Bad time to replace HART leader, critics say

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The impending ouster of the head of the troubled Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation — the rail project’s sixth leader in nine years — comes as another critical deadline approaches for the city’s $9.2 billion project.

Supporters of HART Executive Director and CEO Andrew Robbins said the announcement by HART officials that they intend not to renew Robbins’ contract Thursday will send another message of uncertainty to Federal Transit Administration officials.

The FTA has extended to Dec. 31 the deadline for HART to explain how it plans to pay for the final leg of construction with an unidentified partner in a so-called public-private partnership, or P3 agreement.

“This is going to be a red flag for the federal government,” said state Sen. Kurt Fevella (R, Ewa Beach-Iroquois Point). “He (Robbins) had just restored the relationship with them.”

Fevella, who believes rail will particularly benefit his Leeward constituents, signed a letter of support for Robbins to HART’s Human Resources Committee, which had been discussing Robbins’ future behind closed doors and now plans to recommend at Thursday’s board meeting that Robbins be removed at the end of the year.

HART board Chairman Toby Martyn wrote in a staff email that the full board “will concur with the recommendation, and that a permitted interaction group will be formed to devise a leadership transition plan.”

HART officials need to figure out how to construct the final, 4-mile city center segment and eight train stations in the Honolulu urban core, and the Pearl Highlands transit center and 1,600-stall parking garage, at an estimated cost of $1.4 billion. HART, a semi-autonomous city agency, would operate and maintain the 20-mile, East Kapolei-to-Ala Moana Center line for 30 years.

In a statement, Mayor Kirk Caldwell emphasized that he had no influence on the HART board’s intentions to get rid of Robbins and find new leadership.

“The rail project is a very important project to the City and County of Honolulu; however, HART, the organization that is charged with building the rail system, is structured as a semi-autonomous organization as established by a City Charter. One implication of this structure is that the oversight of the HART CEO, including that person’s employment, is the responsibility of the HART Board. Accordingly, I have not been involved in any decisions regarding Mr. Robbins’ employment contract.

“I understand that this topic is on the agenda for a HART Board meeting scheduled for later this week. I have not had any discussions about this matter with the HART Board Chair or other members of the HART Board.”

As the city’s highest-paid employee, Robbins has received criticism but little credit, Fevella said.

“I thought he was doing a great job,” Fevella said. “When we lost the federal backing, he came in and made some decisions that fixed things up.”

Robbins and HART Chairman Martyn did not respond to requests for comment Monday.

Robbins’ annual salary is $317,000 plus a $55,000 annual housing allowance and a $7,200-a-year transportation allowance.

The HART board also has the discretion to give Robbins an annual, performance-based salary adjustment of up to 3.5%. The contract further allows for Robbins to receive a bonus of up to 15% of the base salary if the board thinks he has met or exceeded previously established performance metrics.

HART’s Thursday agenda suggests that Robbins’ future again will be discussed in executive session, with no public access.

Voters approved the HART concept in 2010, and Toru Hamayasu became HART’s interim executive director and CEO after the agency was born in 2011.

Hamayasu was replaced by Dan Grabauskas in 2012 on a full-time basis. Grabauskas resigned in 2016 and was then replaced on an interim basis by Mike Formby. Formby then resigned the same year to become chief of staff to former HART board Chairwoman Colleen Hanabusa, who was running for Congress.

Brennon Morioka then became interim head and was replaced by another interim, Krishniah Murthy, when Morioka left in 2017.

Then Robbins came aboard on a three-year contract.

As HART’s human resources committee was planning to discuss Robbins’ future in executive session, City Council candidate Greg Thielen urged the committee not to renew his contract.

Thielen complained of a lack of transparency and a realistic financial plan over the P3 contract. He said Robbins showed poor judgment in refusing to share information about P3 proposals that had been received in July.

HART is also losing tax revenue amid the coronavirus pandemic and expects a subsequent loss of close to $100 million in state hotel room and general excise tax revenue.

Former Mayor Mufi Hannemann — rail’s biggest, original supporter — said removing Robbins and finding a replacement will cost even more money in delays and send the wrong message.

“Whether you’re pro-rail or anti-rail, this is the worst thing that you can do, change horses in midstream,” Hanne­mann said. “Having six directors in less than 10 years is not the message you want to send to the FTA and to Washington, D.C. They want answers on how the city’s going to come up with their part of the funding to Middle Street.”

Hannemann also signed a letter in support of Robbins, whom he called “a good and decent man who’s trying to do his job. I think he’s done a great job.”

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