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Highways Chief Neil Azevedo put on leave

Neil Azevedo, the county Highways Division chief who ran unsuccessfully for mayor last year, has been suspended without pay for 30 days, sources told West Hawaii Today.

Public Works Director Ikaika Rodenhurst confirmed Thursday that Azevedo is on leave, but he declined to comment further, saying it’s a personnel matter.

“He is still employed,” Rodenhurst said. “He is currently on leave. He is still employed.”

Rodenhurst said Alan “Keone” Thompson is serving as acting division chief.

“We just hope to continue to serve the community and the public the best we can,” Rodenhurst said.

This is the second upheaval in the department in the past few months.

Merrick Nishimoto left as deputy director of the department in late March, just four months into a four-year term. Top county officials attributed Nishimoto’s departure to a difference in management style between the deputy and the director.

Azevedo, 51, has been division chief since 2015, after working in the private sector. He finished fourth in a crowded mayoral race. Azevedo declined to comment for this story.

It’s not common in county government for employees to be put on leave without pay while a workplace incident is investigated; usually they continue to draw a paycheck. Under collective bargaining agreements, management has four options while investigating workplace incidents: allow the employee to continue working, transfer the employee elsewhere, or put the employee on leave with or without pay if the employee’s presence at the workplace is detrimental to the operations or the investigation.

Azevedo is popular with most County Council members, with a number of them praising him for his responsiveness and work ethic.

“If you know anything about the Azevedo family, the first thing that comes to your mind is honest and hardworking,” said Hilo Councilman Aaron Chung. “Let’s be honest — everybody in the county has heard about how Neil has been treated over the last few years. I don’t know the circumstances but I’m giving Neil the benefit of the doubt.”

Council Chairwoman Maile David was surprised to learn Azevedo’s been taken off the job.

“I’ve never encountered anything but positive and cooperative interactions with Mr. Azevedo,” David said. “I’m shocked and concerned, but confident and expect that Mr. Azevedo’s right to due process will be strictly adhered to.”

Other council members shared similar experiences.

“I don’t know any of the circumstances around this decision; I just know Neil’s my hero when it comes to getting road work done,” said Hilo Councilwoman Sue Lee Loy, chairwoman of the Public Works and Mass Transit Committee. “Neil loves this community and this island.”

“Without any details provided by the administration on Neil’s leave — I’m floored,” said Puna Councilman Matt Kanealii-Kleinfelder. “Neil is a solid county employee devoted to community safety throughout hurricanes, floods, tsunami and eruptions. He’s respected across the island and his experience is irreplaceable.”

“I’ve had nothing but a great working relationship with Neil,” said Kohala Councilman Tim Richards. “He’s exceedingly communicative with me about projects in my district and if there’s something that’s happened, he’s very responsive.”

Kona Councilwoman Rebecca Villegas said she’s hesitant to make a detailed statement without talking to Azevedo directly.

“However, I can honestly state that I’m concerned about the Department of Public Works and the loss of seasoned members in their leadership team,” Villegas said.

The shortage of details makes it difficult to know what’s going on, said Puna Councilwoman Ashley Kierkiewicz.

“There are three versions of the truth: what Neil says, what the administration says, and what really happened,” she said.”Unfortunately, no official communication has been sent from the Mayor’s Office on this, so it’s difficult to ascertain what’s going on here.”
Source: Hawaii Tribune Herald

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