A new era has arrived for Honolulu’s $6.6 billion rail transit project and voluntary government service.

The resignation of embattled Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation Board Chairman Don Horner has changed the leadership dynamic of the project overnight. Observers and the media were quick to point out that Horner was a scapegoat in a political battle between elected officials over the project’s rising price tag. I disagree with this analysis.

The domino effect that resulted in Horner’s early departure from government service was inevitable. Many lessons can be learned from this that can help elected officials and future board appointees understand what it takes to serve the public on a voluntary basis.

Don Horner at a HART board meeting in Kapolei.
Don Horner at a HART board meeting in Kapolei. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Observers who expressed sympathy over Don Horner’s departure from the HART board seemed to have forgotten he has been involved in the project since the beginning. In 2009, former Mayor Mufi Hannemann tapped Horner to be part of an independent task force and the Hawaii Business Roundtable to evaluate the rail project’s cost. In a 2010 briefing, Horner reported very positive projections of the project’s cost that had a $5 billion price tag at the time and said that GET would only need to be extended by “two years” under the worst-case scenario.

Horner should not face the entire blame for the wrong projections and the rising costs. However, Horner needed to leave since, unlike elected office holders, he has been the point person to overlook the project’s financial viability from the start.

There is no question that Horner is a skilled bank executive with many years of experience from the private sector. He had good intentions to serve the public by accepting influential appointments to the HART Board and the state Board of Education (BOE).

The problem was that Horner continued to conduct himself like a business executive and failed to adjust his style in his capacity as a public servant.

In a piece that was published on Civil Beat last December, I expressed my frustration at Horner’s leadership during his time as chairman of the BOE and HART boards.

As chairman of the BOE, Horner made efficiency during board meetings a priority. Horner’s “efficiency model” came at the expense of public testimony, which was limited to just two minutes per person, and public meetings, which were eliminated during evening hours. The education community scolded Horner during his reconfirmation hearing in April 2014 for not embracing the public during board meetings. Horner promised to make changes and was reconfirmed unanimously.

The Need To Embrace Transparency, Accept Accountability

The warnings obviously fell on deaf ears as Horner did not make any readjustments. Fortunately, the chairperson who succeeded Horner has made efforts to embrace public inclusion.

Horner is correct in his letter to City Council Chair Ernie Martin that his “voting record and conduct as a Board member are a matter of public record and support the fact that I have fully performed my fiduciary Board responsibilities.” However, Horner’s conduct outside of public meetings reflected his lack of transparency and deep focus in the political process.

During a private executive session, Horner suggested to HART board members that the Hawaii state Legislature would be more likely to pass the GET tax extension in exchange for allowing the state to retain a higher portion of its administrative surcharge.

Also, public records show that Horner is a generous contributor to many political campaigns.

These actions contradict the intention of creating HART — an independent body free of political pressures. Horner engaged in political activity which ended up backfiring on him.

It is alarming that Horner described himself as a “messenger of unpleasant news” in his resignation letter.

Horner was a strong advocate of extending the GET to cover the rail project’s increasing costs and made assurances that the increased revenue would be enough. A month after the extension was signed, his quick reversal at a City Council meeting to report that additional revenue may be needed reflected poorly on him.

It is expected that HART board members are keeping the agency responsible for building the rail project accountable. Instead, it appears that Horner deferred the responsibility of oversight to elected officials.

Horner is correct in his letter to Council Chair Martin that there is a difference between a “projection” and a “promise.” However, incorrect projections do not go over well when the public is frustrated over constant delays and cost overruns.

It is unsurprising that Horner’s consistent lack of upfront communication caused the City Council, the mayor and the public to lose confidence in him.

The public demands that all potential financial scenarios be communicated up front regardless of the circumstances. Information impacting taxpayer dollars should not be obscured by optimistic figures.

It is unsurprising that Horner’s consistent lack of upfront communication caused the City Council, the mayor and the public to lose confidence in him.

Future appointees on any public board should understand the fine points of serving under the scrutiny of the public. Hopefully, elected officials will make sure that future board appointees embrace transparency and accept that they will be held accountable by the public.

On a side note, it may be in the best interests for appointees to not accept appointments to multiple boards and to focus their talents to just one area in public service.

Horner should be wished the best on his future endeavors. Besides serving on several private non-profit boards, Horner is working to build a Denny’s Restaurant on an undeveloped parcel in Waikiki.

It is about time that public transparency and upfront accountability is made a top priority. Regardless of any board member’s experience prior to serving on a public board, they need to be prepared to adjust their actions to show openness to the public’s concerns as well as taking responsibility to find good solutions to real problems.

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About the Author

  • Kendrick Chang
    Kendrick Chang is a senior at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. and grew up in East Oahu. At GWU, he is a political communication major in the School of Media and Public Affairs and president of the Hawaii Club. He is also a youth advisor for the Livable Hawaii Kai Hui and a member of the Save Ka Iwi Coalition and the Hawaii Kai Lions Club.