In 2017, state leaders touted the extra scrutiny that would come from adding four seats to the Honolulu rail board as part of the troubled transit project’s $2.4 billion bailout package.
Two years on, however, those state board members have largely stopped showing up. Amid languishing vacancies and dismal attendance, they haven’t offered much scrutiny or oversight during Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation meetings this year.
Only one state appointee — Michele Brunngraber — has attended a HART board meeting since February, agency records show.
Two other seats have been vacant for more than eight months. Senate officials say it’s been a challenge filling them.
The fourth seat’s appointee, Kamani Kuala‘au, formally resigned last week on the same day Civil Beat reached out about his status on the board. Kuala‘au had not attended a meeting since January, although he did attend a rail site tour in March, HART officials say.
Meanwhile, adding those non-voting seats has at times compromised the local, volunteer rail board’s already daunting task to oversee Oahu’s complex rail project. The estimated completion date is about seven years behind schedule and its original price tag has ballooned to $9.2 billion.
“It just makes it a little difficult to conduct business,” said Glenn Nohara, a retired construction executive on the HART board. “When they’re there, they actually have good input.”
Under state rules on public meetings, eight of the board’s nine voting members must now vote “yes” for an item to pass. Eight members must also attend to reach quorum, which can be tough with three state seats vacant.
Some key items have failed to pass due to a single “no” vote. In other cases, the board can’t vote when a member leaves early.
Perhaps the most significant hiccup occurred in 2018 when a deal with Hawaiian Electric Co. to save approximately $130 million in added costs was initially struck down after one HART board member, John Henry Felix, voted “no.” Another voting member, Nohara, was absent, so the board lacked the minimum eight votes to approve.
The board managed to salvage the deal at its next meeting.
“That was a big one,” Nohara recalled last week.
Despite all the scheduling and voting issues, it’s still worth having state-appointed representatives on the rail board to lend more input and scrutiny, House Speaker Scott Saiki said Monday.
“They’re all independent people. They all come in with backgrounds that relate to the rail project. They were willing to learn along the way. They asked HART a lot of hard questions.”
Under the 2017 rail bailout bill, two state board members are appointed by the House and two by the Senate. Their presence would “bring accountability to the most expensive public works project in Hawaii history,” a 2017 press release stated.
“I tell people half-joking that our appointees were more qualified than some of the voting members on the board,” Saiki said Monday.
One of Saiki’s original 2017 appointees, Tobias Martyn, actually became a full-fledged voting member when a seat opened up. House leaders then replaced Martyn with Brunngraber. The former CIA senior executive intelligence officer regularly attends meetings and is one of the board’s more inquisitive members, despite not voting.
“You look at Michele — because of her background in federal government contracts, electrical engineering — she brings a lot to the table,” Nohara said.
Now, she’s the state’s only member.
It’s tough to find volunteers willing to make such a large commitment on such a complex project, Saiki said.
Saiki said he wasn’t aware that Kuala‘au had not been to a meeting since January, but Kuala‘au had told him he found it difficult to fit the sessions into his schedule.
“My other commitments have become too great for me to be able to fulfill the requirements of my position on the Board,” Kuala’au told Saiki in his Aug. 6 resignation letter. “I feel it is best for me to make room for someone who has the necessary availability.”
The Senate’s two HART seats have been vacant for more than eight months. “These are actually difficult positions to fill,” Richard Rapoza, the Senate’s communications director, said Monday.
It’s been tough finding people who are both interested and qualified, but “we are actively working on it,” Rapoza added.
Kalbert Young used to occupy one of those seats.
“Frankly, I had wanted to be on the HART board for a long time. When the Senate President appointed me I was actually happy to provide service,” said Young, University of Hawaii’s vice president and chief financial officer.
Young had to resign from the HART board in December, he said, when the responsibility to negotiate UH-owned land arrangements with the rail agency was moved to his job duties, presenting a conflict.
“Yeah, it was a lot of time. It was difficult and took a lot of commitment to attend HART meetings,” but it was worthwhile, Young said Monday.
He had not heard that his former seat was still vacant.
Neither Kuala’au nor another member to resign, former state budget director Wes Machida, could be reached for comment.
(Update: Machida reached out Tuesday to say he had to resign from the board in November for family reasons.)
HART did try to clean up the procedural problems caused by the state board seats with a proposed charter amendment last year.
Honolulu voters shot that proposal down, however.
Some observers, including Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell, criticized HART for not doing enough to educate voters on what the proposal’s language meant ahead of time.
The Honolulu City Council arguably didn’t help things when it inserted additional language into the already complicated proposal, calling on voters to add an additional Council-appointed board member.
To Saiki, however, voters’ rejection of the proposal showed they’re not concerned with how the state’s added board seats affect HART.
The rail agency has had difficulty replacing its voting members, as well. Damien Kim, who’s chaired the board since 2016, announced his departure earlier this summer. He’s been trying to leave ever since but the City Council still hasn’t announced a replacement for him. He’s stayed on to help the board make quorum.
His replacement won’t come this month.
The Aug. 29 meeting was canceled. The board wouldn’t have a quorum for that date, rail officials say.
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