The controversy over who has direct oversight of Honolulu’s new rail agency came to a head on Tuesday, with Honolulu City Council members and Mayor Peter Carlisle’s administration threatening to sue each other.

The threats were prompted by a memo Honolulu Managing Director Doug Chin sent to the council.

“I think the administration fired this first shot with this memo,” said City Council member Ikaika Anderson. “I see it as a threat.”

The issue bubbled over in a civil but somewhat tense special Budget Committee meeting. That same day, Chin sent a letter again challenging the authority the council had asserted when it advanced the new rail agency’s budget last week.

Chin testified that the “whole point” of establishing a transit agency was to give oversight of rail to a longterm board of directors who would be “not simply affected by elections or constituents… not that there’s anything wrong with that.”

Tensions Ratcheting Up

For months, the Carlisle administration has argued that the City Council does not have the authority to approve or amend the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation’s budget for next year.

The administration is now arguing that the council initially outlined its control of the HART budgets in earlier versions of the charter question voters approved — but gave up that oversight before the question reached voters.

“If you look at earlier versions of the charter amendment, they explicitly had council approving the budget,” said Transportation Services Director Wayne Yoshioka. “Whereas, as the thing moved forward, that provision was taken out of the budget.”

But the charter question that led to HART’s creation, which voters approved in November 2010, appears to contradict the administration’s claims:

“The authority shall submit a line-item appropriation request for each of its proposed operating and capital budgets for the ensuing fiscal year to the council through the office of the mayor by December 1st of each year. The office of the mayor shall submit the authority’s line-item appropriation requests without alteration or amendment. The council shall, with or without amendments, approve the authority’s appropriation requests.”

Despite the fact that the above language was what appeared before voters in November, Chin argued in his May 17 letter to the council that, “in the end, Council and the voters gave to HART the authority to review, modify as necessary, and adopt the annual operating and capital budgets.”

Chin, like Yoshioka, says he made that determination by looking over previous versions of the charter question that council members ultimately adopted:

“Council chose language that can only be interpreted in light of its history as relinquishing control over the transit funds in favor of HART semi-autonomy, and retaining the power to approve with or without amendments HART appropriation requests, if any, from the city general fund.”

Read the full letter Chin sent to City Council members:

Asked by Anderson to explain some of what was in that letter, Chin said he didn’t want to go through the letter “word for word.”

“I think the better way to go about doing this is simply to go back to the intent of what the mayor’s message was,” Chin said. “I think the basic message from the mayor was that the transit fund monies were going to be taken out of the hands of elected officials, including the mayor and the council, and going into the hands of (HART).”

City Council member Ann Kobayashi told Yoshioka that the council may have to seek another legal opinion, to protect the council’s interests.

“Not to have legislative approval of the spending, it’s just unheard of,” Kobayashi said. “There’s a question of transparency, and why is it that there would be this opposition?”

Council To Administration: We Can Speak For Ourselves

Responding to Kobayashi, Yoshioka again tried to challenge the council on what it believed its role would be when it passed the charter question. He suggested they were once OK with relinquishing control of the budget, but now have “second thoughts.”

Then, Budget Chairman Ernie Martin stepped in.

“It behooves the administration to not testify as to what the council’s intent was or is,” Martin said sternly. “I would ask that you refrain from trying to interpret what the council’s intent was on this particular matter.”

Council member Anderson said he was more than “taken aback” to hear the administration try to claim that the City Council didn’t believe all along that it would have the right to approve the HART budget.

“I was on the council at that time,” Anderson said. “I know what I was voting for. Mayor Carlisle, hear me clearly. Hear me clearly! This is not a newly claimed ability from this council.”

Yoshioka emphasized that the administration was willing to keep an open mind about the council’s role, and said it is not taking a “hard line” against them.

But City Council member Romy Cachola rejected that characterization. He said he and other council members received communications from the mayor threatening to veto the council’s versions of the HART budgets.

“That’s a hard line!” Cachola said.

Chin acknowledged that the mayor and the City Council are at odds, but said he’s hopeful that they can reach common ground before HART is officially formed on July 1.

“We understand and respect the fact that the council has the right to vote with their conscience, their memory and their understanding what the charter is saying,” Chin said. “I actually feel optimistic that we’re going to reach some resolution. … I think all of us want to be able to give the transit authority a good start. We still have a couple of weeks.”

But Chin also alluded to the administration’s willingness to sue the City Council to get its way, adding “we would want to do everything we could to avoid that.”

“I don’t think there would be anything wrong with a very civil — I don’t want to say lawsuit — but something that’s teed up before a judge,” Chin said. “If it goes there, ultimately it will be a judge who decides.”
While Chin bristled at the use of words like “lawsuit” and “sue,” Budget Committee Chairman Ernie Martin, a lawyer, was frank in his response to the dispute.

“I’m of the opinion that we’re heading to litigation,” Martin told his fellow council members. “You can explain your way out of it all you want, but that’s where you’re headed.”

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