The Carlisle administration describes its battle with the City Council over control of the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation as an issue of autonomy, but the question is, autonomy from whom?
Mayor Peter Carlisle argues that voters intended for the city’s $5.3 billion rail system to be politics-free and for elected officials to keep hands off when they approved a City Charter amendment creating the rail agency.
The administration’s view that the Council’s role should be mostly limited to approving bond sales, with no oversight of HART’s budget, would certainly keep the Council’s hands off.
But when you turn the question to how autonomous HART will be from the administration, which has tried to tightly control every aspect of rail to this point, the answer might be not so much.
The administration has an advantage over the Council in picking HART’s directors. Both sides made three direct appointments, but the city transportation director is also on the board and effectively gives the administration a fourth choice. The state transportation director is the eighth member, and those eight will choose the ninth.
HART’s staff will be some 40 employees transferring over from the city Transit Division, many of whom have loyalties to the administration.
Directors named so far include no experts in running a railroad and aren’t exactly disinterested watchdogs for taxpayers and commuters; many represent interests that expect to profit from rail.
Carlisle named William "Buzzy" Hong from the Hawaii Building and Trades Council, a primary lobbyist for rail because of the construction jobs it is expected to bring; First Hawaiian Bank Chief Executive Officer Don Horner, whose company would presumably be a major lender for transit-related development; and former city Corporation Counsel Carrie Okinaga, who looked after the administration’s legal interests on rail.
Council leadership added Damien Kim of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1186, whose members expect to get a lot of work from rail; Keslie Hui, a planner currently involved in developing a large master-planned community of the type rail will stimulate; and Ivan Lui-Kwan, an attorney and former city budget director.
There’s been much hope expressed that HART will be transparent in its operations and spending, but there’s nothing in the law that actually requires it.
An administration that can’t maintain much influence over rail with this setup isn’t working very hard, and it’s difficult to fault the Council for wanting to hold onto a little budget oversight to keep things honest.
The mayor and Council both seem eager to avoid vetoes and lawsuits to settle their differences, so let’s hope they can work out a compromise that guarantees rail operations are open and aboveboard, with the public interest always served ahead of the interests of private "stakeholders."