The Honolulu City Council's Budget Committee gave preliminary approval Monday for an extensive audit of the transit authority's public relations costs.
According to documents obtained by Councilman Tom Berg, the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation is spending $4.36 million per year on what the agency calls public outreach for the $5.3 billion rail project.
The review of HART's public relations contracts will be conducted by the office of City Auditor Edwin S.W. Young. First, the full council must pass the resolution, which faced no opposition by members of the Budget Committee.
"It's been frustrating for us to have to peel back the layers of who is employed by HART, who is employed by the major contractors and then the many subcontractors that are out there," said Councilwoman Tulsi Gabbard, a member of the Budget Committee.
HART Executive Director and CEO Dan Grabauskas said he's conducting an internal analysis to identify all public outreach costs, which includes an examination of the five transit authority employees tasked with public outreach in addition to subcontractors.
"I'm in the midst of conducting my own review of the organization to see exactly what we need and what things we don't need," Grabauskas told Budget Committee members
Berg has identified 19 people or entities hired by rail transit contractors Parsons and Brinkerhoff and InfraConsult LLC for public relations purposes. The councilman has a resolution that urges HART to keep only one employee dedicated to public outreach.
"My resolution, 12-160, doesn't wait for an audit," Berg said. "It just says you should just go with one public outreach position and that's it."
If approved by the full council, the city auditor would begin his review of HART public relations contracts in August. However, Young said that under the City Charter, his report would not be due until the end of June of next year.
Councilman Ikaika Anderson asked Grabauskas for timely updates of his internal review process and asked pointblank if he would cut positions related to public outreach if they were found to be unnecessary or duplicative.
"Absolutely everything is on the table," Grabauskas replied.
Soon after taking the leadership role at HART in early April, Grabauskas ordered an end to the production of rail-related coloring books, lanyards, backpacks and water bottles, which were easily portrayed as frivolous spending by critics of the rail project.
During Monday's hearing, Gabbard also questioned a $351,000 subcontract to local blogger Doug Carlson, who writes about competing transit plans among candidates for Honolulu mayor.
"This person is being paid with taxpayer dollars, and that's completely unethical," said Gabbard.
In a Tuesday posting, Carlson said his Yes2Rail blog is one of many tools used by the rail project's public involvement team. He rejected the notion his blog is political.
"Yes2Rail serves an educational function by making comparisons between competing transportation systems," Carlson wrote. "If those competing systems have glaring deficiencies compared to rail, I say so."