At least two Honolulu city council members want an outspoken rail critic to keep his spot on the board overseeing the beleaguered transit project.

Council members Augie Tulba and Heidi Tsuneyoshi plan to try to get the nine-member City Council to also support Joe Uno, a construction cost-estimator who has asked pointed questions during Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation board meetings and has also said that the rail line should stop at Middle Street.

The two held a press conference Wednesday with Uno and his supporters, who carried signs saying “Joe Uno for HART” and “Numero Uno.”

“Joe brings transparency, accountability,” Tulba said. “His expertise in safety as well as the financing of the rail brings a huge value. Joe wants to serve, and that’s the main reason why we are doing this. Because he has the heart and wants to serve.”

Joe Uno speaks to media during press conference held with Council member Tulba and Tsuneyoshi outside Honolulu Hale.
Two council members are trying to get Joe Uno to keep his spot on Honolulu’s rail board. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

City Council leaders are trying to replace Uno with filmmaker Anthony Aalto. Aalto’s nomination easily cleared a council committee hearing in July.

His nomination could make it to the full City Council as soon as next week. At that point, Tsuneyoshi, who represents the North Shore, plans to introduce a floor amendment to the council resolution that would replace Aalto’s name with Uno’s.

The chances that Uno may keep his spot on the board appear slim.

No other council members came forward to support Uno on Wednesday. A spokeswoman for Tulba’s office said after the press conference that council members aren’t allowed to discuss how they’ll vote outside of council meetings.

Update: In a written statement, Council Chair Tommy Waters said he stands by the Transportation Committee’s support of Aalto.

“We have had no shortage of construction industry insiders on the HART board for many years,” Waters said in his statement. “Given the string of construction defects and growing HART budget shortfall, it seems obvious that a new direction and an outside perspective is required.”

Council member Radiant Cordero, who introduced the resolution that would put Aalto on the board, said in a statement that she and Aalto “do not agree on everything.

“But I know him to be a man of integrity, who will ask tough questions, keep the project team accountable and serve our residents well,” Cordero’s statement said.

At the press conference Wednesday, Uno said he wants to keep his job on the board and feels an obligation to stay.

He said he supports rail going all the way to Manoa if that were possible, but has called for it to stop short at Middle Street because he says there’s no funding to get it any farther.

“We’re at a really important crossroads now with this project,” Uno said. “I think having an independent eye and an independent mind to look and help the HART board find solutions to this problem is going to be very important to us.”

Tsuneyoshi also raised concerns over changes being made to the qualifications for Uno’s seat on the board. Uno occupies the seat reserved for the City Council’s appointment to the board.

Tsuneyoshi said that board members should have experience in transit operations, land use planning, risk management and project development. She said the new qualifications laid out in the council resolution would be a departure from what the council set out last year.

“Nothing against Mr. Aalto and his abilities and his industry, however, the council has decided previously that we want an individual who had the qualifications indicated in previous resolutions,” Tsuneyoshi said.

Aalto, an Oahu-based investigative journalist and documentarian, has previously said he’d use his experience to dig into the rail agency’s handling of the project.

The council could take up the resolution appointing Aalto to the HART board on Aug. 11.

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