HILO — A Hilo fire rescue specialist who was transferred to a Kailua-Kona fire station is claiming Fire Chief Darren Rosario retaliated against him after he filed an internal complaint of harassment and workplace violence about two coworkers.
Bran Keopuhiwa currently must drive a 220-mile round trip 10 times a month from Hilo to reach his workplace. He was permanently reassigned to that station Dec. 1, according to documents filed with the Merit Appeals Board. The county’s rules of procedure for fire personnel forbid the use of personnel placement as a disciplinary measure.
Keopuhiwa, a 15-year veteran with the department, is asking the board to have him reassigned to a fire station closer to home, after Rosario denied his request for transfer.
“Your placement to the Kailua Fire Station as a fire rescue specialist is because efforts to mediate the relationship, through EAP counseling and professional mediation, between you and all three fire captains at the Waiakea Fire Station did not result in an outcome that allows all of you to work together,” Rosario said in a Dec. 3 letter to Keopuhiwa. “Your placement is not disciplinary.”
It’s not the first time the board has fielded complaints about Rosario. Two longtime West Hawaii battalion chiefs who said they were stripped of their badges after they publicly criticized their boss lost their case before the board in 2016, but have since filed civil lawsuits. The battalion chiefs were investigated by the department after they wrote letters to the Fire Commission and the mayor criticizing the chief.
Rosario didn’t attend the Merit Appeals Board meeting Thursday. But his county attorney, Deputy Corporation Counsel John Mukai, plans to seek dismissal of the case.
“I will be filing a motion to dismiss the claim in its entirety,” Mukai said.
After the meeting, Mukai declined to comment on the merits of the case. The board will hear arguments on his motion to dismiss in May, with a hearing to follow the following month if needed.
Mukai tried unsuccessfully to keep the press and public out of Thursday’s meeting, which was called strictly to set a schedule for hearings and document submittals.
“Personnel matters, by their very nature, should be confidential,” Mukai said.
But Keopuhiwa, who had waived his right to confidentiality by requesting an open hearing, disagreed.
“Why would you want it to be closed?” Keopuhiwa asked. “It is my personnel file.”
Board Chairman David Nahuina, after the board held a 30-minute executive session consulting with its attorney behind closed doors, said the state Sunshine Law allows public attendance at a meeting where confidentiality is waived.
The Merit Appeals Board, a five-member quasi-judicial body appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the County Council, holds hearings on county employee appeals of department personnel actions.