Grabauskas OK'd As Rail Chief Despite Soft Spot For Toru Hamayasu

Michael Levine

UPDATED 5:50 p.m. March 1, 2012

Daniel Grabauskas has been confirmed as chief executive of the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation, replacing Toru Hamayasu as the face of the controversial rail project.

The vote was unanimous, 10-0, and Grabauskas will soon sign a three-year contract worth about $1 million total. None of that comes as a surprise, as the HART board of directors reached "consensus" on the broad strokes before announcing the former Boston transit leader as the pick last week. The vote concludes an eight-month search that began the day HART met for the first time, last July.

"I have a passion for public service, I have a passion for public transportation," Grabauskas told the board Thursday shortly before he was confirmed.

But board members have spoken highly of Hamayasu's years of service to the project, and revealed he was one of the three finalists considered for the job.

Hamayasu, an engineer by trade, gave his permission to have his name revealed as a finalist. The other finalist was Larry Miller, who worked on the Sky Train system in Vancouver and Washington D.C.'s metro. HART winnowed a list of 13 candidates to five, two of whom then withdrew themselves from consideration. The original pool had more than 150 potential candidates.

Despite their praise for Hamayasu's work, board members stressed the importance of Grabauskas' ability to communicate the benefits of the rail project. Mayor Peter Carlisle after his State of the City address said rail proponents have not done a good job getting the message out recently, and board members earlier in Thursday's meeting demanded more information on and better results from the public outreach program.

"I have no illusions that it won't be difficult," Grabauskas said.

He likened rail construction to having a child: conception is fun, birth is painful, raising a child is hard. But it's worth it in the end.

And, he added, the rail will be a generational gift to Honolulu.

But some said Hamayasu's experience on the project and his time in Hawaii should count in his favor.

"Bringing in newcomers from the mainland has always been disruptive," Amar Sappal, former rail chief decades ago, said in written testimony he read at the meeting. He said the practice of bringing in mainland implants in the past "has resulted with the project floundering, creating personnel problems and a loss of morale and frustration as these new leaders seek to learn and adjust."

"This adjustment period varies from three to six months," Sappal said. "This type of disruption is likely to spell doom to the rail project."

Resident Gordon Lum said he agreed with HART's decision to widen its net to include candidates from the mainland and beyond. But, he said, we "bend over backwards" in the name of fairness, failing to account adequately for the value of local knowledge and cultural awareness.

Grabauskas assured the board he was aware of Honolulu's unique needs. He said he remembered the lesson from a schoolteacher who told him he had two ears and one mouth for a reason. "We (HART) and I will listen with the appropriate respect and sensitivity that makes Honolulu and Hawaii a special place," he said.

Hamayasu will serve as HART's leader until Grabauskas takes over in mid-April. He'll continue in a senior leadership position after that time, HART said.

UPDATE Grabauskas and Hamayasu shook hands shortly after the vote, and Grabauskas said the two had met for a couple of hours earlier this week and quickly got past the initial awkwardness of the two having vied for the same job.

"A more honorable man you will not meet," Grabauskas said of his erstwhile opponent and soon-to-be employee. "I talked about a partnership between the two of us. That's how I really view this. He's a registered engineer. This is a major construction project, and to the degree that he can be given to work with the engineering staff and the other planning staff to bring this to fruition, while I bring my skills here to enhance the management. ... I think that's a great marriage."

Grabauskas said his work with the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority included "a little bit of everything," and that it's never too soon to talk about operations because customer experience should be a factor even during early design and construction phases.

HART had been mum on some specifics of the process until Thursday, giving the public little opportunity to evaluate their selection before it was finalized.

HART Human Resources Chair Keslie Hui held a Friday afternoon press conference to discuss the process. In the days that followed, headhunter Gregg Moser from Krauthamer and Associates referred questions to HART, HART in turn referred questions to Grabauskas, and simultaneously said he wouldn't be available until after the confirmation vote.

Civil Beat wrote three stories investigating Grabauskas' background:

Asked this week about the process — specifically, who was consulted as part of the due diligence, and what did they say? — Hui cited privacy concerns and declined to share details. HART provided this written statement to Civil Beat on Hui's behalf:

The background checks were part of a confidential hiring process in which sensitive matters affecting personal privacy were involved. We will not be disclosing that confidential information. However, we can confirm that the executive search consultant, which has extensive experience and contacts in the transportation industry, did verify Mr. Grabauskas’ professional reputation, work history and performance. Reference checks and other research (which revealed all of the same media coverage of various incidents as has been highlighted in this week’s local reporting) were discussed, and further inquiry only reconfirmed that Mr. Grabauskas is held in high regard, and that he has built a record of honorable conduct and professionalism throughout his career.

The Board has publicly discussed on a number of occasions the need to ensure candidate confidentiality in order to be able to attract the strongest possible slate of candidates. In balancing the privacy interests of those participating in the process with the desire to have the best possible choices for Executive Director and the desire to be transparent in a personnel matter, we proceeded with a process set forth in a recruitment plan that was publicly available on line from its adoption, and we have had regular public updates as to the status of the process. We are appreciative of Mr. Grabauskas’ willingness to release his name to the public prior to an official Board action on this matter. We are confident that the process was effective, and that we have identified the best candidate to lead HART, now and in the future.

At Thursday's meeting, Moser said the finalists met with a local psychologist as part of the review process. There were a series of 2-on-1 and then 10-on-1 meetings with board members.

Hui said personal privacy and confidentiality were a "paramount" issue for the candidates, and that the potential that their name might be made public at some point discouraged otherwise qualified candidates from applying.

Grabauskas met with Mayor Peter Carlisle Wednesday, and the mayor said he was impressed by the new rail chief. The two were scheduled to meet again Thursday.

Honolulu City Council Transportation Chair Breene Harimoto told Civil Beat he planned to meet Grabauskas Thursday afternoon as well and put him on a future committee agenda.

Here are the final written reports submitted by Krauthamer and Associates and HART Human Resources Chair Keslie Hui:


DISCUSSION: Now that Dan Grabauskas has been confirmed as HART chief, what do you expect from his tenure? Share your thoughts below.

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