever works KFD and sees what going on in our department and not happy with Paki and the scandals. COMMENT on here before we get stuck with an idiot leading us. Only we know the crap he does behind closed doors. The commission and the public only sees the BIG ACT after all he is an entertainer. We don’t need an entertainer we need a leader who is firefighter smart.


  5. harry oyama January 16, 2020 8:14 am Reply

    It appears the fire commission are staffed with incompetent individuals who has to stoop down as low by scrapping the bottom of the barrel for “retired” former fire chiefs, one of which conducted illegal “spiking” of overtime to get a higher pension payout, of which he was selected, so in essence, he’s gonna get even more pension should he decide to “retire” again.

    Sounds like a scamming of taxpayers money for the cronies that constantly “massage” the corporate welfare system of “HI 3” retirement package. If you think the former HPD chief Kealoha got a sweet heart deal, having taxpayers pay his legal fees, then collect over $10,000 a month in pension, I wonder how much this “retired” KFD chief is currently getting?


  6. Chief Murray January 16, 2020 8:31 am Reply

    The funny thing is Kauai Fire Department is trying to become like Maui Fire Department. We take classes from the we tap into them for advice on how to build our department to Maui’s standard because they have one of the best system in the state. And the man that helped build that department to a superior standard is Jeff Murray. He is probably the best chief that came out of Hawaii in recent years. So my question is how can the FIRE COMMISSION eliminate him on the first round? There is also other chiefs that is currently working as a chief that didn’t make it. But how did Paki make it? Connections?


  7. kauaiisfun January 16, 2020 2:33 pm Reply

    Give the promotion to someone IN the department. Time to let someone else get the experience. Bringing the prior chief back hurts morale.


  8. Anybody January 16, 2020 2:43 pm Reply

    Anybody but Paki! He had his chance. Ask anybody in our department if they happy with him.


  9. Steve Martin January 16, 2020 8:01 pm Reply

    quick where is Anthony when we need him? Another best seller. First it was KPD BLUE. Before you know it another best seller on the way..KFD RED


  10. kauai tax payer January 16, 2020 9:44 pm Reply

    And the beat goes on….
    Westerman is an opportunist…..he’s got military retirement, county retirement, and now double dipping with his 89-day contract. He’s also Kauai’s man on the UH Board of Regents….that’s “political” too.
    Keeping the seat warm while Vaughn tries to fulfill the minimum requirements of KFD chief appointment. Meanwhile the COK Fire Commission turns away qualified candidates. Commission might want to check out Sesame Street; they are more suited for puppets. They They have yet to do the right thing in a year and a half.
    Where’s the mayor in all of this mess?


  11. Wa Hine January 17, 2020 2:17 pm Reply

    To add insult to injury, they hire him under the preface of th e position being difficult to fill?! How can it be when they have had hundreds of applications over the past TWO postings and clearly at least two of them were more than qualified. Kauai politics at its beat!


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