Honolulu City Council members say they feel blindsided by what they see as an attempt by the Carlisle administration to remove their authority over the budget of the new agency in charge of rail.

Civil Beat learned of the dispute Thursday, after the council went into executive session during a rail briefing to discuss a legal issue.

The issue discussed behind closed doors was the council’s oversight of the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transit’s budget.

City Council members said the 48-minute executive session did not produce a resolution to the question. The fact that the issue required any discussion at all caught council members off guard because the charter amendment approved by voters in November creating the authority explicitly described the council’s role when it comes to HART’s budget.

The amendment read in part:

“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 request.”

Asked who will be responsible for approving HART’s budget, Mayor Peter Carlisle referred Civil Beat to the city’s lead attorney. Corporation Counsel Carrie Okinaga did not return a Thursday evening voicemail request for comment.

The meeting began with an admission by Honolulu Managing Director Doug Chin that the administration had failed to communicate adequately with the council. Chin told Budget Committee members that thorough communication with the City Council fell by the wayside amid the rail groundbreaking, the city’s receipt of a Record of Decision from the Federal Transit Administration, and other milestones for the city’s rail project.

“What might have been left behind in all of this is an emphasis on communications and I want to take responsibility for that,” Chin said. “I want to emphasize that I understand that everyone here cares very much about the City and County of Honolulu. You as a collective body really represent your constituents, and it’s very important and incumbent on our part to make sure we’re communicating.”

Before testimony from the city’s chief rail planner, Okinaga requested an executive session. When council members returned, they heard from Toru Hamayasu about HART’s proposed $21 million operating budget and $355 million capital budget for next year.

After the presentation, council members peppered him with a slew of questions about rail finances, but the council’s authority over HART’s budget wasn’t discussed.

Council member Ikaika Anderson said he has “no idea” what will happen, or how the council will reach an agreement.

“We can’t question HART because there is no HART,” Anderson said. “We have this phantom entity, or at least for now it’s a phantom entity.”

The agency will officially begin work July 1 with the transfer of dozens of workers from the city’s Rapid Transit Division. HART’s 10-person volunteer board will include three members appointed by the City Council.

But Anderson said the council was led to believe it would have more involvement than merely appointing board members.

“It’s darn concerning,” Anderson said. “It’s absolutely concerning. I wholeheartedly believe it was this council’s intent that we have the ability to approve HART’s budget, or not.”

Council member Ann Kobayashi said Carlisle effectively removed council control by opting not to include HART’s budget in his spending plan for next year.

“He’s taken it out of the budget,” Kobayashi said. “I’m surprised that he would do that.”

Council Vice Chair Breene Harimoto, who chairs the Transportation and Transit Planning Committee, said it’s clear to him that the council should have final approval of HART’s budget.

“Personally, that’s the way I read it, but I’m not an attorney,” Harimoto said. “The discussions with the administration need to continue.”

At the conclusion of the HART briefing, Harimoto made a point of saying he would next month schedule a special hearing to comb through the financial plan for the $5.5 billion rail project.

“We will take all day, all night, all the next day if necessary, to fully vet that plan,” Harimoto said. “A full discussion of all contingencies should revenue fall short… This is what the public has been demanding. This is what the council has been demanding, so we are going to schedule that in April.”

The planned meeting is a sign of the council’s growing frustration with what City Council Chairman Nestor Garcia characterized as “a lot” of new concerns about the administration’s transparency.

“It’s out of control,” Kobayashi said. “It’s frightening because it’s out of control. They could just spend, spend, spend, spend, spend. There was never any mention of the City Council not approving their budget. I guess we thought it was a given.”

The council is left wondering: If it doesn’t approve HART’s budget, who will?

“We’re the one who have approved the whole thing all along,” Kobayashi said. “We’re responsible. I don’t know how it will be decided. They keep referring to the charter question, but there’s a difference between the charter question and what is actually happening.”

DISCUSSION Who should decide how much HART is allowed to spend? Join the conversation about rail in Honolulu.

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