Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Do our leaders even care about this power crisis, MV 30

By Jeffrey C. Turbitt

I sit here penning this piece on Monday morning at Java Joes -- one of the few businesses on island that seem to be aided by the fact that on a perfectly calm and clear day, there is no power on the south side of the island, and perhaps the rest of the island as well. I'm not sure at this point. It's a school day, but students have been sent home early. The school year will now be extended one day. No power leads to no water and that is a sanitary "no no," so parents must scramble to find arrangements to pick up and then supervise their children for the rest of the day.

On the drive over I notice the ghost town we are becoming -- a bevy of places where businesses used to exist. The survivors and the brave newbies sit in darkness this morning. The traffic lights are out creating a public safety hazard on the roadways. That fact led to a close call for me a few days ago. After I arrive, I chat with a friend on the cell phone -- a right wing businessman. Strangely, a proud liberal like me has mostly right wingers as friends. Some of my fellow lefties are a bit uptight and dull I've found through recent experience. He relates that the power at his place on the island's north side was out four times yesterday.

I order a coffee and pick up Monday morning's edition of this paper. The lead headline reads: "Governor exploring 'options' to fight federalization." I sit here and wish I still had hair so I would have something to pull out. I contemplate whether the leader of a place that can't keep the power on and may not be able to keep the schools open is seriously planning on taking on the federal government after the 91-4 stomping he just took in the United States Senate. If Governor Fitial can take on the U.S. Congress, maybe I can take my flabby tail and try for the Ultimate Fighting Championship. In both cases I imagine the result will be painful, expensive and bloody. No one disputes that the Covenant clearly states that the federal government can take over immigration, and Congress strongly feels the time is now and the president agrees. This might be the first time in almost eight years President Numbnuts gets it right, though in his case it will be for the wrong reason. The right sees federalization as a national security issue.

A friend of mine, another longtime businessman on island, idles by my booth and we chat. He relates intelligence he's heard that the lobbyist we hired is so inept that he is one colorful set of clown shoes away from signing on with the circus. Speaking of clowns, I note today's letter from circus ring leader Greg Cruz, who is once again enraged that the foreigners he despises won't be entering the islands with such free abandon, and the local people he so adores will have more job options and better pay as the labor supply is set to be reduced. The fact that this bill includes the CNMI congressional delegate everyone has been screaming for apparently is of little comfort. Cruz insists the local government that I wouldn't trust to make ice correctly remain in control of steering these islands into that iceberg dead ahead. Further comment on this guy is pointless. I just wonder if when Cruz breaks Ambrose Bennett's all-time letters to the editor record, will the record book show an asterisk and will it be tainted like Barry Bonds' home run record. Cruz clearly has a team of ghost writers decoding his thoughts -- that is unless the ghost writers are the ones pulling his puppet strings. I wonder when KSPN is going to do an ESPN style "Behind the Lines" show on this issue. I say put in the asterisk. It's "common sense."

Like George Bush who attacked the wrong country, the one that had nothing to do with 9/11, and who is the driving force behind this $3 trillion dollar folly in Iraq that could have been used for good such as reducing the deficit, fixing the broken down education system or helping the 46 million Americans without health insurance, I wonder how much better things would be here if our governor put as much passion into fixing the power plant as he does in keeping the poorest people poor through this absurd federalization and minimum wage fight. Last week's news was that CUC could only come up with two weeks of gas to fuel one month of power, yet we hear barely a peep from leadership on this issue. That's kind of like heading to the emergency room with your arm falling off and the doctors decide it's time to change careers and become mimes. Where are even the empty promises about fixing the power plant? The resident representative recently said there was federal money that could be used to do this. Where is the follow up? Where is the sense of responsibility to be a leader? Where does the buck stop? The governor seems like a nice guy, but I expect he will be completely trounced if he follows through on his recent promise to run for re-election. He has certainly been more fiscally responsible than his predecessor, but he over promised in the campaign and has under delivered in office, and his lack of focus on the power plant is unforgivable. The only thing our leaders seem to manage around here is the blame.

Wouldn't it be nice if the governor could focus on something everyone wants: a stable power system! The fact that power is expensive is an unfortunate result of global factors and an economy of scale issue that is not in our favor -- plus we didn't maintain the plant so it's inefficient. But unreliable as well as expensive is just not acceptable, and even more irritating is that he doesn't seem concerned. Federalization and minimum wage seem to be all he cares about. Even if he were able to win a reprieve on federalization, the issue would still be out there and it's not going away. Business hates uncertainty and uncertainty is what could be accomplished at best.

Part of me wants to add a few more paragraphs blasting the leadership, but that absolves others culpable in our demise: the voters. An enormous number of voters fell for that election season gambit of lowering the power rates to take that issue off the table -- the one issue that had people really angry. Angry people tend to "throw the bums out." Now that the election season is over, the rate reduction no one planned to pay for is soon to be no more, and that rate reduction was a prime factor in why CUC can't buy enough gas this month. You, the voter, returned the same people to office, and some of the people you kicked out last time. Did you expect them to magically change their ways? People need to be more cynical.

The most cynical view says "we get the government we deserve," and sometimes that view is right. For the last several years most people sat silent or indifferent to the daily mismanagement. The attitude seemed to be as long as it didn't impact me personally, it doesn’t much matter. Now there is a huge problem with this power plant. It depresses people's spirits, it kills business, it wastes money and no one has a hint of a solution. The perks of office are so great that no one, other than Tina Sablan it seems, cares to take the risk to propose anything bold or take a principled stand.

Too much fixation on this government is bad for the spirit. I decide to leave and grab the lunch special at the new 360 Restaurant, go for a snorkel in the Grotto and bask in the sun at the Mandi Spa. There are some things about this island the politicians can't screw up, and those are the things that keep me and a lot of people here.


Bruce A. Bateman said...

Well the lunch was good and Rick's generator was still humming so we could go round and round.

I wound up spending the whole afternoon putzing with one office call after another. I got it all done but snorkeling at the Grotto sounds like a lot more fun.

Anonymous said...

"...one colorful set of clown shoes away from signing on with the circus". Now, that's a putdown.

Marianas Pride said...

Jeff, superb letter. Thank you for saying what needed to be said. Perhaps you could give Greg Cruz some writing tips, and maybe, just maybe he will pen his own letter for once. Not!

glend558 said...

Well said, Jeff. One of your best.

scubatripp said...

Well said Jeff but where do you get the time to snorkel the Grotto, hang out at a spa and write so much - Your wife is 9 months pregnant so she might have kicked you out of the house.

Wait till the little one is here - kiss your spa's goodbye for at least six months!

Jeff said...

They kept her at school all day. Who knows why.

Jeff said...

Oh yeah Mike, if you can moonlight as a bikini girl photographer with two little ones, I am going to work in the occasional snorkel/dive/spa.

KAP said...

You should see about writing for Greg; your style's more entertaining and I hear there's some turnover.

Slogan for the general election: It's the power, stupid. Unless it's fixed by then.


Jimbo said...


We would do well to keep people with your prolific knack for iterating hard truths talking and on island...you strike certain chords that most cannot with your writing...

Left winged and disgruntled though you may be...there is a place and a need for your kind.. keep writing, Jimbo

The Saipan Blogger アンジェロ・ビラゴメズ said...

Like the White House and the State House!

SteeleOnSaipan said...

There was a time, either late '90's or early this decade when CUC was real close to hiring a power plant pro, a Samoan guy I think who had worked for a decade-plus managing plants in Hawaii. Members of the legislature led by Senor "Why Not" shot the employment contract down saying there's no reason that a qualified local resident cannot be found/hired to run CUC. And now here we are. Once again, pride and common sense got in the way of progress.

Saipan Writer said...

Good column/post, Jeff.

I disagree with the bit about our current governor being better at managing the budget, though. He makes a great show of "austerity" and cutting back on the little government worker, but he's got his consultants hired at nice salaries, too. And spends money on lobbying.

Word on the street (and I'm not saying this is reliable, but could be) is that the Governor is not moving to help fix CUC because he wants the leverage its problems create. He wants an austerity budget that gives him 100% discretionary control over all austerity savings. No strings, no watchdogs. The $125,000 discretionary fund from the savings proposed by the legislature wasn't enough for him. That's why he vetoed the austerity measure. And that's why he won't offer government help to CUC until he gets what he wants.

That is not fiscally beneficial to the CNMI.


Jeff said...

My memory, ballpark figures, is that Babauta was spending at like 220 million. While a lot of the tough choices continue not to be made and a lot of the most essential services are still underserved, I'm not sure every old pol in the same boat would cut the budget down to the 160s and going lower where we are now. Fitial could be better, could be worse here, but I have very low expectations for wise financial planning when it comes to this place. I still think he's a bit more prudent than Babauta.

Anonymous said...

Not a bad column, I do have a problem with your comment concerning your wife working at school, “They kept her at school all day. Who knows why?” Hum, I’m assuming she signed a contract requiring her to work a set number of hours a day at the school. Maybe parents need to see her during non instructional times? Maybe she plans lessons after school? Maybe the administration has certain duties and responsibilities required of teachers and staff during non instructional time? Ring a bell Jeff? Maybe contractual agreements don’t seem to matter to you. By you saying that it implies that you leave school whenever it suits you. 190 days a year 40 hours a week. Not a bad gig if you ask me. Guess maybe you negotiated a different contract. And all your rants about elitism and inefficient government employees with no accountability only apply to non PSS government employees? What a guy.

Jeff said...

Or maybe it just seems strange and inconsistent to close some schools because there is no power and water and not others, dickweed.

I'm not getting any break. The school year is a day longer. In fact, the government just got a free half a day out of me.