The expected appointment of former lieutenant governor Diego T. Benavente to the helm of the Commonwealth Ports Authority fell through after two board members blocked his endorsement during a special meeting Friday.
The personnel committee’s endorsement to appoint Benavente to the executive director position was defeated on a 3-2 vote after failing to get the support of Thomas Kiyu Villagomez and Barrie Toves.
Those who supported Benavente’s appointment were board chair Jose Lifoifoi, Frances Mafnas, and personnel committee chair Fermin Sakisat.
The board needed four votes to adopt the personnel committee’s recommendation to hire Benavente.
Since at the start of the special meeting, both Villagomez and Toves sought clarification from board legal counsel Janet King on the voting procedure for the committee report. The two asked for these clarifications after Sakisat made the motion to have the full board accept the committee report.
After hearing from the legal counsel that the two issues are separate from one another and require separate votes, Lifoifoi called for a five-minute recess.
Once the meeting resumed, Mafnas expressed her intention to defer the voting but this was blocked by Villagomez.
“Mr. Chairman, can I make a motion to defer this…?” said Mafnas.
Villagomez interrupted: “Let’s get it over with. We’re now voting for the committee report.” All five members then voted to accept the report.
On the actual vote for the recommendation to appoint Benavente to the post, Villagomez was the first to cast his “no” vote for Benavente. Toves then sealed the defeat of the motion.
According to Toves, he did not support the committee selection mainly because of the two candidates’ absence of any aviation or maritime background. Besides Benavente, the other candidate for the post is John Oliver Gonzales.
“[Former CPA board member Benigno] Sablan, during the May 31 minutes of the special meeting, was even quoted during the debate on the floor that the ‘board will not hire someone who have no aviation or maritime background and I strongly feel that none of the two candidates possess those direct experience in maritime and aviation,” Toves told his colleagues, adding that even if the position is re-announced and the same candidates apply, this will not push through due to the absence of the needed background.
The board had lowered its qualification requirement for the executive director post. Many believed that this was done to accommodate Benavente. Under the revised qualification, a college degree may be substituted by “long years of public administration experience.”
After the motion’s defeat on the floor, Villagomez told the board to consider acting executive director MaryAnn Lizama for the position.
“I recommend that the full board...consider getting the acting executive director for the position, maybe tentatively for six months or so…because I think she’s more than qualified,” said Villagomez.
But according to Lifoifoi, since “Applicant No. 1” was rejected by the board, the usual process is to consider “Applicant No. 2.”
“Why don’t we go to the second nominee? Since this board rejected Diego, how about the second in line?” he asked.
Villagomez replied: “Personally, Mr. Chairman…I still recommend that we announce the position and I am also recommending the acting executive director [Lizama].”
In an interview with Saipan Tribune after the meeting, Lifoifoi said the board will consult with a lawyer on what will be its next best step.
“We will get the opinion of the legal counsel on this issue whether we will re-announce the position or not. But the decision will still be up to the board,” he said.
If the post is re-announced, can Benavente still apply for the second round? “I don’t know. I’m not sure,” Lifoifoi said.
Both Benavente and Gonzales will be notified about the board’s decision.
When asked for comments about Villagomez’s choice to have her permanently assigned to the post, Lizama said: “I have no comments on that. But the only thing I am going to say is I will continue to do right for CPA whether in an acting capacity or permanent capacity. My responsibility is to the board and to the employees of the orts authority. My main focus right now is to ensure that things run well and go well at CPA.
Saipan Tribune learned that Lizama technically did not apply for the position. Her documents were turned in by staff and she later pulled them out once the papers reached her table.
“It was kind of a sweet gesture from employees who submitted my application. I am very flattered by their intention and that means a lot to me, but I’d rather do this my way,” she told Saipan Tribune.
Lizama was appointed acting executive director after the board fired former executive director Ed Deleon Guerrero in March.