HILO, BIG ISLAND (HawaiiNewsNow) - A Hawaii County fire battalion chief and captain are under investigation for criticizing the leadership of Fire Chief Darren Rosario in a story on Hawaii News Now earlier this month.
"It's never been this bad, ever. And nobody can tell you it isn't because it is," said Hawaii County Battalion Chief Steve Loyola in a Hawaii News Now story March 19 in which he said Rosario has built a culture of favoritism and retaliation, leading to the lowest morale he's seen in 24 years with the fire department.
Loyola and another Battalion Chief, Ty Medeiros, have already been suspended on paid leave for the past four months for complaining to the Hawaii County Fire Commission and Mayor Billy Kenoi about Rosario's alleged mismanagement.
A week after HNN's March 19 story, Loyola received a letter from Rosario, telling him he's being investigated for speaking to Hawaii News Now because he might have violated department rules that say "... no member shall publicly criticize or ridicule the department."
Ted Hong, Loyola and Medeiros' attorney, said, "It is further retaliation and they're compounding their mistake by curtailing my client's first amendment rights to free speech."
When Hawaii News Now asked Rosario if the two chiefs were being retaliated against for speaking out against him, Rosario said: "No, not at all. And punishment is such a bad word. It's always if you do something wrong, you want to take corrective action. And what they're being investigated for is making accusations that is not true."
Hong, the Hilo attorney representing Loyola, said, "Because you're a department head does not mean you're some mini dictator and can curtail the rights of employees, public employees."
A second firefighter, South Kohala Fire Captain Sean Sommers, is also under investigation, because he spoke to Hawaii News Now as well.
"The chief should not be trying to discipline people for voicing their opinions or concerns, particularly when it comes to public safety," Sommers told Hawaii News Now Tuesday. "I just won't stand for somebody telling me I can't speak up and bring to light something that needs to be fixed."
Rosario did not return a text asking for comment Tuesday. On March 18, he told Hawaii News Now: "Under our rules and regulations, you cannot make statements against the administration and bring reproach to the department and so forth."
Rosario said Hawaii County has hired retired Police Chief Victor Vierra, now a private investigator, to investigate Loyola and Medeiros.
"It is still currently under investigation and once the investigation is done, then we will look at all the facts of the matter and then discuss what action, if any, is needed," Rosario said.
Hawaii News Now asked Rosario how an investigation of his two underlings could be fair.
"Generally, the investigations can be handled by the deputy fire chief or a delegate, an assistant fire chief and so forth. But because it (the complaints) was levied against the fire chief, I chose what I felt the ethical thing to do, in consultation with our department of human resources and our Corporation Counsel to take the investigation out of the Fire Department's hands," Rosario said. "That's why we hired a private investigator. I have no contact with the private investigator. One of our chief officers is the contact as well as our office staff. And basically, I'm not involved with the investigation."
But Rosario said he will review the findings of the investigation and make the ultimate decision about discipline that results because of it, in consultation with the county human resources department and county lawyers.
A 25-year veteran of the Hawaii Fire Department, Rosario has been fire chief since Sept. 11, 2011.
The suspensions of Medeiros and Loyola have left West Hawaii without a permanent battalion chief, since a third battalion chief returned at the end of the year. Substitutes are being brought in daily to oversee the nine fire stations on the Kona side of the Big Island. Many of the substitute battalion chiefs are from Hilo, sources said. That's costing Hawaii County taxpayers more than $1,000 in overtime and mileage for each 24-hour shift, on top of the roughly $800 that battalion chiefs are regularly paid for their day-long shift, sources said.
Medeiros and Loyola are continuing to be paid while they are under investigation, so taxpayers are paying roughly three times as much for constantly changing battalion leadership in West Hawaii, something Sommers, the South Kohala captain, said is potentially "dangerous."
"It's like continually changing quarterbacks on a football team," Sommers said. "If you're changing the quarterback every day, you're not going to be very successful. There's a lot of inconsistency."
As of Tuesday afternoon, Sommers, a firefighter for 20 years, said he has not been suspended.