Daniel Grabauskas, HART CEO, speaks to the press at Ali‘i Place.
Image: Matthew Kain

HART’s PR team takes a haircut, but questions remain

Politics / To live in Hawaii you have to be a frugal person, unless you’re very wealthy,” said citizen Christine Bond to the City Council at its meeting on Wednesday, July 11. Her testimony pertained to the proposed Resolution 12-149, demanding an audit of the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation’s (HART) spending on public relations and “public involvement” services which has been tallied at about $4 million. “I don’t think the State of Hawaii is wealthy enough to go blow $4 million in that way,” Bond added.

Twenty-four testifiers (only one person spoke against having an audit) voiced a sense of outrage at the excessive spending and attempts to gain public acceptance of Honolulu’s rail project, which was approved by a public referendum four years ago. Indeed, several individuals who testified in favor of Resolution 12-149 were pro-rail, but still appalled by HART’s reckless spending of taxpayer dollars. “I think rail is a good thing,” said Donna Lei. “[But] I was horrified to hear that we spent $4 million to basically try and influence public opinion on a rail that has already been [approved].”

Fearful symmetry

In anticipation, one might surmise, of the public outcry, HART CEO Daniel Grabauskas had held a press conference the day before in which he set forth his intentions to reduce HART’s public involvement program and expenditures. “I share the public’s concern that we have too many sub-consultants and staff in public involvement,” Grabauskas said at Ali’i Place, outside of HART’s downtown offices. Grabauskas announced that HART is implementing reductions to public involvement staff from 23 to 9.5 (one position is part time) which will total more than $2.8 million in savings.

Among the canned contracts was a $351,538 two-year contract with Carlson Communications, a company of pro-rail blogger Doug Carlson who pens [Yes2Rail.com]. Many have alleged that HART is funding a blog which is attempting to sway political opinion. Although Carlson repeatedly says in the blog that it’s “apolitical,” he also calls mayoral, anti-rail candidate Ben Cayetano’s Bus Rapid Transit plan a “scheme” just as many times. In fact, every post appears to be an anti-Cayetano effort. The Weekly reached Carlson–who is said to live in California–by phone for an explanation of what he has done for HART and reasons for the termination of his contract. “I’m sorry, I’m not commenting on it,” he said, and encouraged us to read his blog. This is still possible, because the contract with Carlson Communication is not set to be terminated until Aug, 15th–four days after the primary election, which may ultimately decide HART’s future funding fates. Several other, lower-dollar contracts will be terminated earlier on August 1st.

As to whether or not the contracts are being terminated early or simply running their full course, “Some of them had been set to expire in August and some of them [Grabauskas] decided to cancel outright,” said HART spokesman and staff publicisit Scott Ishikawa told The Weekly in an email message. (Ishikawa said that he didn’t know which were which.)

Lychee season pau

Also ending on Aug. 15 is a $1.17 million contract with the high-dollar-PR-mystery-machine known as Lychee Production. The Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs Business Registration Division shows the business as registered to one Siu Lan Lundy, with Laura Pennington listed as president and director. The company’s purpose is listed as “media planning, and production.”

Other savings, according to Grabauskas, will stem from the scaling back of HART’s Olelo program, a monthly produced show about the development of the rail project, to a simpler format and distributing its newsletter, previously snail-mailed to 14,000 O’ahu residents at their own request, by electronic means only ($180,000 and $75,000 dollars in savings respectively).

“That’s a good start,” said Councilmember Ann Kobayashi to the Weekly, who thinks 9.5 positions is still too many. “The vote has been taken; the financial plan is secure… What are they trying to sell, and to whom?” Kobayashi has raised other questions–including to Grabauskas himself–about what exactly “public involvement” entails. Is it providing information, or attempting to peddle influence? “Whatever it is, we’re spending a lot of money on it,” she added.

Grabauskas, who was hired in March, was in attendance at the City Council meeting answering questions from the councilmembers. He said he “wholeheartedly support[s] the audit” that the resolution would implement. He also noted his openness to continuing a dialogue with both the Council and the public “to ensure that we are spending tax dollars as frugally as possible.”

With the Council’s adoption of the resolution last Wednesday, Honolulu’s city auditor will have an opportunity to make certain Grabauskas does just that.