Marianas Variety

SAIPAN, CNMI (Jan. 20) – Slowly but surely the new Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands administration is getting a handle on the big mess it was elected to fix, and slowly but surely it is getting the idea that the governor must communicate with the general public, disclosing both actions and intentions, to meet the transparency test. Governor Fitial promised that his administration would schedule regular press conferences — something his two predecessors never did — and this is commendable indeed.

The independent press, however, also expects the governor to be prepared to say something at these media conferences. It will not be enough to simply make blithe announcements about transparency and general statements about how bad government finances are. The governor knows that the public also needs particulars because much remains unanswered.

Almost everyone in the community, for example, knows that the previous administration was spending well beyond its means and was not paying for critical government obligations like power bills, employee contributions, vendors, scholarships and the like. This situation cannot have magically corrected itself overnight, so we conclude that these problems only got worse as the new administration stepped into the job. But how bad is it? And how does the new administration plan to handle the problems it inherited? What new measures will be required?

Spending limits, unfortunately, don’t seem to be a priority for this new administration when two new luxury vehicles were purchased right off for the governor and lieutenant governor. We’re hoping that the administration will prove us wrong.

The general public, in any case, needs to know what the Babauta-Benavente administration failed to disclose, and there will be full-disclosure required of this new administration as well.

There are already questions to be asked of this new administration, like what is holding up the rest of its appointments? There is also public interest in the fate of boards, and recalcitrant board members and staff. Some boards have not advanced their missions, but have spent an inordinate amount of time and money advancing political and personal objectives that seem to always include junkets. All this has resulted in delayed projects, poorly managed programs and abysmal public service. Commonwealth Development Authority, Marianas Public Lands Authority, Commonwealth Ports Authority and Commonwealth Utilities Corporation come immediately to mind as examples of agencies that need better organization, more capable board members and a newer and more vibrant orientation.

There are, to be sure, able board members and some highly qualified and capable staff on some boards, but this is the exception, not the general rule.

So what plans do the administration have for boards? Having asked for courtesy resignations, have they received any? And if so, from whom?

In a related issue, the new administration seemed to be backing off its campaign promise to roll back the surcharge when it said recently that it cannot do so "for now." Meaning that they will fulfill this promise later. The problem is that they promised to roll back the surcharge immediately upon taking office. Why did they change their minds? Did they not know the situation while they were campaigning and were therefore ignorant of the true circumstances at Commonwealth Utilities Corporation?

But this is hard to believe. They had a Utilities board member on their team, and their candidate for lieutenant governor is a former Utilities executive director.

Perhaps they did know the situation at the Utilities Corporation and simply promised the general public something they couldn’t deliver on.

Some explanations are in order.

January 25, 2006

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