Fire chief selection questioned: Secret voting raises concerns

A politically connected battalion chief with a degree in fire science rocketed past his more experienced colleagues to take the top position in the Fire Department, but questions have come up about how the vote was taken, so it may have to be redone.

The county Fire Commission on March 10 selected Battalion Chief Kazuo Todd as the new fire chief to replace Darren Rosario. Rosario retired Nov. 1, when Deputy Fire Chief Robert Perreira, who also applied for the position, became acting chief.

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Todd is the son of former County Councilwoman and longtime county official Bobby Jean Leithead Todd and brother to state Rep. Chris Todd, a Hilo Democrat.

The Fire Commission, one of only a few county commissions that don’t stream their meetings online, has been holding executive sessions to discuss the candidates and at the last meeting held the vote behind closed doors.

The commission then, in open session, unanimously ratified the decision that was made in closed session and announced the winner, according to someone at the meeting who asked that their name not be used.

The county charter and the state Sunshine Law allow commission members to enter executive sessions to interview candidates and discuss personnel decisions “where consideration of matters affecting privacy will be involved,” according to state law. The individual being discussed can request an open meeting and the commission must cede to that request, the law states.

Hilo Councilman Aaron Chung, the only sitting councilman who’s also an attorney, said the state’s open government laws and its privacy laws are both important, but transparency should take precedence. He pointed to the public vetting by the council of Cabinet appointees, which this year was sometimes contentious.

Council members last month grilled Mayor Mitch Roth’s nominees to county departments in open session before making a public vote where the council members’ rationale for voting was clear. The fire and police chiefs are not chosen by the mayor, but by their respective commissions.

“The overriding interest is the public’s interest to know what’s going on,” Chung said, when contacted for a comment. “I’m not questioning the selection at all; it’s the process by which they made the selection.”

The vote will be redone in open session at the commission’s April 14 meeting in order to make an “administrative correction,” a staffer said. Commissioners contacted Monday declined comment and referred questions to county attorneys.

“We’re aware that certain concerns have been raised and we’re looking into it,” Corporation Counsel Elizabeth Strance said Tuesday.

The commission is scheduled to meet at 9 a.m. April 14 at the West Hawaii Civic Center. The public can speak on items on the agenda at the beginning of the meeting, or can submit written testimony to: Hawaii Fire Commission, 101 Pauahi St., Suite 9, Hilo, Hawaii 96720 or via email to: Josie.Pelayo@Hawaiicounty.gov.

Other finalists were Battalion Chief William Bergin, Capt. Garrett Kim and Daniel Manning. The five were among 50 who applied for the position, and the only ones who met minimum qualification requirements, according to Human Resources Director Bill Brilhante.

Perreira has 25 years experience in the department, Bergin 26 years and Kim 20 years, compared to Todd’s 16 years. Manning is a candidate from outside the department.

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Minimum qualifications for the fire chief, according to the county charter, is five years of training and experience in fire control, including at least three years of experience in a responsible administrative capacity. In addition, county voters approved a charter amendment last year adding, “the fire chief shall have a combination of education and experience substantially equivalent to possession of a bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university.”

The fire chief controls an annual budget of $52 million and oversees 470 employees. The position, a career post subject to oversight by the Fire Commission, pays about $150,000 annually.

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