Top firefighters sue county

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Fourteen current and retired Hawaii County Fire Department battalion chiefs are suing the county, claiming their pay and benefits packages have not kept pace with counterparts and subordinates covered by the collective bargaining agreement.

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Fourteen current and retired Hawaii County Fire Department battalion chiefs are suing the county, claiming their pay and benefits packages have not kept pace with counterparts and subordinates covered by the collective bargaining agreement.

The lawsuit was filed March 31 in Hilo Circuit Court by Honolulu attorneys Margery Bronster and Robert Hatch on behalf of current battalion chiefs Reuben Chun, Michael Hayashida, Garret Komatsu, Gerald Kosaki, Steve Loyola, Jerry Lum, Ty Medeiros and Warren Sumida, and retired battalion chiefs Aaron Arbles, Robert Bailey, Michael Gahan, Paul Paiva, Raymond Rowe Jr. and Alvin Tobosa.

The suit claims the highest-paid captains, which is the highest rank covered under the contract between the county and the Hawaii Fire Fighters Association, the union representing firefighters, make more money than some battalion chiefs. Battalion chief, one rank above captain, is a managerial position excluded from collective bargaining.

The filing seeks back pay for lost compensation and adjustment of retirement benefits from the effective date of promotion to battalion chief, as well as unspecified damages, interest and attorney’s fees.

The suit also alleges the county has violated Hawaii Revised Statutes 89C-3, which requires counties to provide pay and benefit adjustments for excluded civil service employees and to ensure those adjustments “result in compensation and benefit packages that are at least equal to the compensation and benefit packages provided under collective bargaining agreements for counterparts and subordinates within the employer’s jurisdiction.”

An email from Jennifer Sakamoto, county human resources manager, states pay for battalion chiefs ranges from $74,448 to $101,844, while pay for captains ranges from $71,556 to $97,944. Sakamoto said that battalion chiefs, who stand 24-hour watches and are dispatched to fires, are eligible for overtime pay.

Battalion chiefs were established as part of a department reorganization in 2005, with the first battalion chiefs assuming their duties on Dec. 1 that year, according to the suit. The suit said the purpose of the battalion chief is “to coordinate the responses of multiple companies of firefighters to emergencies and incidents that cannot be handled by a single company commanded by a Captain.”

Repeated phone messages to Bronster last week were not returned in time for this story.

Deputy Corporation Counsel Steve Strauss said Thursday the county has been served with the suit.

“Based on our records from Human Resources, the Fire Department and the Finance Department, we don’t believe there is any evidence that shows captains receive any particular pay or benefits over and above the compensation that’s made available to the battalion chiefs,” he said.

Strauss called seniority and longevity “a separate issue.”

“It is conceivable that a subordinate fire captain with lengthy years of service may make more in base salary than does a battalion chief with relatively few years of service,” he said, but added that doesn’t mean the county is violating the law intended to keep managers’ pay equal to or higher than that of subordinates.

Two of the plaintiffs, Medeiros and Loyola, were suspended with pay in November and are under investigation by the county. Loyola told a Honolulu television station the pair was suspended after criticizing Fire Chief Darren Rosario, who was not named as a defendant in the suit.

Loyola told Hawaii News Now he and Medeiros sent letters of no confidence to the county Fire Commission and to Mayor Billy Kenoi. Medeiros spoke to the Fire Commission at its Dec. 1 meeting, according to the minutes, but his request to address commissioners in private during an annual closed-door evaluation of Rosario was denied.

The two have hired Hilo attorney Ted Hong and are appealing their suspensions to the county’s Merit Appeals Board. Their case is on the agenda for the board’s next meeting at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday at the county’s Aupuni Center conference room in Hilo.

Hong said Friday he expects a hearing to be scheduled but no other action to be taken on the two West Hawaii battalion chiefs’ appeal at the meeting.

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“You can put this on the record. We have asked for a public hearing because we believe the public has a right to know what is happening within their fire department,” he said.

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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