Congressman Ed Propst (D-Precinct 1, Saipan) wrote an open letter to Gov. Ralph Torres responding to the governor's rhetorical criticism, "What's (sic) your solutions?"
The following is Mr. Propst's open letter to Mr. Torres:
Dear Governor Torres,
Thank you for recently saying in an interview that you welcome criticism and posed a question to the public, especially your critics, in which you said, "What's your solution?"
Now that you have asked, is it possible to answer your question with you accepting this criticism and taking it to heart, without having to hear from your highly paid political advisors who lack the humility you try to exemplify? To date, have you asked your DPS Commissioner Robert Deleon Guerrero to apologize for his explosive behavior at the Ways and Means hearing when Rep. Tina Sablan asked questions about the 11 officers who were unfairly furloughed? Because we have yet to hear one. The questions related to nepotism and unfair hiring and firing are valid complaints that were brought to the attention of several members of the House. Based on his answers, Commissioner Guerrero admitted to not following Civil Service rules and regulations on furloughs. What is the solution to this, Governor? You can ask for an independent audit on the furloughs and the hiring practices of immediate family members.
As for solutions to what is going on right now?
For starters, you could visit the villages and see the real pain and suffering happening right now. While you were away for two weeks with Mr. Robert Arrington and friends and family visiting the Northern Islands, the people whom elected you as governor were getting evicted from their homes, and trying to figure out how to pay for their power and water, and even put food on the table. Hunger and homelessness are real problems that must be addressed immediately. I have a constituent who called me this morning and told me he will be evicted by July 24 if he does not receive his PUA, which will be used to pay for his overdue rent, which he has been unable to pay because he was furloughed due to the pandemic and is still awaiting his PUA.
With regard to hunger and feeding families, one solution is to push for disaster food stamps, as was distributed after Yutu. If this is not possible, then please divert some of the COVID-19 funds to non-profit organizations like Empty Vessel Ministry and Karidat and Salvation Army to replenish their food banks so they can help feed families right now.
As for businesses struggling right now, please utilize COVID-19 funds as Guam Governor Lou Leon Guerrero did. Instead of increasing fees and taxes on businesses trying to survive, let’s consider tax breaks or the lowering of fees. Every bit helps, and the government needs to do its part to help these businesses survive. If you can give carte blanche to Imperial Pacific and the casino industry and give them everything they have ever wanted and the kitchen sink along with their ninth amendment to the CLA and 50% off their community benefit fund when they never even fulfilled it in the first place, then you can help lobby for the same breaks for small businesses, which are the backbone of every economy.
With regard to your two-week vacation to the Northern Islands, you most certainly are entitled to a two-week vacation, because everyone needs some time off. But what you are not entitled to is using local taxpayer funds to finance this vacation/promotion. If you honestly believe that this tax-payer funded vacation is going to bring in high-end tourists that will spend millions of dollars in visiting the Northern Islands because they watched a YouTube star's video, then have I got some beautiful prime property to sell you on Farallon de Medinilla (FDM).
Speaking about FDM, let us not forget that it has been used for bombing target practice by the military since October, 1971. In 1983, the United States government signed a 50-year lease with the CNMI for a measly $20,600 while continuing to drop bombs on it. $20,600 equates to about the same amount of illegal overtime one of your cabinet members made in three months for lifting boxes, or performing some other impossible feat that apparently no average front line worker could do. But I digress and apologize.
While the vast majority of us islanders are pro-military because we love America and democracy and understand that freedom isn't free and comes with sacrifice, what we are not so fond of and unwilling to sacrifice is the desecration and destruction of our limited natural resources. Our land in the Commonwealth is scarce and sacred, and we do not want it bombed or polluted. We have an obligation to protect Pagan and every island in our Commonwealth.
While we welcome Mr. Robert Arrington back to the CNMI and thank him for promoting our islands, I would hope he could meet with some of our protectors of Pagan and guardians of Gani to explain the harmful, long-term effects bombing has on our ecosystem, because when interviewed, Mr. Arrington had this to say about the military and our islands:
“I think the military will help make it (Pagan) better. They will want to protect it and they will want to make it better…and they will want to clear the runway and the marina, whatever needs to be there, I think they will be behind that.”
I highly recommend he meet with concerned community members who have made it their life mission to stop bombing and the destruction or taking of our precious natural resources. They have a lot of data and history they can share with him.
Governor Torres, for the record, when I have guests visiting from off-island, I entertain them and will take some time off from work, so I can understand your two-week vacation. But I don't use federally funded boats and equipment and supplies when doing so.
During the House Ways and Means Committee meeting with DPS Commissioner Guerrero, I was fortunate to be able to sit in and ask some questions as a non-member of the committee. Commissioner Guerrero admitted that there are only three DPS boats for Saipan and only two are operational because one is not working.
Governor, there were two DPS boats that escorted you and Mr. Arrington and family and friends on this trip.
When I asked if this had impacted emergency operations for Saipan by taking these two boats, Commissioner said no, because they were not stationed there and were used for bringing supplies back and forth and that the boats would leave in the morning and come back in the evening, and that each way took six hours.
But if it took six hours to get to Pagan and six hours to get back, and probably a couple of hours to refuel and rest and prepare for the ride back, you are looking at about 14 hours of any given day that Saipan did not have high-speed search and rescue boats available in case someone went missing in our seas. This creates a problem.
What I also found out was that while DPS had to furlough 11 employees because of the huge budget cuts, it was DPS that had to fund its own fuel and salaries and overtime for the DPS boating safety crew who went on this two-week vacation to provide safety and security. This trip was NEVER budgeted for DPS, but yet DPS had to absorb the costs. Is this FAIR to DPS, especially to those who were furloughed? Just the cost of fuel could have easily paid the annual salary of at least one of the 11 furloughed. Since you asked for solutions, I highly recommend you use some of the MVA money you used for this trip to pay for all fuel and all overtime and salary costs and any other incidentals paid for by DPS. This would be truly appreciated.
With regard to PUA and FPUC, our people need answers. The ten numbers listed are nearly impossible to get through, perhaps due to the sheer volume trying to call in. Those who are qualified for PUA and have been waiting so long to receive it currently have no source of income and no way of paying bills. Fortunately, PUA will supposedly be paid out this week, but what about all those who are ineligible for PUA? Can you explain to them what help is available right now? I have recommended options but given the vast resources at your disposal, you may be able to provide better solutions, but would it be possible to work with the Saipan Chamber of Commerce in promoting a temp agency that focuses on temporary work for those who are actively seeking employment? Just about any job could help right now.
Another solution is to IMMEDIATELY stop any overtime or double pay that is being paid out to your cabinet members. You initially said that none of your cabinet members got paid, but as it turned out, they in fact did. Just put an end to it. The late Governor Eloy Inos did not pay out any overtime to cabinet members after Super Typhoon Soudelor, and come to think of it, neither did former Governor Benigno Fitial, because they both knew cabinet members were ineligible for overtime based on their NOPA and contracts and also on Commonwealth law. Please understand that moving boxes or writing additional speeches does not constitute or validate overtime and double pay. Check with Attorney General Edward Manibusan and read his nine-page opinion on overtime, and also check with OPA. What you need to try and understand is the fact that cabinet members are already paid at least double of what front line workers make and serve at your pleasure and beck and call, so it does not make sense to be paying them additional money at a time when the CNMI is broke. And if they are not satisfied with their current salary, they can always resign. There are hundreds of qualified furloughed employees ready and willing to take their place, many of whom have degrees and credentials and the qualifications to lead. Just a suggestion.
Other solutions include:
- Be consistent with the COVID testing and to listen to the experts at CHCC. If they say that all passengers should be tested upon arrival and on the fifth day and that they undergo mandatory quarantine for those five days, then don't change it, even if you are being pressured. Yes, we do want to eventually open up tourism again, but it must be done in a safe manner that will not risk the lives of our people.
- Let MVA do their own marketing to tourists while you focus on this tourism timeout to initiate and spearhead the clean-up and beautification at all our tourist sites, from cleaning public restrooms to repainting graffiti and fixing broken safety rails. Also, please ensure that we put up signs in different languages for dangerous tourist spots so that locals and tourists are aware of high-risk areas. Under your leadership, all of this can be done in collaboration with DPW and the Office of the Mayor and volunteers.
- Illegal dumping and litter is at an all-time high right now. Consider waiving the tipping fee during this pandemic and encourage people to dump their trash at the transfer station instead of illegally dumping their trash to avoid the tipping fees. Some people will claim that the tipping fee is only a few dollars, but if you don't have any income, you probably do not have money to pay the tipping fee. Offer incentives for those who do throw their trash at the transfer station and see if companies that are doing well in this pandemic would be willing to sponsor some of the prizes to help incentivize proper disposal of trash. We have tried raising and lowering litter fines and it so far has not done anything, so let's pitch a different alternative together.
- Work with NMC CREES and local farmers and gardeners in promoting and teaching how to grow some food crops that are relatively easy to grow. It may not solve the food shortage, but it will help families cut some food costs while learning how to grow food. Rainy season is upon us and is an opportune time to plant. Your support of such a program would be huge and far-reaching.
- Reopen NMTI with the CW fees that were intended for them. A trade school is needed here. There is a demand for plumbers, electricians, carpenters, and other skilled workers in the Commonwealth. Please help build a future for locals willing to be trained.
- Lobby for support of HB 21-76, to return the $15 million annual casino license fee back to the retirees. In the 20th Legislature, it was Reps BJ Attao, Vinnie Sablan, Ed Villagomez, and myself who voted against former Rep. Angel Demapan's HB 20-99, which became PL 20-10 and took away the $15 million annual casino license fee from retirees. Please talk to your Chief of Staff Angel Demapan and ask him to lobby for this bill as well that passed the House and is currently in the Senate, so that retirees will once again benefit from the casino license fee. Your influential support would be greatly appreciated.
- Talk to some of your cabinet members and tell them to lead with some humility. Humility begins at the top and it is up to you to set the tone and to ensure bullying and ad hominem attacks have no place in your Administration. Kindness and humility goes a long way in building relationships.
- Review the furloughed employee list and reinstate those who were unfairly selected because Civil Service rules and regulations were not followed. If a furloughed employee has seniority, exemplary performance, good attendance, and credentials, then what was the reason were they furloughed, because "loyalty" cannot be used as a reason to furlough an employee under Civil Service rules and regs.
- Be more accessible. You can start by doing live press releases and interviews on social media and answer questions from your constituents. Your constituents would appreciate hearing from you rather than your press secretary or political advisor.
- Review and consider renewing the Hyatt Regency Saipan lease already. You already had its neighbor, the Saipan Fiesta Resort Hotel and Spa lease renewed. Why not Hyatt? If tourism is so important to you, do you not know how bad losing the Hyatt brand will be for the CNMI? This could have a devastating impact on all hotels in the Commonwealth.
- Please include the Minority in your meetings. The late Governor Eloy Inos made it a point to include the Minority members during emergency meetings, especially when there were disagreements on policy. He ensured everyone had a seat at the table and listened to everyone. Due to the fact we are still in a pandemic, please allow all members the option to teleconference in as well.
I hope you take my suggestions or possible solutions to heart, and I apologize if I offended you. Wishing you and your family good health and safety during these most trying of times.