Wednesday, November 25, 2015         


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Council errs on rail, recycling


City Council members revealed in recent weeks the cockeyed way they view their responsibilities.

On the one hand, we see some feeble votes in areas where they really should have stood firm. Just for starters, there's been the waffling on whether the city should continue subsidizing recycling firms such as Schnitzer Steel Hawaii Corp., which it shouldn't.

On the other, they're now adopting the pose of micromanagers where they should not, if effective development of the rail system is a goal. Last week, the Council voted to authorize $104 million in bond financing as part of the rail budget for the coming 2011-2012 fiscal year. But in doing so they attached strings — chains, really — that will only serve to bog down the project and add costs to the taxpayers' tab.

In Bills 33 and 34, which set out the first-year operating and capital improvement budgets for rail, the Council inserted language to keep all spending under its control: "No monies shall be expended by the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation for any purpose from the Transit Fund or Transit Improvement Bond Fund, unless such monies are first appropriated by the City Council."

At worst this is a power grab that is unsupported by the City Charter, which clearly gives to HART the authority to spend dedicated transit revenues. At best, it's the Council's expression of nervous mistrust of a new semi-autonomous governmental entity. While that's understandable given that HART has no record — it won't convene until July 1 — insisting that every single expenditure come through the Council defeats the entire purpose of a separate authority giving rail development some insulation from politics.

City Managing Director Douglas Chin reminded the Council in a May 11 letter that the original resolution to create HART in the City Charter included language that would have required Council oversight of the rail budget, but in the final version that the voters ratified last fall, that language was removed. The city administration acknowledged a separate section in which the Council must approve appropriations, but interprets that to mean that any rail appropriations from the city's general fund, which the Council does control, must be approved by the Council. We agree with that interpretation.

It's unfortunate that the Charter wording was not adequately specific on this point, and that should be clarified in a further amendment. But the intent of the voters was clear — and the bills that passed last week, as Chin wrote, "directly contravene the letter and spirit of the voter-approved Charter amendment" and "improperly seek to award to Council by ordinance a power that was not given to it in the Charter amendment."

Mayor Peter Carlisle should veto these bills and send them back to the City Council, which should strip out the overreaching provisos. Forcing the issue through a court challenge does not serve any justifiable purpose.

Carlisle also should stand firm on eliminating the too-generous subsidy on recycling tipping fees — he recently signed to revoke it — despite a backpedaling Council bill to retain a phased-down version of the subsidy. Further, the Council seems to have lost its nerve on other issues, such as upholding the ban on Oahu fireworks storage and raising Waikiki parking rates to a reasonable level.

These issues are ones on which the Council needs to keep a steady hand — instead of putting its micromanaging fingers into the rail's operations and budget.

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