In passing the rail bailout bill in September 2017, the Hawaii Legislature gave Honolulu’s multibillion-dollar rail project a new, if expensive, lease on life.
It extended Oahu’s general excise tax surcharge another three years and raised the hotel and timeshares tax 1% through the year 2030. The state’s 10% administrative fee, or skim, on the GET was slashed to 1%.
What citizens were supposed to get out of this deal was “accountability for hard-earned taxpayer money,” as Finance Committee Chair Sylvia Luke put it. Understandably frustrated with Mayor Kirk Caldwell and HART leaders and a project that is way over budget and behind schedule, state leaders wanted greater control over what remains a county enterprise.
Receiving little attention at the time was a short section beginning at the bottom of page 30 of the 33-page bill that required legislative leadership to appoint four nonvoting members to the board to keep a close eye on the taxpayer’s hard-earned money.
But as Civil Beat reported last week, only one state appointee has attended a HART board meeting since February, while two other seats have been vacant all year long. The fourth appointee quit soon after our reporter called to ask why the board member had not attended a meeting since January.
Those no-shows raise critical questions about the Legislature’s oversight of rail and HART’s effectiveness.
The HART board sometimes struggles to reach quorum on essential votes. While the four new positions are not permitted to vote, the new total of 14 board members means eight of nine voting members must vote yes to take any action.
A Honolulu charter amendment question in November gave voters the chance to make it easier for the HART board to reach quorum — only six members would be required, and only a majority of the voting members would be needed to take action. A 10th voting member, to be appointed by the City Council, would bring the total membership to 15.
But voters said no, even though the charter question was reasonable and necessary because of the new state law.
The problem now lies at the feet of lawmakers — and they need to fix what has clearly become a problem for HART.
For starters, House and Senate leaders should make their appointees show up for work or find people who will.
Yes, it’s an unpaid and unpopular job continually under public scrutiny but that defines a lot of public service. If the state-appointed board members can’t handle it, they are the wrong ones for the job.
The current issues facing HART — technical woes for the rail line, more turnover of key HART personnel, an ongoing federal investigation, the scheduled opening of part of the train in late 2020 and big decisions on what to do with the route’s final four miles through town — make having critical eyes on the agency more important than ever.
The Legislature was right for insisting on state oversight over a rail board that often acted in virtual secrecy. Now, they need to get serious about making it happen.
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The members of Civil Beat’s editorial board are Pierre Omidyar, Patti Epler, Jim Simon, Richard Wiens, Chad Blair, John Hill and Jessica Terrell. Opinions expressed by the editorial board reflect the group’s consensus view. Chad Blair, the Politics and Opinion Editor, can be reached at email@example.com.