How 'public' are public authorities?

Date
Text Gerald Kato
Photographer

Robert Moses is often called the "master builder" of mid-20th century New York, where he shaped the towering skylines and congested freeways that have become emblematic of the Empire State. The title of Robert Caro's 1974 Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Moses, The Power Broker, captured the essence of the consummate urban planner.

The source of his power was something we're all too familiar with in Hawai'i: public authorities. The Hawaii Community Development Authority (HCDA), the Aloha Tower Development Authority, the Public Land Development Corporation (PLDC) and the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transit are a few examples of Moses' lasting influence on government planning.

Public authorities are quasi-governmental organizations that plan and create public works projects. They're not wholly government, but neither are they wholly private and, as critics point out, they lack the restraints of either. Supporters say they're a way of getting massive projects done. Moses used authorities as a means of creating large public works projects outside the normal channels of public accountability or political pressure. Moses got things done.

Of course, the downside (as Caro documented) is that Moses was unconcerned by the relocation and dislocation of existing neighborhoods and the impact that his projects would have on the urban landscape and social fabric of community. That should be of great concern to all of us in dealing with public authorities.

Setting up a public authority is a popular mechanism for lawmakers to delegate responsibilities to agencies outside the normal channels of government. Rather than have the Department of Land and Natural Resources -- an executive branch department -- handle all state lands, the Legislature tried to create the PLDC. In its most positive light, the public authority provides a means for government and private sector to work together on major public projects. In theory, this is supposed to remove politics from the planning equation, but in practice, politics is ever present -- perhaps even more so -- outside the normal channels of government. This raises questions of accountability.

When something goes awry, lawmakers will deny responsibility. "It's not us, it's the 'authority.'"

But who is the authority? Often times, it is a board of appointed citizens, business people, union leaders and others. Many may genuinely want to do the "right thing," whatever that may be, but none are elected or accountable beyond perhaps their ties to those who appointed them. As it is, there's not enough transparency in government -- and there is far less in public authorities. Who lobbies the staff? Who talks privately with the board? Are gifts and contributions monitored?

Moses is an extreme example of how the system can be manipulated to circumvent all public accountability for projects that have a major impact on the look and shape of a community, region or state. This leads to legitimate fears that important decisions affecting the lives of residents in this community are being made without much public scrutiny.

The legislature has established public authorities with almost no public input. The PLDC is one example of this. If it weren't for the controversy that followed, not much attention would have been paid to state lands offered for sale until it was too late for public intervention.

Once a public authority Is established, it is probably subject to less scrutiny in the news media than most government agencies. Reporters rarely attend the HCDA meeting unless there's a media event announcing plans for the next skyscrapers to built in Kaka'ako.

The HCDA is an example of a powerful authority whose planning and zoning powers trump those of the City and County of Honolulu. Indeed, the authority was created to carve out Kaka'ako as a special district outside the city planning and zoning controls, subject only to the powers invested in the authority's staff and board. In all likelihood, you may know who represents you on the City Council but not be able to name anyone on the authority board. It's significant because actions by this board will change Honolulu's landscape and lifestyle for generations to come.

The point is that public authorities in Hawaii are making big decisions. We should be mindful of lessons learned from Moses' use of authorities. We should give a lot more thought and attention to whether such authorities are an effective means of dealing with land and planning issues in the 21st century. They may well have a place in government, but what kind of accountability can the public expect from them? What kind of restraints are there? What are the tradeoffs to having unelected authorities making decisions that directly affect the lives of citizens?

The controversy over the PLDC may signal renewed concern over how important public policy decisions are made in Hawaii and whether there should be greater accountability by elected officials rather than faceless bureaucrats for the future direction of these islands.

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