Thursday, December 1, 2011

Rail Opponents Finally Get Their Day in Court, but That Won’t End Their Outside Spinning Campaign

Plaintiff Cliff Slater (left) and lead attorney Nicholas Yost (right) leave court.
One day down in the lawsuit that’s intended to kill rail, and what we know so far is that final resolution of the case may not happen until next summer at the earliest.

That’s the biggest news to come out of the first hearing in the case – the potential for months of delay and increasing project costs.

Despite that prospect, we also know the city wants to adhere to the project’s sequential timeline. City deputy corporation counsel Gary Takeuchi (at right) stated: “We’re just going to do our best to try to get the project done on time, under budget, and deal with these legal issues as quickly as we can.”

The city’s determination to keep the project moving prompted plaintiffs’ lead attorney Nicholas Yost to threaten more legal maneuvering: “If the city and the FTA are going to plunge ahead and start significant kinds of construction, we will have no alternative but to go in for a preliminary injunction.”

Arguing on the Outside
The judge in the case took under advisement the city’s motion to disqualify some of the plaintiffs for their lack of involvement during years of environmental process. “None of these particular plaintiffs participated at all, and they didn’t raise certain claims that they’re now complaining about in the lawsuit,” said deputy corporate counsel Takeuchi.

Speaking with reporters outside the court building, plaintiff Ben Cayetano (at right) responded: “I’ve written op-eds, and then the city has responded to my op-eds. I’ve said things at press conferences, and the mayor and (Wayne) Yoshioka and all those guys get a little bent out of shape and they make statements. What more notice to you need?”

That’s a strange query by the former governor, who’s an attorney. Does Mr. Cayetano equate newspaper commentaries and press conferences with the formal processes of the Alternatives Analysis and Environmental Impact Statement effort?

Mr. Cayetano may feel comfortable spinning that argument with reporters, but we doubt he’d try it inside the courtroom. In the court of public opinion, Oahu citizens have every right to question the plaintiffs’ motives as they pursue an action that could boost project costs through further delay. (They might also want to ask the former governor and the others to defend their favored alternative to rail, if they have one.)

Shifting Responsibility
In light of who’s actually delaying the rail project with the lawsuit, the most remarkable statement made yesterday came from rail opponent Cliff Slater: “The city is doing everything possible to delay the process, to run up the bill.,” he said. “They sit there with five attorneys.”

That’s typical of Mr. Slater’s tactics throughout his long opposition to mass transit – to disavow the obvious while introducing an irrelevancy. What does the number of city attorneys have to do with anything? One might even conclude that more than five would be reasonable to fight off the Slater-led assault on the most important infrastructure project here of all time. Mr. Slater is more responsible than any other person for the delay in building a viable rapid transit travel alternative in Honolulu. He fought Mayor Frank Fasi’s project 20 years ago with his pro-car, pro-highway agenda, and he’s doing it again.

Why this Lawsuit?
By early 2011, it was clear Mr. Slater’s efforts to block the current rail project were failing. Pro-rail City Council and mayoral candidates had been elected, and pro-rail charter amendments had been passed in 2008 and 2010.

With his efforts gaining no traction as shown also in scientific public opinion surveys, Mr. Slater recruited others to join the lawsuit, which was filed in May. The plaintiff’s pre-trial media campaign began in August with their 1,500-word newspaper op-ed piece that contained nothing new and served only to hype the lawsuit and raise money to hire their California attorney, Mr. Yost.

The so-called Gang of Four (Mr. Slater and his three high-profile recruits) followed the op-ed with a radio show, a public television program and various speaking opportunities. They succeeded in grabbing the spotlight with their dumbed-down and misleading rhetoric; plaintiff Randy Roth’s “shame on the city” explosion on public radio’s “Town Square” program was perhaps the most hyperbolic exclamation of this campaign.

It’s a campaign that no doubt will continue outside the walls of the federal court building. It’s only a matter of time before Mr. Slater floats his familiar assertion that rail is supposed to reduce traffic congestion, and if it doesn’t, why build it? (See rail’s actual goals.)

His continued misstatements about the rpoject and what it will accomplish says a lot about the integrity of Mr. Slater’s campaign and also, unfortunately, about the lost art of reportorial challenge. Just once we’d like to hear a reporter stop Mr. Slater in mid-sentence and challenge him on yet another of his obfuscations about rail.

It’s a style of journalism that once was common in Honolulu under different media leadership, but it probably won’t happen any time soon. It might spoil a good sound bite.

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