Council looks to cut rail public relations positions

Tulsi Gabbard
Tulsi Gabbard
Ann Kobayashi
Ann Kobayashi

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - There is a push at the Honolulu City Council to cut the number of public relations employees for the rail project, saying it's a waste of taxpayer money.  But the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation says they're necessary to meet federal guidelines and keep the community informed.

At prior rail events there have been more public relations people than reporters.  It's that type of redundancy that makes Councilmember Tulsi Gabbard want to cut the HART PR staff from five down to two.

HART has two Information Specialist III's that each make $82,128 a year and two more Information Specialist II's that each earn $75,920 plus a secretary who makes $46,176.  That's a total of more than $362,000 a year in salaries.

There is also a multimedia administrator who updates the HART website who makes $82,000.

HART spends more than $2 million on public involvement efforts and $387,000 for public outreach efforts, according to a letter sent to the City Council.

That's not including work by contractors.  The chief public information officer is paid by InfraConsult but works out of the Hart office and has a city email address.

Parsons Brinckerhoff, rail's main contractor, has its own a public involvement team.  They didn't return our calls but their voicemail lists four people.

Add to that Kiewit Infrastructure, the main rail construction company, currently has two in house public information workers and is hiring a third in June.  Kiewit also contracts Stryker, Weiner & Yokota, a separate public relations firm, to help.

"It's sizeable and this is something I'm extremely concerned about and working on is the redundancy and the overlap in services throughout Hart, throughout their various contractors and throughout their subcontractors," said Gabbard.

There are various subcontractors like the Yes 2 Rail blog by Doug Carlson.  He is a communications specialist, paid by Parsons Brinckerhoff to write the bias blog to promote rail. He has worked for PB the past four and a half years and delivered dozens of speeches to Rotary clubs and answered questions at community meetings.

"I'm a consultant to rail's principal contractor and am paid specifically to help advance the project, to include responding to opponents' misinformation on rail," wrote Carlson on his blog website.

"Plus they pay people to go to the neighborhood boards," said Ann Kobayashi, Honolulu City Councilmember. "We have people with contracts to go to the neighborhood board meetings to answer questions about rail so there is all of that too."

Then there are the television commercials and campaigns from independent groups like the Pacific Resource Partnership which has contracted its own team of people to advocate for the rail.

"So why not join together and have the other guys pay for all of this," said Kobayashi, suggesting a public/private partnership to save taxpayer money.

In response rail public information officer Scott Ishikawa wrote:

"HART's public involvement work is a requirement of any federally funded project to encourage public participation during all stages of the rail project.

"This includes providing project information through daily media inquiries, production of informational materials, maintaining the project website and conducting and attending public meetings among other activities.

"We work with community groups, residents and businesses along the rail route to ensure they are informed about construction activities and to respond to their questions and concerns.

"In addition to 5 HART employees, there are a total of 4 public information staff members from Parsons Brinckerhoff and InfraConsult," concluded the statement.

"I'm interested to see exactly what those federal requirements are. I have not seen those yet to date," said Gabbard.  "My response to that generally would be yes it's important to keep the public informed, but you don't need a bloated bureaucracy to do that."

Ishikawa cited the nine full time public information employees for HART, InfraConsult and Parsons Brinckerhoff but that doesn't include subcontractors or part time employees.  The HART public relations team is working on getting that number.

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