State leaders with the sway to send more cash to Oahu’s long-struggling rail project are irked that their counterparts at Honolulu Hale keep poaching their appointees to the project’s volunteer oversight board.

At least four of those state rail appointees have been plucked from their non-voting seats in recent years so that either the City Council or the mayor could use them to fill a voting vacancy on the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation board of directors.

Records show that a fifth state appointee, Robert Yu, is about to be siphoned off as well.

City Council Chair Tommy Waters nominated Yu on Dec. 29  to fill a voting seat that’s been vacant for about a year.

“I refuse to be HART’s recruitment officer,” House Speaker Scott Saiki said last week in response to the latest impending switch. The House chamber appointed Yu this past June. “It’s sad that they can’t find their own board members,” Saiki added.

The high turnover of qualified volunteers to fill board seats is just part of tense relations between the city and state over rail. David Croxford/Civil Beat/2022

It’s the latest example of city leaders annoying their state counterparts and straining relations in regards to rail. State legislators could again play a key role in the $10 billion transit project’s future if the city approaches them seeking more cash to get the system to Ala Moana as planned, if not farther.

Yu is president and general manager of Oahu Transit Services, the nonprofit company that runs TheBus. He’s also a former chief financial officer at HART. On Monday, he stressed that he’s still a legislative appointee and declined to comment further.

In an emailed statement Tuesday, Waters called Yu “eminently qualified to serve as a HART Board member based on his extensive and relevant background.”

“This appointment is crucial, as it makes Mr. Yu a voting member of the Board. He will provide important transportation and finance perspective to ensure accountability of HART,” Waters added.

House Speaker Scott Saiki takes a drink during floor session recess at the Capitol.
House Speaker Scott Saiki expressed frustration over the issue. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

If the appointment goes through, Yu will fill the voting seat held by former HART board member Dean Hazama, who left in January 2022. Hazama also started out as a legislative appointee before the City Council plucked him in 2020 to fill its own vacancy.

Former CIA executive intelligence officer Michele Chun Brunngraber, retired Lanai Resorts executive Lynn McCrory and investment executive Toby Martyn all followed the same path from state appointee to HART voting member.

Natalie Iwasa, who sits in the other House-appointed seat alongside Yu, said that City Council representatives also approached her last year to gauge interest in filling Hazama’s voting seat. She preferred to stay put as a House appointee due to time constraints, however.

Said Saiki: “I’m going to take my time on making the next appointment.”

Filling The Void

Historically, both the city and state have struggled to keep their seats filled with qualified volunteers willing to sacrifice hours of their time each week and oversee a multibillion-dollar transit project that’s been fraught with problems.

The HART board has 10 original members under the City Charter. Nine of those are voting seats.

The City Council appoints three of those members and the mayor appoints another three. The remaining original members are city transit and planning leaders, plus one person nominated by the board itself.

HART Board Member Robert Yu listens to colleagues during a board meeting held at Alii Place.
Robert Yu was appointed by the House in June to sit in on HART meetings. The City Council wants to use Yu to fill a voting seat that’s been vacant for a year. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

State lawmakers added their own four non-voting appointees in 2017 as part of rail’s second major financial bailout, valued at around $2.4 billion. They wanted those appointees to keep closer tabs on the project as part of the funding deal. Two seats are appointed by the House and two by the Senate.

Since then, the HART board has endured near-constant vacancies. At times that has hampered the group’s ability to conduct business. The board’s December meeting, for example, was canceled when it failed to reach quorum, according to Iwasa.

One former board member, Damien Kim, had to attend meetings for months after announcing his departure in order to help HART keep enough voting members.

None of the original board members remain from when HART first launched in 2011. Kim, a local union leader, was the last of those volunteers when he finally left. The HART board has seen frequent and heavy turnover, much like the rail agency itself.

A Deeper Legal Conflict

Beyond the angst over the poached seats, city and state officials fundamentally disagree over how the HART board is supposed to work.

Specifically, they clash over whether the state’s appointees are actually legal members of the board, and whether they count toward the group’s voting majority.

In 2021, the HART board surprised onlookers when on the advice of the city’s Corporation Counsel it abruptly changed its voting rules, making it easier to take action with six majority votes instead of eight. It did this by disregarding the legislative appointees as part of the total voting quorum.

HART Board Member Natalie Iwasa during board meeting held at Alii Place.
Natalie Iwasa has been locked out of the HART board’s executive sessions for nearly a year amid an ongoing legal stalemate between the city and state. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

That unanimous decision by the board’s then-interim chair, Hoyt Zia, took place behind closed doors. It also raised the ire of Saiki, who asked the state Attorney General’s Office to look into whether that move was legal.

Last week, Saiki said that the AG’s office under former Gov. David Ige never reported back on his request.

The conflict over the state appointee’s legal status has also kept Iwasa from participating in the board’s executive sessions for nearly the past year because Iwasa has declined to sign a confidentiality requirement as requested by the city.

City and state lawyers continue to disagree over whether she needs to sign that.

“It’s still the same,” Iwasa said Wednesday.

She said she opted not to attend the HART board’s committee meetings last week because she would not have been able to participate in its closed-door discussion regarding property sales along the transit route.

All the angst over rail and how its board is supposed to function could make things harder for the city down the road, should it ever come to the Legislature seeking more funding, she said.

“Rail, HART has a lot of problems,” said Iwasa, stressing that she was speaking as an individual and not for the rest of the board.

“I would think that you’d want to do as much as you can to ensure that relationships are well maintained and that you’re on the good side of people you might potentially have to work with.”

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