Members of the City Council Budget Committee want the city auditor to review nearly a dozen public relations contracts connected with the $5.27 billion rail project.
A resolution introduced by Council member Tulsi Gabbard, Budget Chairwoman Ann Kobayashi and Council Chairman Ernie Martin at a meeting Monday would have the auditor determine whether all of the employees are needed, and whether the money being spent for rail public relations and public involvement is justified.
Daniel Grabauskas, executive director of the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation, told Council members he is reviewing the contracts, but needs time to determine whether the public relations people are all necessary.
Grabauskas, who took over leadership of HART about 10 weeks ago, said it appears the city is spending about $2 million a year on staff and contracted public outreach efforts, an amount Grabauskas said seems high to him.
"What I aim to do is just understand what those activities are, why they were contracted for, and what exactly it means," he said. "If they are too high and not necessary to effectuate this project, then they'll be cut."
Council members have repeatedly questioned the size of the public relations staffs maintained by the city and by major contractors hired to plan and build the 20-mile rail project.
For example, Kobayashi said the mayor's office has a representative who attends neighborhood board meetings, while HART also pays people to attend. "Why do you need so much PR in the first place?" she asked.
"That's what we're looking at right now," Grabauskas said. "These are all things that happened prior to my arrival here, these are contracts that were executed quite some time ago, and I'm trying to understand what all of the staff at the project is doing, and figure out what we can try to do to streamline."
Gabbard specifically asked Grabauskas to review the activities of a pro-rail blogger receiving taxpayer funds through a rail subcontract. Blogger Doug Carlson has a subcontract with rail engineering consultant Parsons Brinckerhoff.
"We have a political year, and we have a subcontractor who has a blog, for example, commenting on mayoral candidates" and apparently attempting to influence political activities, she said. Gabbard said that raises "legal issues."
"These are things that are happening now and deserve your urgent attention," she told Grabauskas.
Carlson said in an interview after the meeting that his comments on his "yes2rail" blog discuss the rail project from a "nonpolitical perspective."
He critiques proposals that the candidates make to deal with traffic congestion, but Carlson said he is careful to avoid endorsing any particular candidate.
"I think it's fair game to write on the blog about what the candidates are saying," Carlson said.
Grabauskas said he is "very comfortable" working with the city auditor to review the contracts.
He said his challenge is "to really look at this project in a different way and look to reduce costs so we get this thing on time and on budget, and that's what my promise is to the Council. It doesn't happen overnight. It is a big and complex project with hundreds of people, and hundreds of millions of dollars and many, many contracts.
"All I've asked for folks is just give me a little bit of time to make sure I have a look at all of them, and make sure I understand what any action I take means," he said.
The council Budget Committee tentatively approved the resolution Monday.
The measure still requires the approval of the full Council.