To Delegate Gregorio “Kilili” C. Sablan:
It was made apparent to me via a lengthy commentary you posted that was related to the creation of the new Infrastructure Recovery Program that you are exceptionally misinformed about the purpose of this program. I am disheartened that rather than reach out to discuss the IRP and the role it will play in providing much needed professional support to the many agencies involved in infrastructure projects, you opted to take the opportunity to politicize this effort and, most disappointingly, misinform the community.
My administration has made it a priority to bring all of the resources we have at our disposal to ensuring that we maximize the impact of the various lines of assistance the CNMI is receiving from the U.S. federal government. This is a critical time for the CNMI, and I would like to believe you have an interest in seeing these resources utilized in as expeditious manner as possible to see our community and economy strengthened. I would hope that you share the goal of seeing that we fully recover from the natural and health disasters that have beset us over the last several years, and that we are in a better place, with hardened infrastructure, better housing, improved facilities, a beautified community, and have more to offer our residents and visitors.
This is why my administration has organized the Governor’s Council of Economic Advisors and undertaken a list of priorities for community improvement. It is why we invested so much time in project applications to the Economic Development Administration, to facilitate a cultural event complex, a rehabilitated and state-of-the-art sports facility, the rehabilitation of the Paseo tourist district, and upgraded financial infrastructure. It is why my administration has taken the opportunities to develop new community parks and to restore and lengthen the pathway, partnered to see the CNMI Soccer Training Facility, begun the resurfacing of the CNMI’s major roadways, transitioning to a 21st century financial management system, transforming the One-Start Permit to a portal platform, and why my administration has been driven to see these and many other projects made a priority.
Managing federal funds of any amount is a complex undertaking. You might recall the long history of difficulty the CNMI has had managing our grant resources properly, of threats from grantors, and of the CNMI made ineligible for grants due to mismanagement. My administration has gone to great lengths to address this longstanding problem, and we have been tremendously successful in greatly improving our grants management and oversight, bringing many grants that were in arrears into full compliance and, in fact, facilitating model programs from what once were programs under threat of penalty or closure due to grant fund mismanagement. Excluding the funding assistance received that was related to super-typhoon Yutu or the COVID-19 pandemic, the CNMI saw a significant increase in the amount of overall federal grant resources received and a significant reduction in negative findings related to grant fund management. This is the direct result the administration has put on taking advantage of available grant opportunities and managing grants properly. A component of addressing this issue was the creation of the Office of Grants Management, which has helped ensure the CNMI capitalizes on grant opportunities and sees exemplary management of our grants. My administration has made it a priority and has delivered an exemplary record of managing the many grants regularly made available to us.
We are now faced with managing a significantly larger amount of funding, an historic amount of funding in fact, at close to one billion dollars over the next few years. The respective personnel at our various departments and agencies that manage their program’s regular stream of grants have been operating at or near their capacity before this additional funding. These significant new federal funding sources, simply put, will require the CNMI to build capacity to effectively manage and coordinate all aspects of these new funds. They will allow us to put professional area-specific resources to project developments at the front-end of these projects to aid in the address of issues related to historic preservation, environmental, and planning, design, and engineering, that are common obstacles to our projects.
Whether it is an additional archaeologist, a compliance officer for Section 106, a civil engineer, environmental specialist, a project manager, or a contract specialist, the ability to bring these resources on board and put to the task of these projects will ensure that we have the capacity to see projects completed expeditiously and properly. Many of our agencies and programs need these professionals to address aspects of their projects funded by various sources, but do not require and cannot justify maintaining them in their full-time employ. This need has been seen by our federal partners including the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the U.S. Air Force. The Infrastructure and Recovery Program will provide these professional resource personnel as necessary to move CNMI projects forward.
The IRP will assist with disaster recovery and public assistance hazard mitigation projects, including those of Northern Marianas College, the Public School System, the Commonwealth Healthcare Corp., the Commonwealth Utilities Corp., and our many road projects, addressing permitting and planning requirements. Contrary to your assertion, the IRP is not designed to infringe on the independence or authority of any autonomous agency. The suggestion you’ve made that autonomous agencies like the Northern Marianas College, the Public School System, or other branches of government like the Judiciary do not need such services is completely uninformed. In fact, all of the above have seen their projects caught up in difficulties related to grantor requirements, planning requirements, and permitting requirements that have involved the administrative branch permitting agencies and respective federal agencies, and that would have been benefitted tremendously had we had the ability financially to have had this program in place earlier.
Your accusations that this office is being created so that I can “control who gets awarded contracts” is completely baseless and that a lie like that is derived from our representative to the U.S. Congress is deeply disturbing. I would remind you that the CNMI has a robust system for the competitive awarding of contracts and has a robust regime of oversight, both locally through the Office of the Public Auditor and the Attorney General’s Office, and federally through respective federal agencies and their inspector generals. Your untoward accusation is not just an untruth and insult to me, it is an insult to all of these agencies and their professional staff who dutifully carry out their work to ensure the laws of the Commonwealth are adhered to. They are an insult to the departments, agencies, and programs, both Executive Branch and autonomous, who at their suggestion and to address their needs, this program was created.
We both hold positions of tremendous responsibility to the people of the CNMI. In these roles we should recognize this fact and act with a level of professionalism that serves the greater interest of the Commonwealth. It is a shame that you as our representative to Congress do not possess the civility to reach out to gather information on any questions you may have, before deciding to engage in politics in such an inappropriate fashion. We have met previously many times, and each time, you represent a position of collaboration and partnership, only to harm the important relationship between the state government and its representation to Congress when it becomes politically convenient.
My administration is going to continue to focus on doing what needs to be done to ensure that the funding we receive is expended properly and for the benefit of the people. We have managed both our natural disasters and this current COVID-19 pandemic exceptionally. That is not to suggest that we do not make mistakes or do not need to reevaluate along the way, but your continued pitch to the community and, in fact to the federal government, that resources are being misused or squandered, is not only absolutely false but such suggestions by our very own representative to Congress, are unbecoming, unhelpful, and, in fact, harmful to the CNMI.
My phone remains available and my door remains open to you should you have questions or need information. As I have said many times prior, in times when the media spotlight does not allow you the opportunity to continue these tiresome political games, I would prefer, for the benefit of our Commonwealth, that you reach out to seek any answers you need, rather than you continue to engage in political gamesmanship, especially when we are on the ground working every day to fully recover from the natural disasters and navigate our community safely through the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ralph DLG Torres (Special to the Saipan Tribune)
Ralph DLG Torres is governor of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.