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Maui airports lack full firefighting staff

By Gene Park

LAST UPDATED: 2:21 a.m. HST, Oct 13, 2010

Full staffing for the Maui District Airports Fire Division is 40 firefighters, but for the past three years only 26 firefighters have staffed the county's six airports.

Interim state Transportation Director Michael Formby attributed it yesterday to a "dysfunctional" personnel office, staffed by employees hired on an emergency basis every 89 days.

As a result, Maui airport firefighters have filed about 19,770 hours of overtime from January 2009 through August 2010. That has cost the state $870,492.

"This is the worst I've seen it in 30 years," Maui District Airports Fire Chief Eugene Perry said at a state Senate Ways and Means Committee informational hearing yesterday.

The Kahului Airport has five airport firefighters but needs eight, Perry said. Lanai's airport has only one firefighter for all shifts, as opposed to the three needed for a full staff.

Perry said his division has seen no firefighter promotions or hires since 2007, even though he has tried prodding the state airports personnel office.

"E-mails went unanswered, phone calls went unanswered," Perry said.

Formby said the department is working on permanent hires for the personnel office. Perry said he has prospects in mind for all 14 vacant firefighter positions.

The Senate panel also looked yesterday into allegations that state airport employees accepted free gifts from airport vendors. Brian Sekiguchi, former airports deputy director, is a target of a state ethics probe for accepting a free ticket to the Masters golf tournament in Georgia in April 2009.

Airport engineer Gene Matsushige told the committee yesterday he accepted tickets to the golf tournament from Chevron, which has easements with the airports.

Matsushige said someone from another airport vendor, engineering firm R.M. Towill, provided him free lodging at his home in Augusta, Ga., in April 2009.

Formby said the department has tried to further question Sekiguchi but that he has not returned phone calls or e-mails. Sekiguchi left his position in August, around the time the allegations emerged.

The department also discovered that in the past two years, about $2,858 in undocumented purchases were made at Lihue Airport via department credit card-type devices called purchasing cards.

"This is contrary to policy," Formby said. "It should never have been approved."

Formby said employees who made the purchases did not provide the required invoices or purchase requests. The department is looking into additional purchases, he said.

He said the department is going through policy reaffirmation with its employees in order to "right the ship" in light of recent mishaps at the department.

"Beyond conflicts of interest, beyond violations of policy, we don't want appearances of impropriety ... because it breeds mistrust in the system," Formby said. "We don't want people to think you're a favorite employee, that you're getting special treatment by consultants, that you're going to places. We don't want that."

 CORRECTION: State airport engineer Gene Matsushige said a R.M. Towill Corp. executive provided him free lodging at his home in Augusta, Ga., in April 2009. A previous story yesterday said he was given free hotel lodging.

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