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Court’s order seen as victory for public

By Junhan B. Todeno

SAIPAN, CNMI (Marianas Variety, June 16, 2011) –The Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) Superior Court yesterday granted former Saipan municipal council member Felipe Atalig’s motion for summary judgment regarding his request for numerous documents from the Tinian municipal government.

In an order issued yesterday, Associate Judge Perry B. Inos said summary judgment is granted in favor of Atalig regarding the defendants’ failure to make public records available within 10 days of the Open Government Act request.

The defendants are Tinian Mayor Ramon Dela Cruz and’ the municipal treasurer Allen Perez.

"It is undisputed that [the] defendants not only failed to make the public records available within 10 days of the requests, they also failed to respond at all until after this mandamus proceeding was initiated," the order said.

In an interview, Atalig said he was "very jubilant" about the court’s order, saying this will encourage the others who are seeking the truth from their government.

"This is a victory for the public," he said.

The court said the travel vouchers and trip reports requested by Atalig on Dec. 1 and 8 that still have not been produced by the Tinian municipal government should be made available for inspection.

Atalig said he will travel to Tinian on June 20 to get all the documents.

Atalig was represented by his lawyer Robert H. Myers while the counsel for the defendants was Lillian A. Tenorio.

On Dec. 7 and 8, 2010, Atalig, through the Open Government Act, requested numerous documents from Perez and Dela Cruz.

Both Dela Cruz and Perez failed to respond within 10 days of the request.

Atalig then filed a petition for mandamus, declaratory, injunctive, and other relief on Dec. 23.

The court said the Open Government Act applies to any public agency of the commonwealth which includes any municipality or political subdivision of the CNMI.

The court said the purpose of the law is to create transparency and enable the public to remain informed "so that we can have a functioning democracy."

"The allegation that there would be public records the threatened release of which would compel a public officer to accede to monetary demands reinforces the purpose of the [Act]," the court said.

The mayor and the municipal treasurer have failed to offer any evidence that Atalig made his request pursuant to an improper purpose, the court added.

On the contrary, the Court said, the evidence indicated that Atalig’s conduct served the legitimate purpose of achieving the lawful disclosure of public records.

"For example, Atalig’s interest in the travel vouchers and trip reports echoes the public concern over misappropriation of public funds. Regardless, this issue does not give rise to a triable issue of material fact because the [Open Government Act] mandates that ‘all public records shall be available for inspection by any person."

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