An irked Mayor Harry Kim appeared Tuesday before a County Council panel and withdrew his nomination of a union representative for a seat on the Fire Commission after denouncing a process he said became politicized.
At issue was Kim’s appointment of Scott Collins, the Hawaii Island division chief for the Hawaii Government Employees Association. The nomination prompted a letter of opposition to the council Public Safety Committee from Fire Chief Darren Rosario, who plans to retire Nov. 1 and, in written testimony, objected to Collins’ confirmation based on what he saw as a conflict of interest.
Rosario noted in the letter that the Fire Commission is charged with hiring and supervising the fire chief as well as hearing citizen complaints about Fire Department personnel, some of whom are represented by HGEA, which endorsed Kim’s reelection bid. He said a further conflict of interest is created because Kim’s son, Capt. Garrett Kim, is an “eligible candidate” for the position of fire chief.
“The perception of an HGEA union official being appointed to a county commission by its endorsed candidate can create unintended reproach or discredit upon the county, its fire department and the fire commission,” Rosario said in his letter.
Rosario added that Kim’s son being a possible candidate for chief “would be a direct conflict of interest and creates a less than desirable perception and undeserving gossip toward that candidate. There should be no connection between county administrative government and a union official during an important task such as the selection of the next fire chief.”
Kim bristled at the allegations in the letter, saying it “insulted a lot of what I stood for.”
Speaking slowly and in measured tones, Kim, who lost his bid for reelection in the Aug. 8 primary, added, “this letter offends the heck out of me.”
“The anger is because of a lifetime of keeping my family out of it and hopefully being very successful in it and to have this kind of letter taint this perception is offensive,” Kim said. “How dare we make all of this political, about Collins, my boy, the department, the commission, political?”
Kim said his son, who was 2016 Aloha Exchange Club fire fighter of the year, was asked by Fire Department administration to be a special operations battalion chief, but Garrett Kim ultimately asked to be reassigned back to captain. The mayor said he didn’t know whether his son is even interested in being chief.
Corporation Counsel Joe Kamelamela said the possibility of conflicts of interest arising from Collins sitting on the Fire Commission is “very remote.” If there are conflicts, he can recuse himself from voting, just as council members do when they see a potential conflict, he said.
Kamelamela noted there is a separate process for employee grievances and the Fire Commission has heard no HGEA grievances in at least the past five years.
South Kona/Ka‘u Councilwoman Maile David was unsuccessful in getting fellow council members to agree to a postponement until Rosario and Hamakua Councilwoman Valerie Poindexter, whose district the commissioner would represent, could be there to weigh in.
“My personal feeling in this is I’m very disappointed the fire chief could not be here today to answer our questions regarding his letter, which I think has very serious allegations being made,” David said.
Collins graduated from Kamehameha Schools and has a bachelor’s degree in sociology and master’s degree in human resource management from the University of Hawaii at Manoa. He went on to get a law degree from UH Manoa William S. Richardson School of Law.
Kim said he wanted to add Collins to the Fire Commission because of his qualifications and also because of his Native Hawaiian ancestry.
“I see Mr. Collins’ quality and there is no doubt he would be good for us and his people. … In a small way it was to correct some the wrongs in a very small way,” Kim said. “It was another very small opportunity to bring people up to the forefront in achievement. … In a very small way because we have 1,000 miles to go.”
Kim said he decided to withdraw the nomination because he didn’t want Collins “tarnished” by the process after he learned there was a council majority opposed to his nomination. Asked after the meeting how he knew a majority of council members opposed the nomination — council members agreeing on votes outside a public meeting is a Sunshine Law violation — Kim said it was relayed to him by staff.
Rosario made news in 2015 for suspending two battalion chiefs and reassigning one of them after they publicly spoke out against the fire chief and questioned his ability to lead. Kim was not involved in that dispute.
Council Chairman Aaron Chung said politics isn’t always pretty.
“That’s the ugly part of politics,” Chung said. “It’s all about power.”
Asked after the meeting to clarify his meaning, Chung said, “I find it odd that the chief who had reprimanded his battalion chiefs for, based on what I read in the newspaper, criticizing him, is going on a personal attack on a lame duck mayor.”