No Public Accountability for Rail PR Contracts

Courtesy of Honolulu For Rail Growth

Before Honolulu can tap federal funds to help pay for a proposed $5.5 billion rail project, the city is required to go into the community to inform the public about the project.

The city has spent nearly $2 million over the last two years for public outreach — essentially, a public relations campaign — that typically includes such things as designing informational mailers and brochures, holding public informational meetings, hosting a website and collecting comments during the design and environmental review processes.

Civil Beat looked specifically at outreach money spent since 2008, the year Honolulu voters approved steel-on-steel technology for the proposed rail project. It was also the year that a draft environmental impact statement was completed and the city began preliminary engineering on the 20-mile elevated rail line. The project's final EIS is awaiting the approval of Gov. Linda Lingle before it can move ahead.

That $2 million has been awarded to 10 companies (nine Hawaii-based, and one Salt Lake City, Utah-based) that have been subcontracted by one or more of the three contractors hired by the city to do preliminary engineering and prepare the draft EIS.

But because there are no strict guidelines for how much a city should spend on public relations or where to spend it, evaluating Honolulu's expenditures for rail is difficult. The relevant contracts also aren't available for review.

When Civil Beat asked to see the 10 companies' public involvement contracts, city spokesman Bill Brennan said in an e-mail: “They do not have contracts with the city. Their contracts are with PB Americas and/or InfraConsult, so the city does not have their contracts available to look at.”

The Honolulu City Council, complaining about a lack of transparency surrounding rail, passed a resolution in May requesting information about rail contractors and subcontractors. With newsletter headlines such as "Rail: It’s now or never,” some have suggested the city spent money to build support for the project under the guise of informing the public. City Councilwoman Ann Kobayashi was most critical.

"We had trouble getting information from the (city) Transportation Department and we wanted to know what these contracts say, what their tasks are," Kobayashi told Civil Beat. "It's really shameful that these contractors get paid so much money, yet we don't know exactly what they've been hired to do. The taxpayers need to know."

Kobayashi said she had been asking to review rail contracts since 2007, but only recently started receiving copies of some of the contracts, which she says she is reviewing.

Of the nine Hawaii subcontractors for public outreach, only one has a website — Carlson Communications— and only three have listed phone numbers — AccuCopy, Carlson Communications and Gary K. Omori LLC.

While all nine are registered to do business with the Hawaii Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs, most of the names seem to exist only in archived neighborhood board meeting minutes online where they are identified as representing the “Honolulu Rail Transit Public Involvement Team.”

Those who were tracked down, were reluctant to talk about their contracts or declined altogether. Doug Carlson of Carlson Communications and Pat Lee of Pat Lee & Associates declined to comment.

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