CNMI DELEGATE CAUTIONS AGAINST TINIAN RENEGOTIATION

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Sablan: Fitial’s request essentially ‘renegotiating the Covenant

By Haidee V. Eugenio

SAIPAN, CNMI (Saipan Tribune, April 9, 2012) – Delegate Gregorio Kilili Sablan (Ind-MP) said Gov. Benigno R. Fitial may have gone too far in asking for a renegotiation of the CNMI's 100-year Tinian land lease agreement with the U.S. military, which he described as a "tongue-in-cheek" request to renegotiate the Covenant at a time when preparation for the training on Tinian of over 200 U.S. Marines from Japan is now in full throttle. This military training from May to June is dubbed "Exercise Geiger Fury MAG-12." MAG-12 stands for Marine Aircraft Group-12.

"The governor is essentially asking for the renegotiation of the Covenant," Sablan said in an interview with the Saipan Tribune over the weekend. "And we need to be careful what we wish for. We might just get it."

[PIR editor’s note: The current "spat" between Sablan and Fitial continues a trend of disagreements which the Saipan Tribune says "may have begun when [Sablan] turned down the governor's request for him to work on the repeal of the May 2008 law that placed CNMI immigration under federal control, soon after Sablan's first win in November 2008 as the CNMI's first delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives."]

Sablan, at the same time, commended Tinian Mayor Ramon Dela Cruz for his continued communication with the U.S. military to provide assistance in maintaining some portions of the leased land.

Dela Cruz earlier told the governor that there's no need to renegotiate the whole lease deal in light of the progress made by Tinian in military relations and the upcoming training of Marines from Japan, among other things.

Two-thirds of Tinian land is leased by the U.S. Department of Defense.

Fitial wrote a Feb. 27 letter to U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, asking for the renegotiation of the existing lease accord because he said none of the promised developments on Tinian has materialized for 35 years. The Tinian mayor didn't know about the request letter until late-March.

These promised developments include economic benefits to Tinian from military use of the island like job creations, and that the removal of land from private use has inhibited economic development on the island.

Fitial has yet to hear from Panetta's office.

Sablan said he thinks Panetta would eventually respond to Fitial's letter but "I doubt very much that they would renegotiate the Covenant and I hope that this doesn't also sidetrack Mayor Dela Cruz's great start on his new effort."

The delegate said the military's Tinian lease agreement with the CNMI is a crucial part of the Covenant, which established the political relationship between the United States and the Northern Marianas.

"The reason why we're part of the United States is because of the strategic [military] importance they placed on us," Sablan added.

He said any renegotiation of the Covenant would require an act of Congress. He said it should also be done in consultation with the people of Tinian, its mayor and others in the CNMI, not just the governor.

Sen. Henry San Nicolas (Cov-Saipan) said last night that he supports Fitial's request to renegotiate the land lease agreement, citing a lack of major military activities on Tinian that would economically benefit Tinian and the CNMI.

"I want it renegotiated, too," he said. "Just like what the governor said, none of the promised economic benefits came about for the people of Tinian."

San Nicolas said he supports the upcoming training of some 200 U.S. Marines on Tinian, but asked, "Where have these training been the past 35 years? I wish they started doing so over 30 years ago and continue doing so today. They have not done so."

Had the U.S. military used Tinian for training and other activities that will economically benefit the island, Tinian voters wouldn't have looked to a casino industry to help fuel its economy, he said.

"If the U.S. military does not have any major plans for Tinian, they should give back two-thirds of the island to the CNMI government so that my children and their children would see light at the end of the tunnel," he said.

Rep. Trenton Conner (R-Tinian) separately said that Tinian would like a better understanding of what the U.S. military intends to do with two-thirds of the land on Tinian.

"When the mayor made the initial request, there was no concrete activity yet planned by the military. That has changed since then because they are going to train here starting in May," he said.

He said he understands where the mayor and the governor are coming from. "But I think for now, we should wait and see how this training goes about and whether this type of activity will continue. I am hoping this is the start of economic benefits to Tinian, by having this kind of training on island," he added.

Conner also said renegotiation of the military land lease doesn't necessarily mean renegotiation of the Covenant.

'Exercise Geiger Fury'

All these talks about renegotiation of the Commonwealth's lease agreement comes at a time when preparations for "Operation Geiger" are in full gear.

Over 200 U.S. Marines are expected to take part in the exercise, the first major U.S. military training exercise on Tinian in a decade.

Don Farrell, the Tinian mayor's point man on military affairs, said they have received a message from Iwakuni, Japan, advising the mayor that the CNMI State Historic Preservation Officer, Melvin Faisao, has signed off on the last permit necessary for their operation to proceed.

"MAG -12 operations on Tinian are a go," Farrell said.

Officials from Marine Aircraft Group-12 Japan again visited the CNMI on Wednesday to discuss the training exercise.

Farrell said those who met with the mayor on Tinian were Maj. Andrew Reed, USMC, MAG-12 operations officer, and Michael Vasquez, program manager for U.S. Forces, Japan, Aviation and Training Program.

Joining the mayor and the MAG-12 contingent were many of Tinian's vendors.

Farrell said that Vasquez advised the group that this project has a "buy local" policy and that he was on Tinian to begin the process of discovering what goods and services can be provided by local vendors to meet the needs of MAG-12 operations.

He said Reed announced that an advance team of 10 to 15 Marines would arrive on Tinian by air on May 1. This group will stay at the Tinian Dynasty Hotel and Casino.

"The first of two high speed vessels will arrive at Tinian dock on or about May 10 - 11, carrying about half the Marine Air Group - 12 expeditionary force. After unloading their vehicles, the air support group will proceed to North Field to establish their bivouac. The high speed vessel will return to Japan, and return with the rest of the 200 Marines to Tinian about July 3 (sic). Full scale operations will begin immediately," Farrell said in a statement over the weekend.

The Marines will begin leaving Tinian on or about June 3, with the final group leaving on June 10 to 11, he added.

Community projects

While on Tinian and when not involved in their own operations, Farrell said the Marines will participate in several community relations projects.

"The mayor's office is working with all local agencies, including the Public School System, to compile a wish list of projects that might be completed with the help of U.S. Marines, either on this exercise or in the future. Each agency must supply its own materials for the project. The Marines will supply the manpower," he said.

Some of MAG-12's medical doctors and dentists have been licensed by the Commonwealth Healthcare Corp. to provide voluntary services while on Tinian.

"Because of the amount of heavy equipment the Marines will be using to prepare their expeditionary air field at North Field, the mayor is hopeful that many long overdue roads and parks projects on both public and military leased lands might finally be completed," Farrell said.

Vendors who did not have the opportunity to attend Wednesday's meeting with Vasquez are urged to contact Jose Kiyoshi, Tinian's resident department head for Commerce, at tiniancommerce2011@yahoo.com.

The Tinian mayor hopes that the MAG-12 operation benefits not only Tinian, but the entire CNMI as well.

"Tinian is proud to be a constructive contributor to the CNMI economy. With support, we can and will do more to help resolve the economic crisis that has befallen the Commonwealth," Dela Cruz said in a statement.

Farrell said that virtually all consumer goods sold on Tinian come from a Saipan wholesaler, who already paid business gross revenues.

"All BGRs collected on Tinian as a result of this operation go directly to the CNMI general fund," he added.

Delegate Sablan also said the upcoming training of Marines is something that the military needs to do on Tinian right now.

"Is it a start of something? I cannot say, but it's something that's happening," the delegate added.

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