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‘Transparency’ applies to rail

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The good government term "transparency" has been bandied about a lot these days, but simply pronouncing it repeatedly only makes it a buzz word. Making it real takes practice, something that should be more evident in civic affairs than it is.

Example: The process of ramping up the multibillion-dollar rail project could use more sunshine. Ann Kobayashi, a skeptic on many occasions when rail planning has come before the City Council, hit on a real issue of concern this week when she questioned some of the expenditures to date.

At issue was about $46 million in contracts let to 113 vendors, some of it spending that Kobayashi described as "exorbitant." Whether that’s true or not is open to debate. Surely a project of this magnitude takes a sizable investment in architectural design, media and government relations and other startup matters. Kobayashi found no smoking-gun indicator of malfeasance. These were subcontracts issued by the city contractors and thus didn’t fall under procurement laws.

But all of it is taxpayer money, regardless. And Kobayashi’s larger point is a valid one: The public needs access to information about how its money is being spent. Some months back she submitted a request in writing to the city administration, which delivered the documents. Few outside city government, other than members of the media, have seen them.

City spokesman Bill Brennan said Kobayashi is free to post electronic versions of the contract paperwork on the Council’s DocuShare system. That would be fine, but the public should be able to find information on more than whatever individual Council members dig up piecemeal.

The city administration should post information about its rail spending — in enough detail to be meaningful — on the Web for the public to see. Its "Honolulu on the Move" site (http://honolulutransit.org) would provide a good repository for it. The site includes a lot of information on the environmental impact statement, several video guides and more; a link to data about spending would be the obvious next step.

The Lingle administration provided something similar as the federal stimulus dollars were piped in (http://hawaii.gov/recovery). It is dense information and inviting only to the most intrepid miners of government data.

But even if the general public isn’t clamoring for it, information of this kind needs to be someplace where the people paying the bills — and that would be all of us — can get to it. People need to know to whom the money is going in order to track their influence in government through campaign donations and other intersect points.

Even ardent supporters of rail want proof that the money-letting, now just starting, is trustworthy. And if a large part of rail’s reason for being, as promised, is generating jobs locally, taxpayers need to see how this is happening.

City officials say they’ve been open in their public meetings on the project. While that may be so, many Oahu residents felt dissatisfied with that process all the same. They certainly won’t be persuaded that Honolulu’s biggest public works project is proceeding as it should if "transparency" becomes an artifact of past efforts instead of an ongoing commitment.

 

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