The city has paid out nearly $5 million since 2005 on public outreach for its planned rail project, a city councilwoman revealed today.

Although the spending involved taxpayer dollars, the exact figure had been unclear, in part because the work was subcontracted out. The city’s Department of Transportation Services was criticized by the Honolulu City Council for a lack of transparency surrounding contractors and subcontractors hired for the planned $5.5 billion rail project.

Those complaints led to Civil Beat’s report last week on the city’s public outreach spending, No Public Accountability for Rail PR Contracts , which specifically looked at money spent since 2008, the year Honolulu voters approved steel-on-steel technology for the proposed rail project. Since 2008, 10 companies have been awarded nearly $2 million for public outreach contracts for the project.

The total spending was made clear Monday by City Councilwoman Ann Kobayashi, who had requested a list of all subcontractors hired by the three main companies contracted by the city to handle the preliminary engineering and draft environmental impact statement. Kobayashi also asked the city’s Transportation Department for copies of those contracts, which Civil Beat previously was told were not available for review. She received some of the contracts from the Transportation Department, and said she will eventually post them to the city’s website.

Kobayashi, a longtime rail critic who ran against Mufi Hannemann in 2008, held a press conference Monday afternoon to share some her findings. While the dollar amount for public outreach contracts has been tallied, Kobayashi said it is still unclear what the companies have produced for the money.

“I wanted to know what does public involvement and public outreach mean exactly,” said Kobayashi, who is a member of the council’s Budget Committee. “If we’re going to do rail, let’s do it right and let’s keep the public informed on what their money is being spent on. When the city issues contracts, they need to be monitored. It doesn’t seem there’s much monitoring going on with the rail contracts.”

A statement by the city administration issued in response to Kobayashi pointed out that “the City Auditor’s performance audit late last year of the rail project and related rail contracts showed that the oversight and management of the project have been sound.”

“We are respectful of the federal recommendation that government ‘establish early and continuous public involvement opportunities that provide timely information about transportation issues and decision-making processes to citizens,'” said the written statement from Toru Hamayasu, City Department of Transportation Services deputy director.

Officials have pointed out that the total represents a small percentage of the overall project budget. The Civil Beat investigation found that Honolulu appeared to spend less as a percentage of the EIS phase of the project than other similar cities, such as Denver and Seattle.

Fourteen companies were paid a total of $4.73 million since 2005 to handle work described by the city as covering community outreach, presentations and public information for the rail project. An additional $1.5 million was paid out to six companies for lobbying activities described as “government liaison” and “legislative advisor” work.

In a letter dated Sept. 6, Kobayashi asked City Transportation Director Wayne Yoshioka to hold a public meeting to respond to her inquiries and to explain in more detail the work being done by rail subcontractors.

“I am particularly concerned about the exorbitant levels of funds subcontracted for public and government relations totaling $6.26 million,” she wrote. “Does the rail transit project really need 14 PR firms to conduct public outreach, involvement and speakers bureaus?”

A copy of one of the public involvement subcontracts was made available by Kobayashi. A contract between Lychee Productions Inc., run by Laura Pennington of a Honolulu address, and PB Americas Inc. shows the Honolulu-based company was hired for $1.7 million in September 2007 to handle “public involvement” for the rail project. Part of that work included “preparing an ‘Idiot’ version of the EIS document” as a DVD, in addition to attending community meetings and co-producing monthly television spots to be aired on public access television, according to the contract.

Civil Beat reported that DVD cost $204,000 to make — $200,000 for scriptwriting and production, and $4,000 to mail the disk to 1,000 residents and organizations (which represent less than a half-percent of Oahu’s population) along potential rail routes. The disk contained a 22-minute video guide to the 400-page draft EIS, a PDF of the actual document, and two animated so-called “fly-overs” of the Salt Lake and airport routes.

Public outreach is a required component of the rail project. Because the project will be funded in part by $1.55 billion in federal monies, the city is required to go into the community to inform the public about the project.

Public transportation projects that receive funding through the Federal Transit Administration are required to create opportunities for “public participation” throughout the planning, design and build-out phases, according to FTA spokesman Paul Griffo. But the FTA doesn’t impose a spending requirement on such outreach efforts. The work typically includes such things as designing informational mailers and brochures, holding public informational meetings, hosting a website and collecting comments during the design and environmental review processes.

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