Wednesday, September 02, 2009

A Strongly Worded Letter

Most people seem to be able to recognize that something is wrong in the Commonwealth, but what exactly is the problem? We say that we want change (the word "change" seems to be on every other candidate's billboard.) Well, what is it that we want to change? And what do we want to change it to? Are we simply going to change one set of self-serving politicians for another similar set?

Things are not as simple as blaming Governor Fitial because our problems are bigger than one man. They are systemic and ingrained in the culture of how we conduct government.

So how do we begin? Well, every journey requires a first step. For Beautify CNMI it was planting four Flame Trees on a Tuesday afternoon with some donated shovels, trees, and volunteer labor. For our cleanups it was a few friends and a couple of garbage bags on a Sunday morning.

One of those first steps in bringing us closer to change is to get government travel spending under control. Dollars need to be spent on-island improving our community. Unnecessary junket travel is wasteful and an abuse of the public trust.

Will that mean that the Saipan Mayor's Office will never travel? Of course not. In my last four years working as an environmentalist on Saipan I have been off island several times. I attend an annual conference of Micronesian environmentalists and I've been trained by the Nature Conservancy on how to plan a conservation strategy.

There are analogous reasons for the Mayor of Saipan to travel off-island.

However, in years past this privilege has been abused. A quarter of a million dollars spent on travel for one mayor? That needs to stop.

This was the conversation I was having with the newspaper reporter that resulted in today's strongly worded article about Mayor's Office travel in today's Marianas Variety.

Villagomez: Saipan’s next mayor should not prioritize junkets

TRAVELS should not be the priority of the next Saipan mayor, Democratic Party mayoral candidate Angelo Villagomez said.

“If we find a sister city, we should invite them here, not us going there,” he said.

Saipan Mayor Juan B. Tudela has made several off-island trips, visiting China, South Korea, India, and other countries to sign “sister-city” agreements that, he claimed, will “attract” more investors and tourists to the island.

However, since 2002, the first year of Tudela’s term, the tourist arrival rate has declined and the local economy has yet to improve.

Data from the Department of Finance showed that the travel expenses of the Saipan Mayor’s Office reached $63,831 in 2005, $28,634 in 2006, $48,348 in 2007, and $50,940 in 2008.

The office of the mayor’s travel spending of $53,256 for the first six months of 2009 has already surpassed last year’s figure.

So far, the total cost of the travels since 2005 is $245,000.

Variety has yet to obtain the figures from 2002 to 2004.

Villagomez said the mayor’s office should not spend a lot of money on travels.

“We’re not rich like Los Angeles and Las Vegas,” he added.

He said the mayor’s office has limited funding and should prioritize the delivery of basic services to the community.

“Mayor Tudela has spent over quarter of a million dollars in the last four years on travels, and he’s saying he has no money to build a dog shelter — look at Tinian; they were able to build a shelter for $10,000, but Mayor Tudela says he needs at least $120,000,” Villagomez said.

Asked for comment, the mayor yesterday said he had not seen the report from the Department of Finance regarding his travel expenses.

He added, however, that the next mayor “should be more thankful that I was able to establish sister-city relationships.”

He said “many investors have visited Saipan” because of his efforts.

“I am helping the economy not only of Saipan but the whole CNMI. I am hoping the next mayor will continue this program and strengthen these relationships,” he added.

He said he traveled upon the invitation of foreign officials who wanted to “see me so they can be more acquainted with, and discuss profoundly, the needs on Saipan.”

He admitted though that not all of his travels were paid for by the host cities

Tudela said it is part of the mayor’s job to invite investors so “we have to establish good relationship with other countries.”

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