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Letter to the Editor: Better, Bitter, or Backward Times?

DURING 2005, the Covenant Party announced they would be promoting Benigno R. Fitial as their candidate to compete against Juan N. Babauta for the office of CNMI governor. The theme that the Fitial campaign pushed at that time was “Better Times with Ben and Tim.”

The platform for Fitial involved for changes in the economy, education, and the environment that would presumably enhance the quality of life for all the people of the CNMI. In November 2005, the electorate selected Benigno R. Fitial as the next governor to replace Juan N. Babauta and move the island community progressively forward.

Since the inauguration of Fitial as the CNMI’s sixth governor in January 2006, the island community went through mid-term changes in terms of replacing elected officials in the CNMI Legislature.  At this juncture, it appears that the Republican Party in the CNMI has the momentum and clout in the Legislature as opposed to the Covenant Party during the first phase of Fitial’s reign as Head of State for the CNMI.  Moreover, it appears that Fitial is experiencing some major political in-fighting with the ones closest to him.  Specifically, the Lt. Governor Timothy Villagomez has essentially jumped-ship from the Covenant Party and migrated to the CNMI GOP.  Similarly, Clyde Norita defied Fitial’s leadership position as governor and went to Villagomez for travel authorization.  The recent activities can be described as “A House Divided”.  And, according to the Bible, a house divided cannot stand and will fall inevitably.

With respect to official polls, e.g., The Harris Poll, it is hard to determine where Fitial is in terms of CNMI populace approval and disapproval.  Some say that he is pretty much in the same situation as George W. Bush with a presidential approval rating of twenty-one (21) percent (one of the lowest approval ratings in the history of the U.S. presidency). Others say, he is doing well despite the negatives disseminated amongst the populace and via the media.  The proof of the pudding will be the results in the November 2009 election.

During the first two years in office, Fitial was vehemently adamant about establishing a government budget that would emphasize being balanced.  Positive strides were made by Fitial in terms of balancing the budget for the Commonwealth, but it apparently did not have a positive impact economically on the people of the island community.  

The irony of establishing a balanced budget in the CNMI was that the rates for the Commonwealth Utilities Corporation went up as opposed to down.  This paradox has been an irritation and aggravation for everyone in and out of office.  It is especially difficult for those people who have large families and the overall income is at or below poverty level.

The CUC problem existed during previous administrations in the CNMI and when Fitial became governor, the situation had worsened.  The solution to the CUC problem will only happen if the priority to resolve the problem by the person in the highest political office in the CNMI places it above everything else.  If it isn’t given the highest priority, then there will be a continuation of the problem during the final months of Fitial’s term as governor.  The governor who wins in November 2009 will need to establish it as a high priority right from the start.

In July 2006, the Governor Fitial hired PRG Consulting, Inc. as a consultant in the area of economic development and strategic communications for approximately $48,000.  During the course of the one-year contract, Dr. Jesus D. Camacho produced two deliverables, i.e., Comprehensive Guidelines for Economic Development Plan for the CNMI and a Comprehensive Strategic Communications Plan for the CNMI.  Since both projects were produced with taxpayer dollars, they would be considered public record for the people of the CNMI to peruse if they so desire.

The one-year contract of $48,000 for PRG Consulting and Dr. Camacho was questioned publicly by Matthew Gregory, CNMI Attorney General, prior to the official signing of the contract. The basic argument was:  Why hire Dr. Jesus D. Camacho to provide consulting services when the CNMI government is cash-strapped?

During 2006, Fitial hired the GAA Delgado consulting group out of the Philippines to do a technical review of CUC’s power generating facilities and assist in the privatization of power plants one and two.  The cost for Degado’s services was approximately $200,000 plus an additional $30,000 for travel expenses required to complete the project in 154 days or just under six months according to media accounts.  The question that needs to be posed is:  Where is this technical review that cost the people of the CNMI approximately $230,000?

The other question that needs to be asked is:  Why didn’t the Attorney General for the CNMI Matthew Gregory publicly challenge the Delgado contract or mentioned that the nearly quarter of a million dollar contract for six months (4 times more than what Dr. Jesus D. Camacho was paid for his service) would have a negative impact on the cashed-strapped CNMI?  

During 2007, Governor Fitial hired Dr. Wilson and his research group out of the University of Texas to conduct a study on the Pagan Pozzolan.  The study cost approximately $154,000. A bonafide deliverable was presented by Dr. Wilson and his group subsequent the completion of the study. As with the Delgado group, Matthew Gregory said nothing in terms of the total cost negatively impacting a cash-strapped CNMI government.

In 2007, Governor Fitial also hired Oldaker, Biden, and Belar out of Washington, D.C. for a six-month contract for approximately $90,000 ($15,000 a month).  According to the media, the lobbying firm would be a policy adviser to Fitial and make its best effort to assist the CNMI in developing and executing government relations plans.  The question that needs to be posed is:  Can a concrete deliverable for the $90,000 paid out be presented to the CNMI people? Or, is making its best effort to assist good enough to be considered a deliverable? And, why was Matthew Gregory mute again on the amount doled-out for this consultant?

The total amount expended for consultants hired by Fitial since becoming governor was approximately $522,000.  Had Fitial decided not to hire any consultants during the first two years as governor and issued rebates in the amount his expended for consultants to the people of the island community to help defray the cost of their utilities; or put the funds towards one or both of the power plants, do you think he would be criticized as much?

Regarding the Attorney General Matthew Gregory, he should step down as CNMI Attorney General simply because he has politicized the office.  Since he has clearly demonstrated mixing the law with politics, then he should either voluntarily resign immediately or be fired by Fitial.

Since the policies across the board that the appointed Senior Policy Adviser is responsible for providing Governor Fitial have not benefited the government and the people of the CNMI one iota over the past two years, then he should also step down or be abruptly removed by the governor.  Having him remain employed is a waste of taxpayer dollars, unless he can substantiate policies that will benefit the government and people.

The people of the CNMI are the ones who have a right to give Benigno Fitial a grade on his overall performance as governor thus far.  Grades should always be objective and never subjective.  The people of the CNMI will give the grade they think Fitial should have in November 2009.  The irony of grades is that when you fail a course in school, you might be given the opportunity to repeat the course to get a passing grade.  When you fail as governor, or any other high public office for that matter, you are not given a chance to pursue a passing grade with the populace.  And at the end of the day, the people are the very ones who know if the times in the CNMI are better, bitter, or backward…

Delano, California