The CNMI Deserves Competent And Trustworthy Leaders

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By Jose S. Dela Cruz

SAIPAN, CNMI (Saipan Tribune, Dec. 29, 2015) – For four centuries after Ferdinand Magellan’s voyage around the world, the Northern Mariana Islands were colonized successively by three world powers: Spain, Germany, and Japan. During that long period of time, the people of the islands had no power, political or otherwise. They were simply governed without their consent. They became subjects of the colonial governments that exercised complete control over them.

After World War II ended, the islands became a ward of the United Nations under trusteeship status, with the United States as the administering authority. Twenty-five years into the trusteeship, we had the unique opportunity to freely choose our own political status. After several years of political status negotiations, we voted, overwhelmingly, in 1975 to become a member of the American political family, under a "commonwealth" arrangement.

A fundamental aspect of our commonwealth relationship with the United States is our right as people of the Northern Marianas to govern ourselves. This is the "right to self-government" that we, every now and then, would point to whenever we want to remind the federal government of the central feature of our commonwealth relationship.

Under the political arrangement that we negotiated with the United States, we began governing ourselves on Jan. 9, 1978. That was the day our first elected public officials took their oath of office in the executive and legislative branches of the CNMI government.

Thirty-eight years have now passed since we began governing ourselves under our own constitution. As a member of the American political family, though, we are mindful that, under the terms of the Covenant, we have placed ourselves under the sovereignty of the United States, our adopted homeland. This is the reason why the provisions of the United States Constitution generally apply to the Northern Marianas, except as noted in the Covenant agreement.

During the first 25 years of commonwealth government, our leaders carried out satisfactorily their duties and responsibilities under our Constitution and laws. Over the past 10 years, however, an unhealthy political development started to take place in the CNMI. We began to see a decline in the quality of governance by CNMI public officials. "Lackluster" and "mediocre" are words that we have used at times to criticize their sub-par performance. Both of these terms, however, have to do with issues of competency and ability. But during the last six years, the decline in quality of governance has worsened from issues of competency and ability to issues of integrity and honesty.

About six years ago, we began to see our public officials commit more violations of law and breach of the public trust. Many of these violations were essentially acts of political corruption. As a result, we began to see a marked decline in the quality of CNMI governance. Such downward turn in the quality of governance has continued to get worse. Acts of corruption by CNMI public officials are now taking place openly and, sometimes, flagrantly. We have looked in shock and astonishment at such shameful turn in CNMI public governance, because we had never experienced such egregious misconduct by CNMI public officials previously. Let me try to explain.

Over the past six years, we began seeing the commission of intentional malfeasance and misconduct by CNMI public officials. These acts constituted either actual violations of law or a breach of the public trust, or both.

As a result of such wrongdoings, we have seen the fall from grace of many of our high public officials. For example, we have seen a sitting governor, a sitting lieutenant governor, an appointed attorney general, two sitting senators, a sitting mayor and a number of other public officials indicted, convicted, and sent to prison for violating either federal law or Commonwealth law. Many of these violations of law were essentially acts of corruption. (Interestingly, for previously pointing out such acts of corruption, this writer has been accused that he is the one who is corrupt, presumably for reminding the people of the CNMI of the infectious and harmful nature of corruption in public office.)

Two years ago, the CNMI casino industry was implemented by our elected officials with the enactment into law of the exclusive casino gaming legislation. The legislative enactment of this industry intentionally and willfully disregarded two previous Commonwealth-wide referenda that had prohibited a casino industry in the CNMI. Sadly, however, the casino legislation is now the law and will remain the law until it is repealed. But the manner in which this unwelcome law was passed by members of the 19th CNMI Legislature was very disturbing because it never had the backing of the people of the CNMI.

In tandem with the governor and lieutenant governor, the members of the present 19th Commonwealth Legislature, against the express wishes of the people of the Commonwealth, went ahead and passed the exclusive casino gaming legislation. This act of defiance by our lawmaking body has since cast serious doubt on the integrity and trustworthiness of our present lawmakers, including the governor and lieutenant governor who were very instrumental in the passage of this legislation.

As if that were not enough, soon after the unwelcome enactment of the exclusive casino legislation two years ago, a sinister political development began taking place in the CNMI. We started seeing the intrusion into and influence-peddling by certain investors in the official affairs of the CNMI government.

At no time in the history of the Commonwealth have we seen investors come into the CNMI and literally begin telling our elected leaders what to do. The people of the CNMI have stared in shock and disbelief at the audacity of these investors as they openly and flagrantly try to curry favor from CNMI public officials.

The people of the CNMI, for some time now, have been frustrated and disgusted over the way our elected officials have literally bowed in public to these unscrupulous investors. Without hesitation or second thought, our public officials have gone out of their way to accommodate the requests of these investors: for public land acquisitions, for amendments to the zoning law restrictions, for changes in existing legislations, and so forth (even allowing these investors to run and operate many of our public events and festivities). And they continue to do so openly and unashamedly.

2016 is an election year. I believe it is critical for the people of the Commonwealth to start thinking now about our present state of affairs and the future of the Commonwealth. Do we want private investors and interests to run our government? Do we want our elected officials to continue being manipulated by private investors and interests? Are our present elected leaders serving the people of the CNMI, or have they lost sight of their constitutional duties and responsibilities? What is the point of electing leaders to serve in our executive and legislative branches when, after the election, they end up being manipulated by private investors, instead of promoting the best interests of the people?

I believe it is high time for the people of the CNMI to soberly assess what has been happening in the CNMI government. I also believe that, after serious reflection regarding what our elected leaders have been doing over the past two years, the people of the CNMI will agree that our leaders have lost sight of the fact that their primary mission as public servants is to promote the best interests of the people of the CNMI, not the private interest of unscrupulous investors and individuals.

There is no question whatsoever that people of the Commonwealth deserve competent, trustworthy, and conscientious leaders. We deserve leaders who understand that their duty and responsibility, first and foremost, is to serve the people. When our elected leaders fail to do so, they must be replaced by those who will. Otherwise, we have no one to blame but ourselves.

So for 2016, are we ready to take on the challenge of voting into office only those individuals who are competent and trustworthy, and who are truly serious about serving the people of the CNMI? In order to see this happen, we need to begin formulating a realistic voting strategy that will ensure a change in leadership in the Legislature in 2016 and in the executive and legislative branches in 2018.

Jose S. Dela Cruz is a former justice of the CNMI Supreme Court.

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