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Sunday, December 21, 2014         

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Clashes cripple state airports office

By Gene Park

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A heated argument two years ago between employees at the state airports personnel office has led to restraining orders and at least one lawsuit against the state, leaving the office in disarray as airport jobs go unfilled for years.

The office has been in what interim state Transportation Director Michael Formby described as a state of dysfunction.

"I want it to be a functioning section," Formby said. "You've got 1,500 employees in the airports. You need a functioning personnel office. ... We have too many vacancies to fill."

The Maui District Airports Fire Division, for instance, has been unable to fill 14 of 40 allotted firefighter slots. The department has had only 26 firefighters staffing the airports on Maui, Lanai and Molokai.

As a result, Maui airport firefighters filed for about 19,770 hours of overtime from January 2009 through August of this year. That cost the state $870,492, which Formby said is costlier than paying hired firefighters.

At a state Senate Ways and Means Committee hearing last month, Maui District Airports Fire Chief Eugene Perry said the situation in the personnel office is the "worst I've seen it in 30 years."

There are other positions in the state Airports Division that are unfilled, including custodians, Formby said.

Reflecting the trouble at the personnel office is a lawsuit filed by staffers Donna Jinbo and Jennie Wolfe against the state and their former supervisor, Lisa Matsuoka.

In May 2008, Matsuoka had a loud disagreement with employees at the office about an employee's work performance, according to the lawsuit.

Later that month, Matsuoka questioned why one of the employees had requested a transfer. The argument got so heated, the sheriffs office at Honolulu Airport had to intervene, according to court documents.

In June that year, three employees, including Wolfe and Jinbo, were granted restraining orders against Matsuoka, who was disciplined with a suspension, documents show.

All the employees involved were protected under collective bargaining agreements.

In July 2008, Matsuoka was transferred out of the personnel office to work as a special projects officer under airport Administrative Services Officer Sidney Hayakawa. Matsuoka also underwent counseling for her behavior, court papers said.

The department went as far as restricting certain employees to certain areas of the airport. The directives came with maps outlining designated work areas -- even prohibiting the use of certain women's restrooms for some of the employees.

In April this year, the state returned Matsuoka to the personnel office. Jinbo and Wolfe filed the lawsuit in response and are currently on leave seeking workers' compensation benefits. Jinbo and Wolfe declined other positions offered within the department.

Another employee resigned, while two others transferred to positions within the Transportation Department.

As a result, the airports personnel office is currently staffed only by Matsuoka and two people hired on an emergency basis every 89 days.

The events occurred under the supervision of former airports Deputy Director Brian Sekiguchi, who resigned during the summer. Sekiguchi is the target of a state ethics probe for gifts he allegedly received from contractors in 2009.

The lawsuit by Jinbo and Wolfe is still pending in court.

The state has denied any wrongdoing.

"Returning Ms. Matsuoka to her civil service position cannot be considered a wrongful act," said a response filed by the state Attorney General's Office. "Generally, courts have held that an adverse employment action must affect a term or condition of employment and is not 'adverse' merely because the employee dislikes or disagrees with the decision."

No complaints have been filed against Matsuoka since her return.

Formby said he is working to restore the personnel office to full strength. Two people have applied for positions at the office, while another is expected to begin work this month, said transportation spokeswoman Tammy Mori.

"In the meantime, what I'm recognizing is that I can't accept the situation as status quo for the next year, because it just doesn't work," Formby said.






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