More than five months after Honolulu’s fire chief retired, the panel tasked with replacing him is deadlocked. Meanwhile, the mayor’s appointment of a new fire commissioner — who would be the tie-breaker — has been deferred amid pressure for more transparency.

Manuel Neves retired Feb. 28 after eight years as chief and 42 years of service. The two finalists vying for the top job are Lionel Camara Jr., the acting chief; and Sheldon Kalani Hao, the acting deputy chief.

Three fire commissioners support Camara while three others support Hao, who has been endorsed by the Hawaii Fire Fighters Association.

The Honolulu Fire Commission has seven members, but a vacancy remains unfulfilled since City Councilwoman Heidi Tsuneyoshi deferred Mayor Rick Blangiardi’s appointment of David Matlin, the University of Hawaii director of athletics last month.

Honolulu Fire Chief Manuel Neves retired Feb. 28, launching a search for his replacement. Six months later, the Honolulu Fire Commission can’t reach agreement on who the next chief will be. Hawaii News Now

Tsuneyoshi said Thursday that she deferred the nomination out of concern that Matlin’s knowledge of the search for a new chief was “tenuous” and because she wants to hear directly from the fire commission and the fire union about the commission’s work.

“The process has not been public,” said Tsuneyoshi, who expects her Public Safety Committee to again take up the Matlin nomination on Aug. 25. “The best way to move forward is to hear from everyone in the public and to have transparency and accountability.”

Nominations On Hold

The search for a new fire chief for the City and County of Honolulu comes as the Honolulu Police Commission awaits council confirmation of Ann Botticelli to fill a vacancy.

The seven-member police commission is also in the process of hiring a new chief to replace Susan Ballard, who resigned earlier this year before her contract expired.

Neves had faced criticism over his job performance. Hawaii News Now reported in January that, while the chief’s accomplishments included hiring almost 500 new firefighters, buying much-needed equipment and strengthening fire safety laws, he has faced questions from the council on spending for overtime.

“Someone will have to change their mind.” — Fire Commission Chair Charlotte Nekota

In October, HNN reported that the council also asked the fire commission for Neves’ annual evaluations, which had not been submitted to the Council in five years, as required by city charter.

The Hawaii Fire Fighters Association endorsed Hao because it considered Camara, who was deputy chief under Neves, an extension of the previous administration, which often clashed with the 2,000 active-duty member union.

HFFA President Bobby Lee has called for the vote on a new chief to be held in open session.

“The group of chiefs that ran the department, I would say they were very successful in bringing the morale down to the worst that HFD has every seen,” Lee said Thursday.

“The style of leadership was pretty toxic, ego-centric. They seemed to care more about authority rather than what is good for firefighters and the public,” he added. “We are looking for positive change, and that is what Kalani Hao brings to the table.”

Charlotte Nekota, chair of the Fire Commission, said Wednesday that she hoped to have an update on the status of the hiring process of the new chief Aug. 13, when commissioners are scheduled to hold a “special” public meeting.

“Someone will have to change their mind, or else we will still be at a split,” she said. “I understand that people want answers, and I hope to have a meeting of the minds on Friday the 13th.”

Lionel Camara Jr. is acting chief of the Honolulu Fire Department and one of two finalists to be the permanent chief. Hawaii News Now

Asked if there were concerns about the candidates’ qualifications or their firefighter certification status, Nekota — who was named chair just last month — declined to respond but said she would work to make public the candidates’ resumes.

She also said “it makes sense” for Tsuneyoshi to put a hold on Matlin’s nomination, as he has not been involved in the interview process for the new chief. The fire commission met around a half-dozen times this year to discuss the hiring.

Nekota confirmed that she, vice chair William Hong and commissioner Dennis Morton favor Camara, while commissioners Max Hannemann, Craig Nagamine and Nicholas W. Teves Jr. back Hao.

The Aug. 13 meeting agenda says that Camara and Hao will be on hand for a “conversation” with the commission. While the meeting is open to the public via a dial-in system, the commissioners have the option of going into executive session, meaning behind closed doors.

Another fire commission meeting is scheduled for Aug. 25.

Sheldon Kalani Hao, the acting deputy fire chief, is also a finalist for the next chief. Hawaii News Now

Professional Certifications

The city charter has few details on the qualifications for fire chief: “The chief shall have had a minimum of five years of training and experience in a fire department, at least three years of which shall have been in a responsible administrative capacity.”

A Honolulu Star-Advertiser advertisement for the position, which pays $199,872 annually, also says the applicants for chief must have experience “equivalent to Battalion Fire Chief level or higher” in HFD.

In an interview Thursday, Hao said that if he becomes chief he would assemble a team with “the right skill set” to lead the department it its mission and vision, and to develop the department’s next line of succession.

“I feel compelled to give back to Honolulu as we recover from the economic and social impact of COVID-19,” he said.

Hao said there has been no tension within the department even though he is competing with the acting chief to become the permanent chief.

Asked if he is a certified firefighter, Hao said “yes.” It involves, he said, receiving HFD training on firefighting, hazardous materials, medical and other education.

The Honolulu Fire Commission currently has a vacancy. Screenshot

Camara said via email that he wants to lead the department into “its next chapter of innovation and modernization.”

“I have committed myself to stand by and serve the community and want to continue to serve, now more than ever, during this time when Oahu communities are faced with unprecedented times and life changing choices,” he said.

Like Hao, Camara said the department’s operations have not been impacted by the search for a new chief, and that he is a certified firefighter. Examples of certification, he said, include the following:

“Pumper Apparatus Driver/Operator, Aerial Driver Operator, Ethics, and Prevention of Sexual Harassment certifications. Other certifications required by state or federal government entities include Worksite Safety Program Review and Testing (Infectious Disease and Blood-borne Pathogens Exposure, Hazardous Communication, Respiratory Protection, Hearing Conservation, and Worksite Safety trainings), Hazardous Materials Incident Management, Storm Water, Emergency Medical Technician, and First Responder.”

“Professional certifications must be maintained in good standing throughout a fire fighter’s career and are typically accomplished via HFD-required refresher training,” he added.

Blangiardi and Council Chair Tommy Waters did not respond to requests for comment on the Matlin confirmation or the fire chief search.

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