Click here for the Marianas Variety Article which reports on a Senate version of the Open Government Act bill that was introduced by Senator Luis Crisostimo.
If I were to write the papers everytime they misreport or slant a story, I'd never get anything done. But enough of these slants have been cropping up since I lost favor with my friend Zaldy and the Variety folks over my introduction of HB 15-38, commonly known as the "Comprehensive Labor Reform Bill" that I find it necessary to make time now and then for a posting such as this. I'd send this to them, but they've stopped printing anything I send them (or was it just anything that had to do with educating the public on HB 15-38, I wonder?).
Now, let me take a page out of Bill O'Reily's "No Spin Zone" and tell the uncomplicated truth about my introduction of HB 15-269, the bill that sought to apply the Open Government Act to the Legislature. It may sadden some people to know that there was no conspiracy to deprive the tax payers of information they are rightfully entitled to, but even the Open Government Act as it applies to the agencies now (the version that Tina Sablan and her supporters, including the Variety, hold up as the ideal version that ought to be applied to the Legislature) has its limitations. Certain confidential information must be kept confidential. That's the bottom line. I ran into this limitation when I invoked the Open Government Act to request certain information from the now-defunct Marianas Public Lands Authority (MPLA), and was not allowed access to certain information that they considered "confidential."
When Tina Sablan wrote the lawmakers and asked us to disclose our financial records, I was one of the first lawmakers to promptly reply. Not only did I provide Ms. Sablan with my 2006 and 2007 financial information on how my Office spent the taxpayers' money, but I took it a step further. I published it on this blog and invited the world to review it. I even invited my constituents to make an appointment with my office to go over the information on a face-to-face basis. I later read in the papers that Ms. Sablan was not satisfied with the amount of information that most lawmakers provided her, although she admitted earlier that she failed to provide any standard list of information on how she wanted the expenditures to be reported to her.
In any event, most of you who read this blog might remember that I also said that I would introduce legislation to apply the Open Government Act to the Legislature or to co-sponsor a bill if one were to be introduced before I introduced my bill. I asked House Legal Counsel Antonette Villagomez to draft the legislation for me to introduce. As we met in a typical "Leadership Meeting" before the morning's House session, the legal counsel came by to speak with me. As we stepped out of the conference room, she posed this question to me:
"Are you sure that you want a blanket application of the Open Government Act to the Legislature? I'm asking you about this because the lawmakers are frequently asked in confidence to look into matters that may involve possible misconduct in public office and you wouldn't want the names of people making such requests to be discoverable just by anybody invoking the Open Government Act." I thought about this for a couple minutes and as we discussed it, I recalled my experience with obtaining information from MPLA and the limitations that that request was imposed upon me. So I made a decision. I decided to mandate the FULL disclosure of financial records of each office, but that there was a need to put a limit on the other information, such as correspondence that have nothing to do with our office's expenditures, so as to protect the anonymity of people who come to lawmakers to look into things. I must admit, I get my fair share of those, especially since I chair the Judiciary and Governmental Operations Committee, which has jurisdiction over the entire CNMI Government.
When the session began and I introduced the bill, Rep. Joseph Guerrero requested that I invite all the lawmakers to co-sponsor the bill, which was fine with me. I asked that the bill be calendared for first and final reading. When the bill came up for deliberation on the floor, Rep. Ray Yumul motioned that we go into "Executive Session" to discuss the bill, which we did. Now, during the Executive Session deliberation, the only change to the bill really was to clarify that only the individual lawmaker is authorized to release his/her financial information from his/her office, not the Speaker and not the President. Mind you, the same information can still be obtained from the Secretary of Finance's Office, as has been done by the papers in the past. I wondered to myself why it was even necessary to "dramatize this" by going into Executive Session to make this one change, but that's what was done.
When we resumed the regular House session, I introduced the amendment and the bill swiftly passed unamously. Lo and behold, the headlines came out. In one Variety article, the reporter interviewed Tina Sablan's father, Eugene Sablan, and they took the bill and completely reported the opposite of what it was really about. They turned around and said that HB 15-269 was "quickly and quietly passed" and that we wanted everything to be disclosed BUT our financial records. Boy! Who read that bill? Or, more accurately, which bill were they reporting on, because it certainly wasn't the bill I introduced!
Since then, Tina Sablan has come out with a lenghty editorial pontificating on HB 15-269 and what a meaningless bill this is. The Variety and others have let their imaginations work overtime also. Meanwhile, the public is being led astray by what they read in the papers and see on the 6 o'clock news.
Here's the bottom line. There was never any plot to make this Open Government Act about depriving the taxpayers from knowing how their taxpayer dollars are being spent. And, the last I looked, lawmakers are taxpayers, too. My reason or reasons for heeding the legal counsel's advice is nothing more than taking what I believe to be prudent legal advice. The fact that my colleagues chose to clarify that each lawmaker him/herself should provide his/her own respective financial information, as is the CURRENT practice now, is no big deal. Honestly! This is something that is being made into a bigger deal than it deserves to be. Talk about making a mountain out of a molehill!
When I first assumed office in January 2006, I told my staff that our role as first-timers on the Hill is to do our best to serve the public by elevating the standard of service to the communities. I also often said to my staff that I wanted us to be the kind of office where the Public Auditor's Office can just walk through our doors any time of the day and ask to look in our files and we would gladly give them access without hesitation. That promise still holds true today.