City officials back off on transit meetings; legislators step in
City officials have decided to open transit selection meetings to the public, while the state Senate considers setting deadlines for action.
Meetings at which a panel of experts discusses and chooses the type of transit system the city plans to build will be open to the public, as they should be.
Taxpayers have a huge stake in what will be one of the largest projects the city has undertaken -- and an expensive one, at that. They are due the assurance of straightforward decision-making.
While the public properly has a role in transit considerations, state Senate leaders are crossing the boundary between legislating and administrating by seeking to impose deadlines on the city's planning process for the system. They are meddling when there appears to be no reason for concern.
A bill moving through the Senate would suspend a tax surcharge collected to help pay for the transit system if the city doesn't make a selection by the end of June. As plans now stand, the city's expert panel will do so by the end of this month.
The bill also calls for the city to award contracts for the project by the end of the year, a deadline that cannot be met because federal law requires an environmental impact statement before such transactions. Moreover, the complexity and size of the system demands a thorough review; rushing an assessment would be irresponsible.
There seems to be no compelling reason for state lawmakers to be pushing the city along. However, it is not inconceivable that with revenues dropping, legislators might be looking covetously at the more than $135 million the city has in its transit pot.
Meanwhile, the city's elected leaders, having yielded their duty for choosing a transit system to the panel, have reluctantly granted that the experts' meetings will be public. The Hannemann administration earlier claimed the meetings needed to be secret because companies vying for the project would otherwise have to reveal proprietary information.
After some City Council members objected and sought an opinion from the Office of Information Practices, the administration relented, though still contending that the panel is not bound by the state's Sunshine Law. But without the OIP opinion, officials can still shut off the public if it chooses and there are no guarantees that information used in the panel's decision-making will not be restricted. With no shortage of transit opponents, city officials should be wary of potential legal potholes as they move the project forward.
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