West Hawaii battalion chiefs lose labor case

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HILO — Two West Hawaii battalion chiefs who said they were stripped of their badges after they publicly criticized their boss failed in their appeal for lost overtime pay and benefits.

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HILO — Two West Hawaii battalion chiefs who said they were stripped of their badges after they publicly criticized their boss failed in their appeal for lost overtime pay and benefits.

The Merit Appeals Board last week unanimously ruled that Battalion Chiefs Ty Medeiros and Steve Loyola were not due overtime and vacation pay after being put on paid leave in late 2014.

Fire Chief Darren Rosario placed them on leave and physically stripped their uniforms of badges and rank insignia, actions the board agreed were administrative and not disciplinary. The two longtime firefighters, who had consistently received satisfactory performance evaluations, said they were humiliated by the chief’s actions.

Although the board found that the fire chief and the county did not violate any rules, policies or procedures, some members were concerned about the department’s communication policies, both within the department and to outside entities.

Hilo attorney Ted Hong, representing the battalion chiefs, said after the ruling that he intends to take the matter to court.

“This was a difficult case for the board to consider. It involved four full days of testimony and thousands of pages of documents,” Hong said. “The issues the board was facing have never been addressed by the county before. I think the board tried their best to navigate this difficult case.”

The battalion chiefs were investigated after they wrote letters to the Fire Commission and the mayor criticizing the chief. Loyola, a 25-year employee, has since retired.

Medeiros and Loyola had claimed Rosario was putting lives and safety at risk because there were inadequate emergency plans in place that became obvious during tsunami and hurricane threats. But Deputy Corporation Counsel Steven Strauss characterized their actions not as a loss of confidence in their chief, but a “failed coup.”

Rosario, a 26-year employee, has been fire chief since September 2011.

Strauss said Thursday that there’s a heavy burden of proof on the plaintiffs in employment actions. Putting employees on paid leave while an investigation is conducted is considered an administrative action, not a disciplinary one, he said.

“In just about all jurisdictions, it’s treated as an employer’s right,” Strauss said. “I really think it was a failure of (meeting the) burden of proof.”

During the course of the hearing, Loyola and Medeiros estimated they lost tens of thousands of dollars in overtime they otherwise would have earned, and in lower retirement benefits because the retirement income is based on prior earnings.

A third fire official, a captain, was investigated for talking about the case to the media, but that investigation was subsequently dropped.

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The fire department has a regulation stating, “no member shall publicly criticize or ridicule the department, its policies or the members … when such action tends to impair the good order or efficiency of the department, interferes with the ability of officers to maintain discipline or it’s made with reckless disregard for truth or falsity.”

Employees agree to follow the rules as a condition of employment.

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