KAILUA-KONA — Finance Committee members on Tuesday gave favorable recommendation to Mass Transit Administrator Brenda Carreira’s request to fast-track approval for a multi-year contract for Hele-On bus service with no financial information attached.
But, the committee’s approval of Resolution 304 didn’t come without scrutiny, followed by a lengthy executive session on the matter, during a meeting at the West Hawaii Civic Center. The resolution next needs approval from the full Hawaii County Council in order for the contract to be executed.
The resolution would give the department the authority to contract with one transportation vendor for two functions currently handled by two companies; provide drivers for county-owned buses and provide both drivers and buses for routes when there aren’t enough county buses to fill all the routes.
The request raised concerns because Carreira doesn’t plan to disclose the vendor or the contract amount until after the matter is approved. She said Tuesday during the committee hearing that’s because the request for proposal is sealed, or confidential.
The agency was going to move forward with the award of the contract “within the last week and a half” until Carreira said she was informed that County Charter requires that the council approve multi-year contracts. She said the contract should have been implemented July 1, 2018, prior to her tenure.
“I didn’t realize we had to do this earlier. I would have done it months earlier. But this is just not something that we have done,” said Carreira, who took over the helm Nov. 1 coming from the private sector, where she worked as operations manager for Roberts Hawaii and Polynesian Adventures. “The only other multi-year contract lease we’ve done in Mass Transit since I’ve been here is for our new Xerox machine. So I apologize, I didn’t realize we needed to do the resolution in order to even enter into the contract.”
Kohala Councilman Tim Richards told Carreira the lack of financial details bothered him, though he understands things need to be done to “go from here to having our Mass Transit system fully functional.”
“I know we have to employ buses that are going to be hired and as you and I have discussed, forward contracting should substantially reduce the daily charge of those buses,” Richards said, “but approving a resolution for a multi-year contract with monies attached to it — no financial side — I don’t see how that’s financial oversight.”
Carreira said she isn’t asking for a blank check, as was written in an article published this weekend by West Hawaii Today and the Hawaii Tribune-Herald. She could provide only that the contract amount is “definitely within the budget.”
“I understand the uncomfortableness that you may have,” she said. “Basically, I guess what it is: You have my word is that it’s definitely within budget because if it wasn’t we would have had to cancel the contract.”
Richards pointed out, however, that Mass Transit’s budget has “skyrocketed” in the last year. According to the budget, which includes grants, Mass Transit’s budget this year is $21.99, million up from $15.7 million.
“I know what you’re saying. I know that it’s a sealed bid, I got that part. But, again, I can’t support something because we as a body are charged with financial oversight of the county and without having any numbers attached to it,” he said.
Puna Councilwoman Ashley Kierkiewicz also told Carreira she needed more details for transparency and accountability. She prodded the administrator on the current contract with Polynesian Adventures for rental and operating buses that extends through the end of the year and pushed for details on how the agency is doing with securing its own fleet to negate the need for contracts.
Mass Transit is responsible for 33 routes on the Big Island, for which Carreira said it needs a total of 55 buses with spares. On Tuesday, Hele-On had just “10, hopefully 12” buses running and is working on parts to repair others. The remaining routes are picked up by contractors.
“It’s a concern for me because technically if these contractors – I’m not saying the current ones would say no to the extension of any contract — basically, I would have to cancel 20 routes,” Carreira said.
Carreira said four new buses ordered by the county should be complete in December with training to follow. The three hydrogen buses remain on hold, she said, noting she hoped to have them on island already. One electric vehicle is on island.
She said Mass Transit is exploring options, manufacturers and dealers and has received help from various county departments and current vendors.
“We’ve all worked as a team as much as we can,” she said.
Kierkiewicz interrupted her, saying that she didn’t disagree with her.
“I have no doubt in my mind that you are going to be great at working with all the stakeholders to implement the Mass Transit Master Plan,” Kierkiewicz said. “My big issue with this is I feel like its coming to us at the 11th hour and we’re having to have this dialogue on the floor.”
Carreira iterated that it was not intentional, and she only learned of the requirement after preparing to award the contract. She’s also under time constraints as she heads out Saturday for department business on the mainland through Oct. 2.
“I didn’t want to push it back more and more until I returned,” she said, “but that’s one of the things.”
“Brenda, I know,” Kierkiewicz interrupted.
“Guess what I feel like, right now? I feel like I’m being held hostage, like I got to do this or you’re going to lose 20 routes. And it’s like, well, I just feel like I’m a rubber stamp at this point and I don’t like feeling that way. It’s not your fault. It’s our process and I’m seeing now as we talk to you that it’s not working out in anyone’s favor,” she continued. “That’s just how I feel. I can’t support this in its current state — I support you like 150%. I know that you’re going to do amazing things for Mass Transit but I just — the way that this all came together just doesn’t sit well for me.”
Hilo Councilman Aaron Chung said what the committee was really looking at was a “clash of philosophies and the governmental principles.” The real question was whether the resolution is done prior to the contract being awarded or after.
“I have seen it done a number of ways and I’ve had discussions with the Corp Counsel’s office about this matter,” Chung said, noting his preference is to award the contract and then come back to the Council for approval-ratification so that the terms are disclosed.
At that point he said executive session, which is closed to the public, was a possibility. Richards agreed.
“It’s the only way we’re going to know our fiscal oversight if we know what the numbers are,” he said.
After emerging from executive session, committee members voted 6-3 to forward the resolution with a favorable recommendation to the County Council. No discussion was held. Voting “no” were Kierkiewicz, Richards and Hilo Councilwoman Susan Lee Loy.