Two years after questions were first raised about how much money the city was devoting to public relations for the controversial rail project, officials canned more than half the PR staff and cut nearly $3 million in contracts.

Dan Grabauskas, executive director for Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation, announced he was cutting his public relations staff and consultants who were working on the $5.2 billion rail project by more than half.

These cuts included axing seven subcontractors for Parsons Brinkerhoff Inc. that have current contracts worth $2.47 million.

Other snips, such as scaling back other PR contracts and sending out a HART newsletter in electronic form only, will result in actual savings of about $350,000.

While it might seem that this is a good thing for taxpayers, the larger question remains about why there was so much fat jiggling in the PR budget.

And considering this is a relatively small part of a $5.2 billion project, what can the public expect in the future? Who’s really watching the books?

Grabauskas says it’s him. He was hired in March, and on Tuesday he called some of HART’s public relations spending “excessive” and “unnecessary.” He also promised to find more places to trim to ensure the HART budget is “tough and tight.”

“I’m looking at the entire organization and I’ve been encouraged to do that by the mayor, the council and the (HART) board, and I think that’s what I was hired to do,” Grabauskas said. “Because of the attention that was paid, in particular to public involvement and the specific request (from the city council) that had come in, this seemed to be the right place to start. But I’ve been looking at other aspects of the organization, and I’m sure there will be announcements in the future.”

It’s not known at this time exactly how much money HART will save by cancelling some of these PR contracts. Officials also couldn’t say how much money from each cancelled contract has already been spent.

Jeanne Mariani-Belding, a HART spokeswoman, said that many of the existing contracts are several years old and had been renewed on a number of occasions. Had Grabauskas done nothing, Belding said it’s assumed that at least some of those contracts would have continued to be renewed.

Public relations spending on rail is not a new topic. Civil Beat has been reporting on it since 2010, even before we learned that the city has spent nearly $5 million over a five-year span. Much of that money went to Lychee Productions Inc., which held the largest contract that Grabauskas terminated Tuesday.

The cost of PR became an issue more recently as members of the Honolulu City Council began questioning HART about how the money was being spent and the tactics that were being used.

During June budget hearings, City Council Member Romy Cachola complained about a lobbying effort by a PR subconsultant that focused on his ethnicity in an effort to get him to support rail.

Another contractor, Doug Carlson, of Carlson Communications, has made the news recently, too. He writes a blog that Grabauskas said doesn’t get much traffic, yet he has a two-year contract for $351,538.

Carlson’s blog has been criticized for its attacks on those who don’t support the rail project. One of his favorite targets has been former Governor Ben Cayetano, who is running for mayor and has vowed to kill rail.

At a recent budget committee meeting, City Council member Tulsi Gabbard called what Carlson was doing “completely unethical” because he was trying to influence political activity.

Carlson’s contract won’t be cancelled until Aug. 15, four days after the primary election. He declined to comment.

The City Council is expected to vote Wednesday on a resolution to audit the PR contracts related to rail. If they don’t proceed, the City Auidtor’s Office already has an audit of HART planned for in the upcoming year.

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