For first time, fire union says 'no confidence' in fire chief

For first time, fire union says 'no confidence' in fire chief
Published: Apr. 18, 2014 at 3:42 AM HST
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Honolulu Fire Chief Manuel Neves
Honolulu Fire Chief Manuel Neves

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Leaders of the Hawaii Fire Fighters Association have unanimously approved a "no confidence" vote against Honolulu Fire Chief Manuel Neves, accusing him of trying to bust the union.

It's the first time in the 50-year history of the Hawaii firefighters' union that its leadership has voted 'no confidence' against a fire chief anywhere in the state.

Neves was sworn in as Honolulu's fire chief last March.  He had become assistant chief at HFD in 2006 and left the department in 2011 to become fire chief for the Barking Sands Fire Department at the Pacific Missile Range on Kauai before moving back to Oahu to head the fire department.

During his first year in office the firefighters' union said Neves and his administration have continually ignored the union, in violation of labor rules.

"Time and time again they just create a policy on their own and we find out about it from our members out in the fire station," said Hawaii Firefighters Association President Bobby Lee, whose union represents nearly 1,100 city firefighters.

Lee said the union executive board unanimously approved a "no confidence" vote about Neves March 5. Lee claimed the chief and his managers have failed to properly negotiate or consult with the union before changing policies and procedures about everything from overtime, sick leave and uniforms to promotions and how the firefighters who now work on the fireboat will be re-assigned after it ends service this summer.

"With the number of issues that we have been going through over the months, it was just so much side-stepping of the union that it amounts to nothing short of union busting," Lee said.

Fire department spokesman Capt. Terry Seelig said Neves was not available to speak to Hawaii News Now on camera Thursday.

Seelig said fire department leaders  "recognize that there's some disagreement between the union and their management style.  And so they're still discussing issues with the union, in fact they met with them this morning."

The Fire Commission's evaluation of Neves' first year in office gave him a 3.5 out of 5 for management and leadership skills, saying he's somewhere between meeting and exceeding expectations, but needs to work on union relations.

The fire union has filed two Hawaii Labor Relations complaints against the chief, charging him with failing to consult with the union and interfering in its election.

Lee said he met Thursday with Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell to discuss a number of issues, including the union's difficulty with the chief.  Caldwell has appointed just one of the five members of the all-volunteer Fire Commission, which hires and fires the chief.  The other four members of the panel were appointed by previous Mayors Peter Carlisle and Mufi Hannemann.

"Despite the disagreements," Seelig said. "The process of resolving them is going to be built upon understanding of the roles and responsibilities of the different parts of the organization, both management and the labor part."

Lee said Neves was "unprofessional" for not speaking to Hawaii News Now himself or having one of his deputy or assistant chiefs speak about the controversy.

"In a labor-management dispute, he should not have had one of our union members (Seelig, who's a fire captain and represented by the HFFA) go on TV to defend his administration," Lee said. "That's pilau."

Lee said his union will keep filing complaints with the Hawaii Labor Relations Board unless the fire chief negotiates with them over numerous issues.

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