Former Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa was named Thursday chairwoman of the board for the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation, a semi-autonomous city agency in charge of building Honolulu’s $6.6 billion, 20-mile rail line.

Hanabusa takes on the role at a critical time for the project, which was previously estimated to cost $5.3 billion.

The largest public infrastructure undertaking in Hawaii’s history has been plagued by delays and soaring costs. A recent city audit lambasted HART for poor financial management and a lack of transparency.

HART Chair Colleen Hanabusa. 21 april 2016
Colleen Hanabusa said Thursday there should be more accountability in Honolulu’s rail project. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Mayor Kirk Caldwell praised Hanabusa on Thursday, describing her as “a woman who does not shrink from any challenge.”

Hanabusa said the decision to become chair of the board “did not come easily.”

“I am doing it because I feel like the board needs to be very accountable to the public,” she said. “What this is all about is the public’s trust and moving the project forward together.”

Colbert Matsumoto, executive chairman of Island Insurance, joined the board Thursday. He replaced Don Horner, the board’s former chairman, who resigned April 11.

Caldwell thanked board members for their service during Thursday’s meeting, but lectured them about the importance of transparency.

“The harsh fact is we’ve got to keep the people in the loop and not leave anyone in the dark,” he said, noting that telling the truth can be difficult politically. “The pattern of trying to shade things, the working style of maybe not sharing information with the entire board, absolutely has to stop from this point on.”

HART Board member Colbert Matsumoto sworn in. 21 april 2016.
Colbert Matsumoto is sworn in as the newest HART board member Thursday. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The HART board and its committees met for about eight consecutive hours Thursday. Several times, board members criticized HART staff members for poor communication and questioned them about how expensive the rail project might become.

“I would like us to get to a point where as a board we’re receiving information on the budget on a continual basis,” city Department of Transportation Services Director Mike Formby said at one point. “I don’t believe we should have to fight to get information from staff if you should have it.”

Hanabusa said after the hearing that she was approached by both Caldwell and City Council Chairman Ernie Martin about taking on the role as HART’s board chairwoman.

She said one of the first things she will do in her new position is establish a group to evaluate HART’s rules and clarify the authority of the board, independent of the agency.

She also said she was disturbed by HART Executive Director Dan Grabauskas’ reaction to the recent critical rail audit. Grabauskas called a press conference before the audit was published and called it a “joke” and “a mess.”

“Just because you disagree is not the reason to throw a fit over it,” said Hanabusa, contending it wasn’t acceptable for Grabauskas to respond to the audit on behalf of HART without consulting the board.

Hanabusa said she intends to go through the audit’s findings and recommendations and figure out what the board needs to do. She was pleased with the lengthy discussion at Thursday’s meeting, saying it’s important the board members make their positions clear.

“The one thing we cannot be is deemed as a rubber stamp,” she said.

Executive Director’s Future Uncertain

The HART board also voted Thursday to extend the annual evaluation period for Grabauskas for two months.

Board member Damien Kim said the performance review includes “investigations into certain matters.”

Martin, who is considering running for mayor this year, sent a letter to Caldwell on April 7 calling for a change in HART’s leadership.

“It is clear that we need a leadership team capable of moving this multi-billion-dollar project forward, beyond its current level of project management proficiency and above its persistent financial uncertainty,” Martin wrote.

HART CEO Dan Grabauskas during finance mtg1. 21 april 2016.
HART Executive Director Dan Grabauskas is under fire for the rail project’s soaring costs and delays. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

While Horner resigned, Grabauskas hasn’t followed suit. He has served as executive director of HART since 2012, and is on a three-year contract that expires on April 8, 2017.

He receives an annual salary of $257,250, a monthly housing allowance of $3,000, and a monthly transportation allowance of $500.

His contract states he can be fired “for cause,” which includes “actions involving gross and deliberate malfeasance, gross negligence, repeated or willful failure to perform services satisfactorily hereunder or follow established policies of HART, or final conviction of a felony crime or crime of moral turpitude.”

If the board decides to remove him for any other reason before his contract is up, he’s entitled to a severance payment equal to a year’s salary.

Grabauskas received high marks in his last performance evaluation a year ago, but board members said he should improve his communication with the public and the board, as well as the project’s financial oversight and transparency.

The board is relying on lengthy criteria to evaluate Grabauskas’ performance, including but not limited to the need to contain the project’s costs.

Before coming to Hawaii, Grabauskas served as general manager of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority but was forced to resign in 2009 amid concerns about his fiscal management and handling of train safety concerns. He received a severance payment of $327,000.

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