LIHU‘E — The Kauai Fire Department’s union representatives called for greater transparency in the long-delayed process of selecting a new chief and said the county Fire Commission may have overstepped its bounds by hiring former KFD Chief Robert Westerman on an 89-day contract to fill the role he left vacant after retiring a year ago.
KFD Captain and chair of the Hawaii Fire Fighters Association’s local division Bryan Doo urged fire commissioners at their meeting Monday to release more information about their progress.
“I get calls from our members all the time, asking what’s going on,” KFD Captain Bryan Doo said of the frequent inquiries he gets from firefighters with questions about the hiring process, to which he has no answers. “I go to the meetings. I read the minutes, but I really don’t know.”
It has been a year and a half since Westerman announced his retirement. The fire commission appeared on the verge of selecting a replacement just days before he stepped down last January, but the offer fell through after an hour-long executive session.
Thirteen months later the search remains a work in progress, and with all the commission’s substantive discussions about narrowing the field of potential candidates done behind closed doors, KFD staff is left with more questions than answers about their next chief.
The commission has refused to follow KFD leadership’s recommendations about how to fill the fire chief position in the interim, ignoring proposals backed by several battalion chiefs, who testified at last month’s meeting about the benefits of filling the vacant chief position with existing staff.
Until January 7, when Westerman was brought back on an 89-day contract at the maximum allowable salary, KFD leadership had been assuming the various responsibilities normally handled by the chief. The extra hours have left the department way over its annual overtime budget.
Halfway through the fiscal year, the KFD’s administration budget is already almost four times the $7,600 annual total allocated for overtime pay. Westerman said via email Monday after the commission meeting that the budgeted totals are estimates and it is not unusual to make adjustments in spending as the year progresses.
But the $25,000 in excess overtime spending in the last six months is still far cheaper than the $34,000 it cost to hire Westerman for half that time. The numbers back up the claims of battalion chiefs who tried to the commission out of approving Westerman’s short-term contract, based in large part on the cost effectiveness of doing the job themselves.
Doo said Monday he recently discussed Westerman’s contract with Hawaii Fire Fighters Association president Bobby Lee, who told him he has never seen any other fire commission in the state ever hire a temporary chief to fill in during a vacancy and said that doing so could very well be an overreach of power.
The commission is restricted to ruling on policies related strictly to the fire chief, and according to Doo, installing Westerman bordered on interfering with the department’s day to day operations, a maneuver he called “a slippery slope.”
In fact, the commission was forced to rescind a stipulation in Westerman’s contract it voted to approve at the January meeting, after being informed it didn’t have the authority to give the interim chief a take-home car and monthly vehicle allowance in addition to his salary.
Doo was joined at the meeting by fellow KFD fireman Blair Yamashita, who also serves as a union representative for the HFFA’s Kauai division. Like Doo, Yamashita’s primary concern was the commission’s lack of openness and refusal to divulge even generic information about the hiring process. which he said only serves to create confusion.
“It’s so vague, it’s like hearsay or rumors,” Yamashita said of the few details that come out of executive session discussions, calling for “simple things that would provide simple answers” that might ease the minds of concerned firefighters.
“Can’t it be a little more transparent?” Doo asked. “I think they deserve that.”