STAR-BULLETIN / MAY 2003
Gov. Linda Lingle tours an empty building at Honolulu Harbor with Rod Haraga, who was Department of Transportation director at the time. During his last 18 months on the job, Haraga was stripped of much of his authority. CLICK FOR LARGE
Haraga lost power long before losing job
An "inability to get off first base" led to unusual changes
Rod Haraga, the once highly visible head of the state Transportation Department, was stripped of much of his power for the last 18 months of his four years of service.
When Gov. Linda Lingle announced in December that Haraga would not be reappointed, she said only that he had decided to "pursue other interests." Haraga disputed that explanation at the time and expressed surprise over Lingle's decision to drop him.
But after a lawsuit on Maui shed some light on the personnel matter, the Lingle administration acknowledged this week that for about the last 18 months of his tenure as transportation director, Haraga's deputies in charge of highways, airports, harbors and administration reported to Lingle's Chief of Staff Bob Awana, and not Haraga.
Lingle would not say specifically why the veteran highway and transportation engineer's authority had been so severely restricted. Haraga did not return repeated telephone calls from the Star-Bulletin.
"We wanted results at a higher level in some of the divisions in the department, and so the chief of staff would have weekly briefings with the deputies," Lingle said when asked why Haraga's power was restricted. She termed it "a management issue on my part."
Awana said he decided to have weekly meetings with Haraga and the four deputies in the department.
"He (Haraga) still had the authority to do a number of things, but where items would bottleneck, I would remove the bottleneck," Awana said. "I would step in and make the final decision if he was having a problem making the final decision or if there was clearly a dispute between the deputy and the director."
Awana termed the problems within the Transportation Department as "an inability to get off first base."
Asked why Haraga had not been fired earlier, Awana said Haraga was "guru when it came to highways. ... He had a lot of good assets, and we felt that over time these matters would resolve themselves." But "they did not resolve themselves."
Haraga had a weekly radio program and was the public face of the department, appearing on television with a hard hat and orange safety vest whenever there was a major highway problem. When earthquakes off the Big Island struck in October, Haraga was asked to give live reports to the national news media.
Barry Fukunaga, whom Lingle named to replace Haraga, had been the deputy director for harbors. He declined to say what led to the loss of confidence in Haraga's leadership.
"Essentially, what we had done was decentralize the department," Fukunaga said yesterday. "At that time the deputies were given more responsibility to manage the line activities of their respective divisions."
Senate President Colleen Hanabusa questioned the changes. "Is Mr. Fukunaga going to run the department, or is it going to be run from the fifth floor (Lingle's office)?" Hanabusa asked. "This is much too important a department to be run with a puppet director."
Fukunaga said yesterday that the changes in 2005 were positive because the deputies could make faster decisions and expedite transportation projects. "I think it helped us tremendously," he said.
Since Fukunaga replaced Haraga, the department has moved back to its old procedures without the weekly meetings, Fukunaga and Lingle said.
After Haraga left the state, he joined the city Design and Construction Department. He came to state government after working as a project manager for KFC Engineering Management. He earned praise as the Los Angeles City deputy engineer who was in charge of reconstruction after the 1994 Northridge earthquake.