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Don't dilute HART's authority

LAST UPDATED: 2:23 p.m. HST, Aug 5, 2011

The City Council seems to have dug in its heels on the issue of who holds the budgetary reins over the $5.3 billion fixed-rail transit project. Is it the elected Council members or the appointed board, to be seated July 1, of the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation? The vote was 8-1 in favor of a HART budget that carved out budgetary oversight powers for the Council — near unanimity on this point.

Mayor Peter Carlisle made the right decision this week in vetoing this budget over the issue of fiscal control. Since an override seems likely, the battle could end up in court, adding delays and cost to the project tab that taxpayers ultimately will pick up. This would be a mistake.

As politically uncomfortable as it is to do an about-face, Council members ought to rethink the wisdom of taking this fight to the mat. They contend that the Council never intended to relinquish budgetary control, but a look through key documents suggests otherwise.

The argument centers on language in the City Charter amendment laying out HART duties and powers, a new provision that voters approved in November. At issue is the "rates, revenues and appropriations" section that describes how the HART board will request appropriations from the Council.

This section doesn't specify the source of the appropriations, but the administration has reasonably concluded that it means appropriations from the city's general fund, which the Council does control. The sentence right before the appropriations description states that revenues from the rail, plus other revenues from the transit tax, federal government and HART properties, should be "as nearly sufficient as possible to support the fixed guideway system and the authority." It follows logically that an "appropriation" refers to requests from the general fund to close any gaps.

Elsewhere the document is unambiguous about fiscal authority. On the list of "powers, duties and functions," No. 3 prescribes that "the board shall … review, modify as necessary and adopt annual operating and capital budgets submitted by the executive director of the authority."

Further, the Council had considered tightening its budgetary oversight in earlier drafts of the charter amendment but changed the language in the final version. At first the proposed resolution held that "rates for the furnishing of transit services shall be subject to Council approval" and that "the Council shall, with or without amendment, approve the operating budget," as well as the capital budget. In the end, the resolution asserts that rates and charges be set by the HART board, and the language on Council approval of the budgets is deleted.

It's puzzling that the current Council does not recognize the good instincts of its predecessor in doing so. The whole reason for taking control of the dedicated transit fund away from a political body is to keep decisions in the hands of those not seeking campaign contributions, and to ensure that they're based on professional reasoning, not politics. This model has worked well for entities such as the Honolulu Board of Water Supply and for other mass-transit jurisdictions around the country.

What should concern the Council is that everything HART does remains transparent to elected representatives and the general public. The newly appointed HART board should do everything possible to keep its documents easily accessible. If the Council finds any problems needing correction, it will have the means to make the matter public and demand changes. That, as well as direct oversight of bond financing and land acquisition, is the Council's concern.

The best service the Council can offer the public is not to rush into litigation but to let HART do its job.

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