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Variations | The past isn’t what it used to be (2)

IN his book about Saipan published in 1954,  American anthropologist Alexander Spoehr devoted an entire chapter to the island’s political organization.

During the Japanese administration, he said, there was one “alcalde” and five subordinate district “concierges.” Japanese officials “issued instructions to the alcalde who in turn relayed the instructions to the district leaders. Communication was primarily one way — from the Japanese officials to the Chamorros and Carolinians. Land problems were referred directly to the Japanese land office. Local laws and ordinances were enforced by the Japanese police who employed some Chamorros as policemen.” The alcade and the concierges were appointees, but after 1936 they became elected officials.

Following the Battle of Saipan, the U.S. military, specifically the Navy, became the island’s new ruler. In 1947, a municipal government was established on Saipan. Its formal organization, Spoehr wrote, “is primarily a cultural borrowing from Western sources, partly through the medium of the administration [i.e., the U.S.] and partly in an indirect manner from the Chamorros of Guam,” an American possession since 1898.

Saipan’s executive branch was headed by a paid, full-time mayor elected by popular vote for a four-year term. The executive departments under the mayor were the treasury, economics, public works, education, public health and public safety. Spoehr said the mayor “prepares an annual budget for the municipality, recommends legislation to the legislative branch, and is the principal point of contact for the [U.S.] administrative authorities.”

The legislative branch consisted of 14 commissioners and 11 councilmen. (Saipan’s population in 1950: less than 5,000. The island’s estimated population in 2017: over 52,000. Number of lawmakers: 18 House members and three senators.) The commissioners and councilmen formed the Congress of Saipan. “At first these two groups met separately, but in order to simplify procedures and achieve a more workable organization they decided to meet together which they do about once a month.” The legislative body’s deliberations, however, “have been marked by endless discussion and bickering and general ineffectiveness….”

Elections were held every year, and eligible voters consisted of men and women over 18 years old.

As for the judicial branch, the mayor was also the judge of the municipal court, “the lowest tribunal in the court system which as a whole is under the immediate supervision of the [U.S.]”

“The post-war period,” Spoehr said, “is the first time in their history that the Saipan Chamorros and Carolinians have been equipped with the organizational trappings of a representative form of government in the Western sense. It is not surprising, considering the present disturbed local scene, that numerous difficulties have plagued the municipality.”

The municipality, Spoehr added, operated on a sizeable budget. “Supposedly, the mayor draws up the budget for the following year, and it is thereafter examined, altered if necessary, and approved by the legislative branch, after which it receives final inspection and approval by the [U.S.] administrative authorities. At the close of the fiscal year 1949-50, the mayor presented a budget of $65,000 [equivalent today to over $690,000] to the legislative branch, covering expenditures for the following year. In the budget, expenditures exceeded the most generous expectations of revenue by over $7,000 [worth over $74,000 today]. The commissioners and councilmen cut the budget by several thousand dollars and passed it on to the [U.S.] administration which pointed out that even with the proposed cuts there was little hope in the present precarious state of the island economy that revenues would be adequate for the proposed expenditures. Thereafter the matter was dropped and nothing was done, except that the mayor did not accept the cuts recommended by the legislative branch. He further authorized the purchase of a new second-hand jeep for the municipality, much to the disgust of some citizens. In October 1950, more than three months after the commencement of the new fiscal year, nothing had been done about the final approval of the budget, although disbursements were being made.”

Spoehr added, “Budget difficulties are by no means confined to Saipan these days….” But in Saipan’s case, he said the deterioration of the local economy made it hard for the municipal government to meet its financial obligations. The “post-war attempts at local self-government…was operating under the additional handicap imposed by the prevailing uncertainties of the current economy.” As a result, the municipal government under the U.S. administration “was operating in a creaking fashion, was facing many unsolved problems, and was in no sense stabilized.”

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