The quorum difficulty was an unintentional consequence of the HART board being expanded from 10 to 14 members. The four additions are nonvoting members, but the new total of 14 means eight of nine voting members must now vote “yes” to take any action. Those eight votes represent a majority of the full board.
A deal with Hawaiian Electric Co. to save taxpayers $130 million on westside utility work along the rail line nearly failed this year because of the HART board’s stringent voting regulations.
Hawaiian Electric Co.
The Jan. 25 vote on the HECO deal was 7-1 — short by just one vote. The inflated quorum turned Felix’s lone dissent into a decisive one, catching everyone off guard. The board managed to salvage the deal a month later, when all nine voting members attended and they voted 8-1 to barely pass it.
On the general election ballot, voters are considering a Honolulu City Charter amendment that looks to change this situation, in which all rail actions require near unanimous approval. If the amendment passes, only a majority of the board’s voting members will have to vote “yes.”
It’s the city’s only proposed amendment this election, and it seems like a straight-forward fix. But Mayor Kirk Caldwell — the rail project’s most outspoken local advocate — is worried the amendment’s passage is in jeopardy.
Voters might confuse it with the recently invalidated constitutional amendment for property taxes, or the question of holding a constitutional convention, he added.
Caldwell expressed doubts Wednesday that HART had mounted a strong-enough outreach campaign to educate voters, despite his asking HART’s executive director, Andy Robbins, to make that effort.
“It’s too late at this point,” Caldwell said, with early voting already underway.
But HART spokesman Bill Brennan said the agency has a “pretty robust effort underway,” including outreach to neighborhood groups. Damien Kim, the board’s chairman, is planning to do television interviews in the days ahead.
If the charter amendment fails, the board will face at least two more years of burdensome quorum and voting hurdles during a pivotal time for the project.
A Bigger Board For Added Scrutiny
The board expansion took place under Act 1, the state’s latest, $ 2.4 billion package to rescue the transit project in 2017. Legislative leaders, looking to keep better tabs on rail, added a proviso where they could appoint four nonvoting members to the HART board.
The expansion also scrambled the board’s quorum and voting rules, making it more difficult for members to take action.
It also directly conflicted with the Honolulu City Charter, which states that the HART board can only have 10 seats.
John Henry Felix sometimes represents the dissenting vote on the HART board. Under the board’s expanded membership and its quorum rules, even a single “no” vote can prevent action.
Cory Lum/Civil Beat
The mayor and City Council each appoint three members. The city’s Department of Transportation Services Director and the state’s Department of Transportation Director also serve as voting members. Then, those eight members appoint a ninth voting member.
Finally, the city’s Department of Planning and Permitting director serves as a 10th, nonvoting member.
Last year, Caldwell questioned whether the board expansion was even legal. He suggested resolving the issue with a charter amendment.
“I think those nonvoting members have brought real value — it just caused quorum issues,” Caldwell said Wednesday. “We struggled with this. It really makes it less effective. I can’t believe the Legislature wanted to make it less effective.”
The charter amendment would also add a 10th voting member to be appointed by the City Council.
The board will have one more chance to approve that plan Nov. 15 — just five days before the FTA’s deadline to take that action. If that doesn’t happen, the city faces consequences from its federal partners, including the loss of millions of dollars to build the project.
Thoughts on this or any other story? Write a Letter to the Editor. Send to firstname.lastname@example.org and put Letter in the subject line. 200 words max. You need to use your name and city and include a contact phone for verification purposes.
You can also comment directly on this story by scrolling down a little further. Comments are subject to approval and we may not publish every one.
Sign up for our FREE morning newsletter and face each day more informed.
Our journalism needs your help.
While asking for your support is something we don’t like to do, the simple fact is that our reporters, our journalism, and our impact rely on it. Since lifting our paywall and becoming a nonprofit in mid-2016, our local newsroom has benefitted from a stream of charitable support from people who want our type of journalism to survive. People like you who understand that our work is essential to a better-informed community. If you value the work of our journalists, show us with your tax-deductible support.