Saturday, August 16, 2008

A Crumbling Paradise

For anyone living outside of the Commonwealth of the Mariana Islands who may wonder what politics are like on a small island or what is it that's causing the economic problems that plague our islands, Rep. Tina Sablan's letter below candidly and thoroughly will help one understand. This letter is another courageously written, must-read from Ms. Sablan. We will see positive change when more persons like her make up the majority of the Commonwealth's political representation and likely not before then.

Dear people of the Commonwealth,

These are dark and troubled times for all of us, to say the least. Power and water outages are actually worsening. The Lieutenant Governor, Secretary of Commerce, former CUC Executive Director, and the Lieutenant Governor's sister have just been indicted in a CUC public corruption scandal that has shaken the Commonwealth, but perhaps surprised few. The Governor has just declared yet another state of "emergency" on the Commonwealth Ports Authority. The Governor also declared a state of "emergency" on CUC on August 1, suspending CUC's procurement regulations, suspending the Public Utilities Commission, and paving the way for a sole-sourced privatization contract. Strangely, it took two whole weeks for news of the CUC "emergency" declaration to break, not just in the papers, but even in the Legislature.

Meanwhile, lawmakers have been trying to figure out how to react. "Close relative of ours that he is, should Timothy Villagomez resign or be removed from his post as Lieutenant Governor?" (Do we seriously have to ask? Family relations are immaterial. It is fine to presume that he is innocent until proven guilty, but we should not allow Villagomez to remain in public office. He simply cannot maintain his position with any degree of credibility. He should resign or be removed.) "Should James Santos resign or be removed from his post as Secretary of Commerce?" (Yes, for the same reasons that apply to Villagomez.) "Should these damning indictments make us question even more the overall integrity and stability of the Administration?" (How could they not?) "Suppose more public officials fall as a result of these CUC investigations?" (Then let justice be served. It is about time. We suffer everywhere and on a daily basis the tangible effects of public corruption. For the sake of our families and our community, I encourage all citizens who have kept quiet about any knowledge they have had about public corruption to come forward with their knowledge to the appropriate authorities.)

And what should the Legislature do about these latest in a series of sweeping and highly questionable emergency declarations by the Governor? Should we throw our hands up helplessly like we have every time with every other emergency declaration, and complain to each other at the next session?

Or do we finally have the "numbers," as my colleagues like to call it -- and the political courage -- to mount a formidable challenge to the Governor's alarming and continuing abuses of power?

In lieu of coming up with any answers to these questions, on Wednesday, August 13 the Saipan delegation held a session to pass two bills that were not on even on the agenda and which were introduced as substitutes for completely different bills just that morning. The first took away $165,844 from the so-called "lapsed funds" (they were not "lapsed" and "dormant" as some of my colleagues claimed) of the nearly-completed Street Naming and Street Numbering Project in order to give to various pet projects, some worthier than others. We also passed a bill earmarking $4.7million in anticipated poker revenues for Fiscal Year 2009, and ultimately gave away:
$3million for the SHEFA scholarship program which has yet to respond in any meaningful way to improprieties uncovered by the Public Auditor;
$450,000 for the Rota Gaming Commission, without having any idea as to how the money would be spent, or how it would be paid back, or how we would explain ourselves to our Saipan constituents, who voted no to casino gaming in our senatorial district;
$100,000, more than doubled from the initial proposal, for the newly-born Marianas Trades Institute, without so much as a glance at their business license, or a plan as to how the money would be spent;
$50,000 for the Little League, doubling the funding we have given in previous years and ignoring the fact that our children play many other sports in the Commonwealth that do not receive a penny of public funds;
$30,000 for the A & E design of yet another baseball field in Navy Hill;
$25,000 for a Fishing Derby, more than doubled from previous years' funding -- a derby in which some of my colleagues personally participate every year;
$50,000 for the annual Liberation Day Carnival, despite allegations of wasteful expenditures of public funds and a pending request from one of our members for an audit; and
over $700,000 for the paving of various secondary roads that most of us had never even heard of.
I voted no to both bills. Five other legislators also voted no to the first bill, but I was the only one to vote no to the second. At the end of the vote, House Speaker Arnold Palacios advised me to "jump on the train" before I get left behind. The train analogy is a favorite in the Legislature; I have heard it countless times in House and Senate sessions. I said that jumping on the train is fine if it is going in the right direction, but if the train is headed towards a cliff, then perhaps it is time to change the drivers. Senate President Pete Reyes remarked that compromise is the nature of lawmaking, but what counts is being able to go home at the end of the day and say that one did something good for the people. And it became clearer than ever to me that that lawmakers who can go home and seriously feel like they did something good for the people after passing bills like the ones we passed on Wednesday, are part of what's wrong with the Commonwealth.

The particular culture of gamesmanship and gross irresponsibility that dominates in our Legislature and that places such a stranglehold on democracy in our Commonwealth was not inevitable, nor is it inherent in lawmaking as some of my colleagues would like to believe. It was created over time, and it was created by men -- and as such, it can be changed. Lawmakers who see nothing wrong with the way we do business in the Legislature have been there so long they probably cannot see it, and probably never will.

Which brings me to the popular initiative to apply the Open Government Act to the Legislature: some have asked me, why should citizens have to work so hard to compel their elected representatives to issue public notices for meetings and to open up their books upon request, like every other government agency and department? And the answer, of course, is that they shouldn't. But it begs the question, why do we continually elect and reelect lawmakers who don't believe the Open Government Act should apply to them?

Why, for that matter, do we elect and reelect public officials who believe that they should be above the law, that they are entitled to the office they hold, that they have been elected only to lead and not to listen, only to lead and not to serve -- public officials who have failed us time and time again? Why do so many of us remain silent about the government waste and abuse that we see, despite our growing anger, our mounting bills, our increasing anxieties, and our declining quality of life? How bad do things have to get before we will finally rise up and speak out against the misgovernance that is destroying our beloved community?

Is change possible in the Commonwealth? Yes. Of course it is. But change requires work. It requires honest, fresh, and visionary leaders to get organized, to make a conscientious decision to fight the good fight for our Commonwealth, and to step up to the plate and run for public office. And it requires the awakening of all our people, to realize that we always get the government we deserve, that government should serve the people not the other way around, that we have nothing to fear from the those whom we elect to represent us, and that we should finally, once and for all, change the way we vote so that we may also change the way we govern ourselves.

The question is, are we ready to change?

I welcome all questions, comments, and ideas. I can be reached at 664-8931 or 285-3935, or by email at

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