In years past, Honolulu rail Executive Director Dan Grabauskas has regularly received glowing annual reviews and $35,000 salary bonuses from the rail board for his handling of the largest public works project in state history.
But this year’s job evaluation — much like the future of the rail project that Grabauskas oversees — is shrouded in uncertainty. The closed-door process has dragged on and there’s no sign yet how the board will act regarding its embattled director.
HART executive director
>> Hired: April 2012
>> Annual compensation (base salary plus housing and transportation allowances): $299,250
>> Current contract: April 9, 2015, to April 8, 2018
>> Severance clause: payment of one year’s base salary, or $257,250
>> Current evaluation started: April 21
>> Latest evaluation extension ends: Aug. 21
Grabauskas said in April:
“This is my home. I’ve put down roots now over the last four years. I love Hawaii. I’d like to stay here, and I’d like to see this project through.”
Since April 21, the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation board members have given themselves two 60-day extensions to keep talking in private and “investigating certain matters,” as board Chairwoman Colleen Hanabusa recently put it. The board has spent more than seven hours discussing Grabauskas’ job performance behind closed doors, the rail agency’s records show, which is far more time than it dedicated to any of Grabauskas’ prior three evaluations.
Today the board will once again take up Grabauskas’ job evaluation in executive session. It’s the only item on the board’s meeting agenda. The group has until Aug. 21 under its latest deadline to issue its report on Grabauskas, who has seen more public scrutiny as rail’s budget gap has grown wider and more worrisome.
Grabauskas, who is out of town, will not attend today’s meeting, a HART spokesman said. Grabauskas did not respond to calls for comment on this story.
The board’s discussions over Grabauskas’ performance and his future have coincided with the rail’s most jarring budget crisis yet, as skyrocketing construction prices threaten to dramatically reduce the size, scope and functionality of the island’s transit system. The project now faces a deficit of at least $1.5 billion, according to the latest official estimates.
The board’s talks also follow its own shakeup in the past year, in which ardent Grabauskas supporters such as private attorney Ivan Lui Kwan, University of Hawaii General Counsel Carrie Okinaga and former First Hawaiian Bank Chairman Don Horner either left the board to pursue other opportunities or were pressured by city leaders to leave.
Hanabusa, a former congresswoman who replaced Horner to become HART board chairwoman in April, along with her board ally Mike Formby, have publicly criticized Grabauskas in recent months for failing to provide the rail budget details they’ve requested and not consulting the board on significant project decisions.
“I don’t believe we should have to fight to get information from staff when you have it,” Formby, who serves as Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s Transportation Services Department director, fumed at the board’s April 21 meeting. “We look like potted plants when we don’t have the opportunities to ask questions and make decisions.”
Hanabusa, meanwhile, has said she was “very disturbed” by Grabauskas’ reaction to a city audit released this spring that criticized HART for relying on outdated financial figures, among other issues. Grabauskas held a news conference the day before the audit’s release to denounce many of its findings and question City Auditor Edwin Young’s credibility. He indicated the audit’s release in the spring instead of the summer was politically motivated.
“I did ask him, ‘By what right do you speak for HART?’ Because everyone attributes that to us,” Hanabusa said in April.
The two board leaders also have taken a more assertive role handling media and outreach, leading the sort of press briefings that Grabauskas typically used to handle.
It’s a sharp change from the marks Grabauskas got during his first couple of years on the project, before rail faced overwhelming budget hardships. For his first yearly evaluation, in spring 2013, the board unanimously praised the new director for “exceeding expectations” with his leadership.
The board in 2013 said it was impressed with Grabauskas’ communications skills, plus how he had improved HART’s relationships with the city administration and rail stakeholders such as Native Hawaiian groups concerned with how the project might impact iwi kupuna, or buried ancestral remains. That year, after discussing Grabauskas’ job performance for about an hour and a half in closed session, Formby made the motion to award the new executive director his first $35,000 bonus.
Grabauskas received the same-size bonus in 2014.
In 2015 he asked the board not to consider his bonus, as rail faced its first major budget crisis. Board members honored the request, with members such as Okinaga and Keslie Hui expressing their continued confidence in Grabauskas’ leadership. Former state Senate President Bobby Bunda went further and said they should give Grabauskas the bonus. The board members, Bunda said, should not be “wimps” and should “support (the) CEO because he’s done an excellent job.”
All three have since left the board.
The mayor, who faces re-election this year, recently criticized Grabauskas for not communicating to the public the steep financial obstacles that rail now faces. In April City Council Chairman Ernie Martin, who at the time was considering a run against Caldwell for mayor, called on Grabauskas to resign.
Grabauskas, who’s in the second year of a three-year contract and earns $299,250 a year, said in response to Martin’s call that he would take the matter up with the board during his annual evaluation. His contract includes a severance payment equal to his base salary of $257,250.
“This is my home. I’ve put down roots now over the last four years,” Grabauskas said in April. “I love Hawaii. I’d like to stay here, and I’d like to see this project through.”
The agenda for today’s meeting contains legal language that has not appeared on any prior agendas in which the board discussed Grabauskas’ evaluation.
It states that the board can go into closed session “to consider the hire, evaluation, dismissal, or discipline of an officer or employee or of charges brought against the officer or employee, where consideration of matters affecting privacy will be involved.”
In prior meetings dating to 2013 in which the board weighed Grabauskas’ job performance, the agendas merely said the board could enter executive session “to consider the Annual Evaluation of the Executive Director/CEO where consideration of matters affecting privacy will be involved. … ”
HART spokesman Bill Brennan said that the state Office of Information Practices recommended to rail agency officials that they make the change to be more specific.
Grabauskas’ latest review also comes as the 10-member volunteer board aims to assert more control over the runaway costs of the project and provide more scrutiny to HART’s actions.
“Our members, many of them are saying that people are accusing them of not knowing what they’re doing. … We don’t vote on everything. We only vote on certain things,” Hanabusa said in a May interview. “HART is not a rubber-stamp board, which is what I think people viewed us (as) in the past.”
Hanabusa is expected to leave the board soon to devote her full efforts to her campaign to reclaim her congressional seat.