Tinian Mayor Edwin Aldan believes that simply placing the Article 12 issue on the ballot will essentially provide the opportunity to those without exclusive landownership rights to strip it away from those with those rights.
Speaking during a public hearing on Senate Legislative Initiative 22-01 last Thursday on Tinian by the Senate Committee on Resources, Economic Development and Programs, Aldan said he believes it is his duty as mayor to remind the senators of their true role and that is to represent people’s interests.
Senate Legislative 22-01, introduced by Senate President Jude U. Hofschneider (R-Tinian), proposes to amend Article 12 to remove the land alienation restriction in the Commonwealth.
Article 12 of the CNMI Constitution limits landownership in the CNMI to persons of Northern Marianas descent, or NMD.
Hofschneider said the legislative initiative will allow Northern Marianas descent landowners to fully exercise their real property rights, and will reduce the NMD percentage of ownership interest in an NMD corporation.
This initiative is expected to be discussed during the today’s Senate session.
In his testimony before the Senate committee, Aldan urged the senators to aggressively reach out to people and engage in constant debate on this Article 12 issue, whether in person or through social media, so at the end of the public hearing process they may confidently act on what they believe is in the people’s best interest.
“And in this case as a unique right is granted to a specific subsection of our citizens, you might want to venture further to poll only those of CNMI descent and ask them if they are willing to give up this unique right to exclusive landownership,” Aldan said.
This way, he said, the senators will have a better understanding of the positions of the entire voting public and those that this law will directly affect.
The mayor urged senators to expand due diligence during public hearings—to not only ask if people favor a change in Article 12, but also ask if they agree with the senators’ approach to put the question on the ballot through a legislative initiative.
Aldan said if a majority of people believe that this issue is too important and life-changing for only 29 legislative members to decide, then he asks the Senate to respect the position of the people and let a popular initiative be the force and instrument to place it on the ballot.
“With any issue of this magnitude, timing is always a critical and often determinant factor. If our people do not think that today is the right time to change Article 12, please respect that,” he said.
Addressing the people of Tinian and the CNMI, Aldan said the lawmakers can only make a well-informed decision based on the people’s active participation. He said if people feel strongly about this issue, regardless of which side, voice that opinion strongly and make their position known.
“For with this issue, once the decision is made, there is no turning back. Don’t be the person who comments after the fact when changes are already in place. Be the person to take a stand today for what you believe,” the mayor said.
To put it simply, there is no right or wrong answer to this issue, he said. In fact, Aldan said, when listening closely to the endless debates, all of the presented points make sense. He said proponents for changing Article 12 argue economic opportunity and freedom of choice regarding personal assets. Opponents argue inevitable landlessness and the need to preserve the CNMI’s culture.
He said he is placed in a difficult position as he is asked to testify not because he is an indigenous Chamorro landowner or because he is a private citizen of the CNMI, but because he is mayor and his voice carries influence.
As a citizen, Aldan said, he has personal beliefs that he will exercise if this matter ever makes it to the ballot. However, he said, as the mayor of Tinian, he has to understand that because his opinion carries weight and influence, he should be cautious about imposing his personal belief on others as they all view this issue in different ways, depending on one’s personal beliefs, financial need, and economic standing.
“Although, we believe the question at hand is whether Article 12 needs to be changed or abolished, actually, the bigger question is who holds the responsibility for making that decision, the Legislature or the people?” Aldan asked.
He said the Legislature has been lobbied by proponents for decades now to pass a legislative initiative to put the question on the ballot as it is an easier and faster process. However, Aldan said, opponents argue that since non-indigenous voters will be able to vote on the issue, by simply placing it on the ballot through a legislative initiative is unfair and there is a high probability that a change in Article 12 will pass.
“But more importantly and vital to the beliefs of the indigenous landowners is the fact that the CNMI Constitution granted those of CNMI descent a very unique right and interest in the exclusive ownership of land that is not found anywhere else in the entire nation,” he said.
At a public hearing on Saipan last month, the Senate legislative initiative drew opposition from many.