City lawyers told the leaders of the council Transportation Committee what questions not to ask on a rail fact-finding mission to San Francisco, Los Angeles and Copenhagen, committee vice chair Ernie Martin told Civil Beat.

Martin on Thursday declined to talk about what they were told not to ask or to give specifics about his conversations with officials in San Francisco and Los Angeles about Ansaldo Honolulu, the company city officials picked for a $1.1 billion rail contract.

“You understand that the process is under protest right now,” Martin said. “We were cautioned to be very careful in terms of the types of questions we could ask.”

Honolulu Mayor Peter Carlisle announced the city wanted to award the Design, Build, Operate and Maintain contract to Italian rail manufacturer Ansaldo Honolulu in March. The two companies that lost their bids for that contract are both challenging the decision, and calling into question the city’s procurement process.

As officials are reviewing the protests, the city is also planning to request approval from the City Council for more money and legal assistance to fight rail-related lawsuits.

Martin and City Council Transportation Chairman Breene Harimoto planned the trip to cities familiar with the Italian rail manufacturer amid concerns about the decision, including reports from other cities about problems with Ansaldo.

Martin acknowledged leaders from cities that have dealt with Ansaldo offered him advice about working with the company, but he wouldn’t disclose what that advice was.

“If you watch my hearings, you know that I ask very pointed questions, and I’m very thorough in my inquiry,” Martin said. “We did speak to officials in San Francisco and Los Angeles concerning their own experiences developing transit,” Martin said. “The benefit was they also had experiences with Ansaldo… They shared their insights with regard to the process itself, and also shared some information as to things Honolulu should be on the look-out for, primarily things that we should consider if in fact the city does go forward and does enter into a contract with Ansaldo.”

Martin and Harimoto split up after a joint trip to San Francisco. Martin went on to Los Angeles while Harimoto traveled to Copenhagen.

Harimoto wrote in an email to Civil Beat that he and Martin had “some great meetings in San Francisco,” and that he would provide a report when he returns to Honolulu next week. Martin also said he would share “just my own observations” in that report.

Martin said the trip was “worthwhile” and “beneficial,” and said he particularly appreciated learning about other cities’ experiences with transit-oriented development.

Asked how he would answer constituents concerned that City Council members didn’t ask the necessary questions on their behalf, Martin said it’s ultimately up to council members — not city lawyers — to decide what to ask.

“The council has no prerogative over this issue of contracts,” Martin said. “There’s not much influence other than for us to be very cognizant that as this project moves forward, that we do — based on the information we have — have the constituents’ best interest at heart.”

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