Hawaii County fire chief suspends two who called for his removal

EXCLUSIVE: Hawaii fire chief suspends 2 chiefs who called for his removal
Published: Mar. 19, 2015 at 9:31 PM HST|Updated: Mar. 20, 2015 at 4:44 AM HST
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West Hawaii Battalion Chief Steve Loyola
West Hawaii Battalion Chief Steve Loyola

HILO, BIG ISLAND (HawaiiNewsNow) - Big Island Fire Chief Darren Rosario has suspended two battalion chiefs after they complained about his alleged mismanagement of the department.

They've been on paid leave for four months -- and now are under investigation themselves for speaking out.

Rosario has been chief of the Hawaii County fire department for three and a half years and now two men who he promoted to battalion chief are calling for his removal.

"He surrounds himself with a bunch of people that can't do the job in my opinion and it's dangerous,” said West Hawaii Battalion Chief Steve Loyola. “Public safety is affected by the people running the department now."

Loyola claimed the fire chief has built a culture of favoritism and retaliation, leading to the lowest morale he's seen in his 24 years in the department.

"It's never been this bad, ever. And nobody can tell you it isn't because it is," Loyola added. He said about 25 people have quit the department in the last three years, evidence of what he calls “high turnover” in a department of 450 firefighters.

A second battalion chief in West Hawaii, Ty Medeiros, has made similar complaints against Rosario but declined an interview.

Rosario told Hawaii News Now: "All of the allegations they made is false. And that's why it's being investigated."

Loyola claimed the chief failed to properly plan for Hurricane Iselle, that struck the Big Island last August, resulting in a fire truck getting stuck by fallen trees on Aug. 7 while responding to a call at the geothermal plant in Puna.

After the two men sent letters of "no confidence" against him to the Hawaii County Fire Commission and Mayor Billy Kenoi, Rosario suspended them both with pay just before Thanksgiving and hired a private investigator to see if they violated rules that say employees should not publicly criticize the fire department “with reckless disregard for the truth.”

"It's just sad that it's occurring,” Rosario said. “But we took the approach that, you know what, we're going to investigate it then. If you're going to make the accusations, we're going to investigate it then, and show the people that the accusations is unfounded."

The suspensions mean there is no permanent battalion chief overseeing West Hawaii fire operations from the Waikoloa station, and substitutes are being brought in daily for the last four months, many of them from the Hilo side of the island.

South Kohala Fire Captain Sean Sommers has also complained to the fire commission about Rosario.

"They seem to want to put friendships with their buddies before qualifications when it comes to promotion. There's an unequal application of the rules across the board," Sommers said. "You just wanna know that your boss has your back, and a lot of us feel like they don't."

The Fire Commissioners said they can only hear complaints from the public, and employees need to complain to the chief, even when the complaint is about the chief.

"We realize there's always issues in any type of organization or business, but ultimately the people we serve, whether it's public or private, they need not suffer for our internal conflicts," said David De Luz, chair of the fire commission.

The commission still gave Rosario a "satisfactory" job evaluation at the end of last year, even after hearing complaints from firefighters about his leadership.

"If I was unsatisfactory, I'd be removed as a fire chief. We have a great relationship with the fire commission. I address any concerns that they do have," Rosario said.

Rosario declined to release his evaluation and De Luz said the commission would not release it, because “it's Rosario's to release.” Rosario claimed his “satisfactory” rating was not a lower evaluation compared to the year before.

On Oahu, both the police and fire commissions release the police and fire chiefs' annual evaluations to the public.

Rosario said he hopes the investigation into the two chiefs who've complained about his leadership can wrap up in the next month or so.

Both Medeiros and Loyola worry that the investigation against them will be biased, because they said the fire chief will ultimately receive its results and take disciplinary action.

Former Hawaii County Police Chief Victor Vierra, now a private investigator, is conducting the investigation, Loyola and Medeiros said.

Loyola said he's heard the contract Vierra signed with Hawaii County Corporation Counsel's office limits who Vierra can interview in the investigation.

Sommers, the fire captain from South Kohala who has worked for years under Loyola, questioned whether the two chiefs are being “railroaded” by the investigation.

"I was very close to what was going on and I have not been interviewed on anything yet, which is remarkable to me, because I have things documented also," Sommers said.

Sommers said Rosario's actions so far have had a chilling effect on other firefighters.

"You shouldn't have to fear for your job if you have something critical to say about your supervisor. Maybe you're misguided, maybe you don't have all the information. But the fact of the matter is these guys were yanked from duty is an unprecedented move. I've never seen anything like it," said Sommers, who's been a Hawaii County firefighter for 20 years.

Rosario was appointed fire chief Sept. 11, 2011. He has been in the department for 25 years.

"As a leader, you're always a target at the top, but I stand very proud and firm on what we've done as an administration for this community," Rosario said. "We will not tolerate false accusations made against an administration for someone's personal benefit."

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