Oahu voters resoundingly rejected a proposed charter amendment that would have made it easier for the Honolulu rail authority to conduct its business, and one member of the rail board says the election loss was a sign that there is “no public trust in our organization.”
Former Honolulu Managing Director Ember Shinn is demanding that the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation provide a communications plan and “metrics” to measure whether the communication plan is working. Shinn said she made the same requests last year but never saw a plan.
“It is not enough — I repeat, not enough — for us to go to fairs and festivals and have ‘Meet the Train Days’ and stuff like that. And I don’t care about numbers of people who attend; I want metrics that show results, because we are not getting the message out,” Shinn told HART staff and her fellow board members earlier this month.
“And I cannot stress too much how important this is, especially in light of the charter amendment’s failure, because that shows that there is no public trust in our organization, and I’m very upset about that,” she said. She told HART staff at the board’s Nov. 15 meeting, “You don’t have to respond; you just have to do it.”
Shinn, who has served on the HART board since last year, noted the HART budget included $775,000 to hire consultants this fiscal year and the same amount for next year, mostly to fund public outreach and community updates.
“If you’re going to ask for the same amount of money — and I’m not saying it’s not justified — I’m just saying we need a plan,” Shinn told HART staff at the board meeting.
The proposed charter amendment on the Nov. 6 ballot had asked voters, among other things, to specify that fewer HART board members be needed to constitute a quorum and that an affirmative vote of a majority of voting members on the board be necessary to take action.
The proposed charter amendment was important because at times there have been too few voting board members at HART board meetings to take any action. HART board members are volunteers and are not paid for their work on the board.
The charter question was supposed to solve that problem by reducing to six from eight the number of voting members required to meet and vote on rail issues, a step that would have made it easier for the board to get a quorum and conduct business.
The proposed charter amendment was defeated by a large margin, with 138,626 “no” votes to 98,499 “yes” votes. HART Board Chairman Damien Kim has said he was not surprised the amendment failed, partly because HART was late in putting out television and radio announcements explaining the issue.
The voters’ rejection of that proposed charter amendment could cause additional delays or costs for the rail project if board action on critical matters, such as condemnation or change orders, is delayed, Kim has said.
HART Executive Director Andrew Robbins said HART will adjust its meeting procedures and learn to live with the current quorum requirement. Robbins and other HART staff said they believe some people voted against the charter amendment because it was complicated and confusing, and many voters didn’t understand it.
Robbins told the board he recently joined in a call-in radio show to discuss the $9 billion rail project, and acknowledged some people still have basic questions about the project such as where the 20-mile rail line will go.
As for the public information outreach effort, Robbins said, “Certainly, I’ll take the responsibility on the behalf of the HART staff that we need to do a much better job of informing the board and the public on what our plan is and what the methods are.” A presentation on the subject will most likely be ready for the board to review in January, he said.
“I do want to assure you that we do have a robust public information program,” Robbins told the board. “What we’re finding is with the everyday person we do encounter a lot of support for this project, whether it’s people that were in favor of the rail project from the get-go or people that just really at this point want to see it finished and put into operation.”
The city will need to step up its public outreach efforts as construction moves into the urban core, which will affect many more businesses and residents, Robbins said.
Shinn said in an interview she has had “many conversations” with HART Director of Communications Bill Brennan detailing her concerns about HART’s efforts to communicate with the public about rail.
“I think that we’re not getting the message out,” she said. “Although they are very active in going to community events and fairs and festivals and things like that, just telling me, ‘Oh there were 5,000 people that stopped by the booth’ doesn’t mean anything to me.”
Better system wanted
Shinn said she wants a system in place that measures how successful the communications efforts are, perhaps using a method such as polling people about their opinions on rail before and after they view a rail presentation.
Brennan said Shinn’s comments “are not based in fact at all. That’s not what we observe. We observe that the message is getting out.” In particular, when it comes to the benefits that rail will provide to the community, “those messages are definitely getting out,” he said.
Brennan said the $775,000 budget item to cover the cost of public outreach is only 3 percent of the overall HART budget. In addition to that funding, HART has a staff of six people who handle communications and outreach, he said.
The $775,000 includes funding for trade shows, “train community days,” construction and community updates, business outreach and other activities, according to information provided by HART.
Robbins said HART does not do “public relations,” but the rail authority must provide public information and do outreach because the federal government demands that HART keep the public informed. “We have to do it. It’s not really an option,” he said.