Firefighters call for transparency

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.”

  1. Asking for a friend... February 4, 2020 9:43 am Reply

    Wasn’t there already a problem with excess overtime, before they were “doing the job themselves”…? Whatever happened with looking into that?
    The PUBLIC needs more transparency in how all of these county-based services are run, as it’s our tax dollars paying these (ridiculous) salaries.

  2. Start Over February 4, 2020 2:26 pm Reply

    Start the Chief hiring process all over starting with NEW Mayor appointed fire commissioners. Clearly there is a breach in the system and the men and the community deserve the best Chief for the island not a inside guy like Paki. Mayor this is on you. Do the right thing start the process all over and give the best candidates a chance to at least advance in the hiring process. Everyone can see this whole process is geared towards Paki getting hired only because he’s friends with the commissioners and Westerman is pulling his strings also. Please please Mayor do it for Kauai do it for your future also.

  3. Kill Joy February 4, 2020 11:18 pm Reply

    Unfortunately, transparency has never been a strong point in county (or any)government. So where do we go from here?

    At this point, the process is so far beyond salvageable, with allegations of corruption (temp fire chief and board member scratching each other’s backs), applicants who are former (Maui) or present fire chiefs (PMRF) not being selected for no apparent reason while people from the mainland with far less credentials made the cut. Then there’s the former fire chief being hired as a temp at the MAXIMUM salary at the same EXACT time he became eligible to work again AND keep his pension, thus double dipping (it’s also been alleged that this was to hold the seat for his former deputy fire chief while he gets his certifications) while turning down a more than qualified Battalion Chief who volunteered to step up to the position that would have saved the County thousands of dollars of taxpayer money while working overtime FOR FREE.

    At this point, the process is tainted and they need to start over again. Perhaps they should hire a consultant, who has no bias or political ties here to 1) set up a proper, transparent process and 2) help guide them through the hiring. If they don’t, no matter who they hire , the selected fire chief will have to spend the first years of his job trying to gain the confidence of the men and get out from under the shroud of unfairness that this commission has created by this convoluted process, instead of immediately getting to the task at hand, which is to run the department as efficiently as possible and deal with the many issues that have arisen before and after this process started.

    This is one of the largest, and most important departments in the county. I hope the commissioners do the right thing, remove the politics and start over.

  4. Stan Koga February 5, 2020 4:08 pm Reply

    So good to see the sunlight finally beginning to shine on this kangaroo commission and it’s opaque dealings. This issue has flown under the radar for too long. Hiring Westerman on a max contract and advocating vehicle allowances so he can pad his pocket while already getting paid his pension ? Hiring the very guy under whose watch supposed “spiking” occurred ? Ignoring a fiscally sound plan to temporarily fill the position with fire personnel the are AT LEAST as qualified, and in some cases I would argue MORE qualified than Westerman, in favor of a fat 2nd paycheck for the retired guy to amply fill the Chief’s seat for a few months, until HIS guy Paki has made it passed probation? I have reached out to Mayor Kawakami about this, since commissioners are mayor appointed. All of the current commissioners are from the previous administration. His staff emailed me back saying they would “print out a copy” for the Mayor. After that…? CRICKETS. Mayor: Where do you stand on this? Do you feel like this is money well-spent?

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