Council members want audit of rail public relations spending

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Some of the rail public relations contractors have been paid more than a million dollars over the years.  Contracts keep getting renewed despite the fact HART hasn't been able to tell council members if they're all worth it.

At least 24 people or public relations firms are making more than $4 million over two years.  Even the HART CEO Dan Grabauskas admitted it sounds a bit excessive but before he makes final judgment he has to figure out what each of the PR people do.

Of the billions to be spent on the Honolulu rail transit, millions will be spent on public involvement.  Parson's Brinkerhoff, which is one of the main contractors with the city, is spending more than $3.2 million alone on public involvement.  Among the highest contracts is Lychee Productions Inc. which is getting more than $1.1 million.  Gary Omori LLC is making $376,000.  Community Outreach Associates gets $375,000. Carlson Communications is making more than $351,000.  Those salaries are for a two year period.

"Why do you need all this PR?" asked Ann Kobayashi, Budget Committee Chair, during today's meeting.

"That's all what I'm looking to try to uncover. These are all things that happened prior to my arrival. These are contracts that were executed quite some time ago," responded Dan Grabauskas, HART CEO, during testimony.

"How can rail which isn't even running need 24 entities making over $4 million?" said Tom Berg, Honolulu City Councilmember.

"People's hard earned dollars being thrown by the million into this unknown pot," said Tulsi Gabbard, Honolulu City Councilmember, who introduced the resolution calling for an audit of the rail's public relations spending.

Doug Carlson is one sub-contractor who writes the Yes to Rail blog, which was blasted in the council meeting because Carlson is being paid with taxpayer money but criticizes political candidates namely anti-rail mayoral hopeful Ben Cayetano.

"Attempting to influence political activity, yet this person is being is being paid with taxpayer dollars and that is completely unethical, what to speak of some legal issues that would exist there as well," said Gabbard, during the meeting.

"I certainly reacted in the way that I think is appropriate which is that would be an inappropriate use of anybody's time if it's on our dime," said Grabauskas, in response to Carlson's blog.

"If they are too high and not necessary to effectuate this project then they'll be cut," said Grabauskas.

Lychee Productions which has been paid with city dollars for years also works on political campaigns including Mufi Hannemann's previous mayoral campaign and current bid for Congress.

"I think we have seen a trend of so called pay to play in this town that has existed for far too long. We have seen hints of it and we have seen blatant examples of it throughout the inception of this rail project through today," said Gabbard.

"It doesn't matter how anybody got there. If they are doing their job and it's the right job then they are going to stay.  If they got there, however they got there and it's an unnecessary job then we're going to let those folks go," said Grabauskas. "I think what everybody deserves, particularly when you are talking about terminating employment, is a full understanding of what it is they do, what value they bring and whether it is absolutely necessary because this is taxpayer money."

The Council Budget Committee approved the plan to audit the public relations contracts without any objections but it still could be another year before the auditor finishes the report.  That is why council members want the rail CEO to finish his own research sooner than later.

To read more about the public relations spending and how much rail employees and contractors make click here.

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