LE’I CONFIRMED TO HEAD DHR AFTER CLIFF HANGER VOTE IN SENATE
Retired U.S. Air Force Major, Le’i Sonny Thompson is the new director of the Department of Human Resources following Friday’s Senate confirmation vote of 10-5, while the House vote of 16-1 in the affirmative was on Thursday.
The full Senate vote was a cliff hanger as the yeas and nays were called out — with the final “yea” for the 10th vote signaling Le’i’s confirmation, coming as the last vote counted. The vote is done by secret ballot. There were 15 senators in attendance, enough for a quorum. There are 18 sitting senators.
According to the governor’s nomination letter, Lei’s experiences in the field of Human Resources included a time at the Los Angeles Space and Missile Center, where he was director of personnel. He was also the chief of Personnel and Readiness Officer at the Little Rock Air Force Base, where he was responsible for the training and professional development of thousands of military personnel.
Le’i appeared Friday morning for his confirmation hearing before the Senate Human Resources Committee and fielded questions, while several senators gave words of encouragement and recommendations to the nominee.
Sen. Mauga T. Asuega was the first to address the nominee, saying that the government is faced with problems and challenges and the new governor needs honest and good leaders in his departments to move ASG forward.
He urged Le’i to always do right for the people and government. He said Le’i holds a chiefly title and is also a leader in government and therefore should remember “our people” during his tenure, if fully confirmed by the Fono.
Based on statements and questions raised during the 45-minute hearing, there seemed to be concerns with Le’i’s leadership style after a long career in the military.
Sen. Saole Mila inquired about the nominee’s relationship with his staff, some of whom were in the Senate gallery during the hearing. He also acknowledged that Le’i had served for many years in the Armed Forces and wanted to know how he deals with civilian personnel.
Le’i replied that there are those in the department who didn’t like his appointment as director and there are those who agreed with it. However, he said, “I don’t play politics in office.”
He went on to point out that there have been complaints in the past about DHR and assured senators that he will always do the right thing and make the right decision, which is something he has done throughout his civilian and military career.
He said during his service in the military as well as during the time he oversaw more than 10,000 military and civilian personnel in Los Angeles, his name was never tarnished due to any wrongdoing or wrong decisions.
Responding to questions from another senator, Le’i said DHR should not be just a place to keep paperwork for government personnel but it’s the future of the government and its workforce. He said he is firm on ensuring the enforcement of all federal and local laws pertaining to workers.
For example, there is an ASG case pending with the federal government over unpaid overtime — referring to the U.S. Department of Labor case proposing that ASG pay just over $900,000 to settle this claim.
He said this error could have been prevented if everyone who handles personnel issues had a full understanding of labor laws, and promised that full training on these and other personnel issues will be implemented for the entire government.
Sen. Nua Saoluaga inquired about sick and annual leave for gubernatorial appointees, such as directors, to which Le’i made it clear that as a director, that job is 24-hours a day and therefore they are not entitled to annual leave.
However, he said there may be provisions in the contract that would entitle a gubernatorial appointee to certain annual leave, which is not much, but would depend on the contract provisions. As for sick leave, there is entitlement for appointees, he said, adding that when he stepped down last August as director of Administrator Services Department, he did receive unused sick leave.
He also noted that there are specific provisions of the law that deal with sick and annual leave as well as comp time (compensatory time) and these laws and regulations must be followed. He said he has asked the Payroll Division to reprogram their computer system to also pick up sick and annual leave that has been paid out.
Sen. Leatualevao S. Asifoa suggested that the government eliminate all contract workers. He also pointed out that some directors’ salaries are too high and should be lowered to the same level as lawmakers, and noted their pay was not enough at this point.
Final words came from Senate President Gaoteote Tofau Palaie, also a military retiree, who said that a good leader is criticized by people, but a bad leader is praised by people. And as a military brother, Gaoteote asked the nominee to work together with his staff.
Samoa News points out that director’s salaries are set by the sitting governor while salaries and allowances of lawmakers are set by law. Currently, annual salary of the Senate President and House Speaker is $30,000 each, while annual salary for other members of the Fono is $25,000, except for the Swains Island delegate, who receives $20,000 annually.
For the allowances, it’s $30,000 annually for each member of the Fono, while $40,000 for each of the Senate President and House Speaker. A bill enacted into law more than a year ago allows lawmakers to claim their tax-free allowance as part of their annual salary when it comes time to file their taxes.