Petitions Calling For Referendum On Saipan Casino Rejected

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Attorney General’s office says 20% of voters didn’t sign

By Haidee V. Eugenio

SAIPAN, CNMI (Saipan Tribune, August 8, 2014) – Two casino referendum petitions rejecting Saipan casino laws—which have since been repealed and reenacted in their entirety—failed to get at least 20 percent of CNMI registered voters’ valid signatures and are therefore not going to be presented to voters in the Nov. 4 general elections.

The Office of the Attorney General’s Aug. 6 decision comes on the same day the Lottery Commission approved a minimum $2 billion casino development agreement that would become final once the parent company of Best Sunshine International Ltd. accepts it.

That’s also the last day for filing petitions and candidacies with the Commonwealth Election Commission.

Each of the referendum petitions is required to muster at least 3,243 signatures, or 20 percent of registered CNMI voters as required by Article 9 Section 2(a) of the NMI Constitution.

The referendum petition on Public Law 18-38 had only 2,845 signatures, while the one on Public Law 18-43 only had 2,840 signatures.

Concerned citizen Leila Staffler told Saipan Tribune yesterday she’s disappointed "but not surprised" with the OAG’s decision.

"It is now up to the voters on Nov. 4, whether they want to elect those running for office who did not give voters a chance to have their voices heard on a major issues such as a casino on Saipan. Important questions still haven’t been answered such as those related to infrastructure plans. Can Saipan infrastructure such as utilities, roads, [and] airport handle that development? I hope lawmakers come up with a plan, or the island is doomed to fail," Staffler said.

PL 18-38, as amended by PL 18-43, was later repealed and reenacted in its entirety and became PL 18-56.

Many retirees waiting for their deferred 25-percent pension pressured lawmakers to pass the bill that became PL 18-56, while representatives of those who signed the casino referendum petitions said passing such a bill could potentially kill their referendum petitions.

Staffler said yesterday she questions the validity of the OAG’s Aug. 6 decision.

Among other things, she said, Gilbert Birnbrich as acting attorney general has a conflict of interest in certifying the referendum petitions because he is also a member of the Lottery Commission that accepted applications for an exclusive casino license on Saipan.

The commission picked Best Sunshine over Marianas Stars Entertainment Inc. and has since been negotiating with the former.

Birnbrich formally notified Election Commission executive director Robert A. Guerrero about the referendum petitions’ fate in two separate letters dated Aug. 6, copies of which were obtained yesterday.

A day after sending the letter, OAG issued a public statement summarizing its decision.

Review

In reviewing the referendum petition directed to PL 18-38, OAG said there were only 2,845 signatures of persons registered to vote in the CNMI—below the minimum required 3,243 valid signatures.

In reaching this number, OAG said 373 signatures were flagged for Election Commission review.

Of those 373 signatures, 247 were verified by the Election Commission as that of qualified voters and are reflected in the 2,845 number, OAG said.

The remaining 126 of the 373 flagged signatures came back with a "no match" by the Election Commission.

"Even if all ‘no match’ signatures were counted, the total number of signatures would only be 2,971 and still would not meet the 20-percent requirement," Birnbrich said in a two-page letter to the Election Commission’s executive director.

OAG’s review of the referendum petition directed at PL 18-43 had similar results. The petition contains 2,840 signatures of persons registered to vote in the CNMI.

In reaching this number, 560 signatures were flagged for the Election Commission’s review.

Of those 560 signatures, 453 signatures were verified as that of qualified voters and are reflected in the 2,840 number.

"107 of the 560 flagged signatures came back with a ‘no match’ by the Election Commission. Even if all ‘no match’ signatures were counted, the total number of signatures would only be 2,947 and still would not meet the 20-percent requirement," Birnbrich told Guerrero.

Based on these figures, Birnbrich certified that the two petitions do not meet the requirements of Section 2(a) of Article 9 of the Commonwealth Constitution.

Accordingly, he said, the referendum petitions to reject PLs 18-38 and 18-43 "should not be presented to the voters at the next general election."

On July 21, the OAG also certified that a referendum petition to reject the Saipan electronic gaming law or PL 18-30 will not be presented to voters in the November general elections for not meeting the minimum 20 percent of the CNMI’s registered voters’ signatures.

Staffler hand-delivered the three referendum petitions on the electronic gaming and casino laws to the OAG on July 7.

In the past, the Election Commission assisted with the certification process and reviewed petitions on the AG’s behalf.

But this year, due to the influx of candidate petitions, the Election Commission could not provide the same level of assistance with the certification process, Birnbrich said in his Aug. 6 letters.

To address this issue, the Election Commission provided the voter registration list and agreed to compare signatures for entries that were flagged for signature checks, Birnbrich added.

The voter registration list includes, among other things, the name, addresses, precinct and date of birth for each registered voter.

Saipan voters had twice rejected casinos on Saipan. But early this year, the Legislature passed a bill authorizing casino operation on Saipan without public hearings and without a committee report, drawing lawsuits and complaints. Passage, repeal, and reenactment of Saipan casino measures were debated and discussed by lawmakers and members of the public.

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