Maui County Council members expressed dismay Tuesday morning when Fire Chief Jeff Murray asked for a delay until July 2015 for the long-anticipated transfer of beach lifeguards to the Maui Fire Department.
Council Budget and Finance Committee members were ready to review, with Murray, the department's new Ocean Safety Division, but the fire chief said union and other issues necessitated the delay of the transfer of the division for more than a year.
In November 2012, voters approved a Maui County Charter amendment transferring ocean safety officers from the Department of Parks and Recreation to the Department of Fire and Public Safety. Mayor Alan Arakawa's budget for fiscal 2014-15 calls for transferring 61.5 positions from parks to the Fire Department.
When Murray asked for the postponement, council members sat for a few moments in silence. Then, Budget Committee Chairman Mike White asked for the reason for the delay.
Murray said fire officials were working on plans to accomplish the transfer, but "as you know, the lifeguards will be moving into a new bargaining unit (Hawaii Government Employees Association Unit 14), and the discussion and negotiations start in June."
"This comes as quite a big surprise," Council Member Mike Victorino said. "All of us were anticipating this change from last year that would be done this year."
He asked for an explanation from Budget Director Sandy Baz, adding that "they (members of the Arakawa administration) seemed to think it was going to be done also. So my question is: 'Who's on first?' because I sure am confused right now."
Baz said he was aware that the Fire Department continued to have concerns about taking over the responsibility of beach lifeguards. "I'll have to discuss this new item with the managing director (Keith Regan) and the mayor before responding further," he told council members.
Murray said his department had asked the administration to "hold off on this." Then, he referred to a section in the Maui County Charter and said that it gives the chief the ability to decide when the transfer would happen.
Murray noted that the Fire Department appointed a fire battalion chief, Paia Fire Capt. Colin Yamamoto, as chief of ocean safety in early March. He maintained that his department has worked diligently to accomplish the transfer.
"What we need to realize is there's a lot of underlying things to deal with the union as we move forward," he said. "We have our guy in (place) a month and a half now, and we're still ironing out the procedures."
Council Member Riki Hokama, who chairs the council's Policy and Intergovernmental Affairs Committee, said he was in full support of Murray.
"The chief has, in my understanding of the situation, good grounds not to pursue this at this time," he said. "There are legal issues for me, regarding stewardship of the committee I chair, and those are big issues that need to be discussed with corporation counsel, and I would recommend executive session."
Committee members questioned whether the fire chief has the power to determine when the transfer of lifeguards to the Fire Department would happen.
The Maui County Charter (Section 15-4) says that upon the adoption of the 2012 charter amendment for the division transfer, the Department of Fire and Public Safety "shall provide the timetable for the transition to include the functions of shoreline and ocean rescue and safety."
Victorino and Council Member Don Couch said they had not seen a timetable.
"I'm just taken aback at the timing" of disclosing the year's delay in transferring lifeguards to the Fire Department," Council Chairwoman Gladys Baisa said. "This should have been told to us a long time ago, in fact before we were given this budget."
Victorino agreed, saying "I'm upset. . . . All this reeks of wasting time."
Committee members voted unanimously to go into a closed-door executive session, which lasted for about an hour. When they emerged, it wasn't clear whether the matter had been resolved.
White announced that the committee had finished its review of the Fire and Public Safety Department and was moving on with its budget deliberations.
The panel continues meeting at 9 a.m. today in the eighth-floor Council Chambers in the Kalana O Maui building.
* Brian Perry can be reached at email@example.com.