After weeks of escalating tension between Honolulu City Council members and the administration of Mayor Peter Carlisle, the council went public with a flood of concerns about the city’s $5.5 billion rail project Wednesday.

City Council members took more than six hours to air grievances to Honolulu Managing Director Doug Chin and and several members of the Cabinet.

Throughout the marathon session, council members peppered administration officials with questions that ran the gamut from:

  • The mayor’s characterization of how much two rail contracts announced last week would cost the city
  • The extent to which potential cost overruns would burden taxpayers
  • Allegations that the administration is deliberately eroding the City Council’s oversight of a new transit agency
  • How the new transit agency will be able to approve its budget on the same day it’s officially created
  • Who drafted the transit agency’s budget, and what level of scrutiny it received from city officials outside of the Rapid Transit Division
  • The extent to which the city examined the track record of the Italian rail car manufacturer the city plans to pay more than $1 billion for “core systems”
  • The administration’s transparency and forthrightness about the project
  • The qualifications of those who evaluated recent proposals for rail contracts
  • The heavier redaction of financial documents submitted by Ansaldo Honolulu, as compared to the two other firms that submitted bids
  • Concerns about locally-promised rail jobs going to out-of-state manufacturers

Eight City Council members were present — only City Council Chairman Nestor Garcia was absent — and each participated in long, thorough and often fiery lines of questioning.

The naturally adversarial role between the city’s legislative and executive branches has ratcheted up since February, when some City Council members returned from a trip to Washington, D.C., with fresh concerns about the administration’s transparency about rail.

One of the council’s strongest rail supporters, City Council Transportation Chairman Breene Harimoto, revealed to Civil Beat last week that his severe worries about the administration’s handling of the project threatened his ability to continue backing it.

On Wednesday morning, he told Civil Beat a subsequent meeting with the mayor produced “no agreement.” In the Transportation Committee meeting he led Wednesday, Harimoto gave his colleagues as much time as they wanted to ask pointed and complex questions about the project.

Cabinet members offered many detailed answers, but there were also many instances in which council members were told that exact figures could not be recalled, information requested wasn’t on hand, or legal counsel recommended it not be disclosed.

“My concern is that by the time the process is over, it’s too late,” said City Council member Tulsi Gabbard Tamayo when told she couldn’t get details about a rail contract that would cost the city more than $1 billion. “We would then be asking questions in retrospect about something that is signed and sealed.”

When chief rail planner Toru Hamayasu stayed mum on Gabbard Tamayo’s inquiries, she went after him: “Do you have something to say, Toru?”

In this case, Hamayasu sent up a city lawyer to speak on his behalf.

Later, Gabbard Tamayo was more direct.

“I feel like Toru should say something,” she said. “I’m not comfortable with silence.”

There were many moments of frustration from both council members and Cabinet members, who sometimes interrupted one another and raised their voices.

At one point, Harimoto called a recess and requested a private meeting with Chin after he and others spoke out against the managing director for a lack of transparency about the mayor’s position on an aspect of the city’s new semi-autonomous transit authority.

At the time, Chin had declined to elaborate, saying he didn’t want to “just say it on Olelo,” referring to the community access television broadcast that provides the only direct window into city government for some Oahu residents.

Asked later about the comment, Chin told Civil Beat he didn’t intend to dismiss the importance of public access to government proceedings.

“My genuine concern is that a lot of people’s fears get stirred up when we talk about the project,” Chin said. “And rightfully so, because it’s such an expensive project, and we’re going through difficult economic times. But this could be something that really changes us in a positive way. I want to make sure we’re doing everything we can to get that message out because I think sometimes it can get lost.”

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