In January, local officials overseeing Honolulu rail were poised to deliver some rare good news for a transit project that’s been plagued by budget woes.

But a deal with Hawaiian Electric Co. to save taxpayers a reported $130 million on westside utility work hit a surprise snag when a lone rail board board member, John Henry Felix, voted “no.”

Under the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation current quorum rule, the lone “no” vote was enough to stall the HECO deal.

Now voters are being asked to change that rule.

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.

HART boardmember John Henry Felix. 27 oct 2016

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.

On Nov. 1, only seven voting members are expected to attend the latest HART board meeting. Thus, even if all seven vote “yes,” the board won’t have enough votes to approve the agency’s latest financial plan, as requested by the Federal Transit Administration.

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.

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