House minority members say all of them ‘attended’ governor’s briefing

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THE six House minority bloc members on Monday said all of them attended the briefing conducted by the governor for lawmakers against the Covid-19 threat.

Although only Reps. Sheila Babauta and Edmund Villagomez were physically present in the governor’s conference room on March 19, the rest of the minority bloc participated via group call on Babauta’s cell phone, the minority bloc members said in a joint letter to the governor on Monday.

The other minority bloc members are Reps. Ed Propst, Richard Lizama, Christina Sablan, and Donald Manglona.

They did not say if the governor was informed that the other minority bloc members were listening to the briefing.

Asked if she informed the governor that her colleagues were listening to him on her phone, Rep. Sheila Babauta said, “Evidently he was not aware.”

An administration official who attended the briefing said Babauta did not inform the governor that the other minority bloc members were listening.

In their letter to the governor, the minority bloc said: “Because we have been making a conscientious effort to abide by the urgent recommendations of public health officials as well as the directives [of] your emergency declaration, to avoid large gatherings in order to stop the spread of the [coronavirus], we were concerned about all of us attending the meeting in person.”

They said they asked if teleconferencing was an option for the meeting, but they received no response, even when the speaker’s office tried to reach out to the governor’s office.

So the minority bloc agreed to send Babauta and Villagomez and the rest of them participated in the briefing via group call on Babauta’s cell phone, the minority said in the letter.

“So to be clear, governor, all of the members of the minority attended your briefing, listening in on the discussion and submitting questions for Rep. Babauta and Rep. Villagomez to ask. In the future, we respectfully request and urge that you utilize available technology to make remote participation in all your meetings possible, consistent with your executive order and the advice of public health experts to practice social distancing,” the minority bloc said, adding that the “crowded meetings” in the governor’s conference room, with all the members of the Legislature, along with the members of Covid-19 Task Force and staff, are neither safe nor wise at this time.

The minority bloc, “in the spirit of unity,” also took the opportunity to follow up on the governor’s response to their request for greater financial transparency from his administration, and for amendments to his emergency directives in order to expand protections for the Commonwealth’s citizens and businesses.

“Our recommendations for executive order amendments are in line with the actions already taken by state and local governments across the nation, and are also based on concerns brought to us by constituents throughout the commonwealth. In this state of emergency, people must be protected from losing their homes, livelihoods, and access to critical utilities. Taxpayers need relief from upcoming deadlines and penalties. Government employees showing up to work must be protected from infection to the greatest extent possible, and they must be assured more flexibility and access to sick leave if needed to care for themselves and their families,” the minority bloc said.

As soon as possible, they added, “We need a mandatory Commonwealth-wide lockdown on social gatherings in any public venue for at least the next two weeks.”

They added, “Despite your emergency declaration and public outreach urging residents to stay home, we continue to receive reports from worried citizens about parties, novenas, cockfights, crowded gaming establishments, etc. We believe that a higher level of enforcement is necessary at this point, and we urge you to take that next step. We also urge you that you implement a strict, mandatory quarantine for all incoming travelers, enforceable by fines and penalties, similar to that recently ordered by Hawaii’s Governor Ige and in accordance with the CNMI Emergency Health Powers Act.”

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