House confirms Utualii as DHS director
The House of Representatives confirmed Utualii Iuniasolua Tului Savusa as director of the Department of Homeland Security with a 15-2 vote on Thursday morning. Utualii appeared before the House Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security, chaired by Rep. Su'a Alexander Eli Jennings prior to the full House vote.
(Utualii is yet to appear for a confirmation hearing before the Senate, as he departed the territory on Thursday night).
The hearing lasted less than an hour, with most of the lawmakers praising Utualii for his extensive service in the US Army, from which he retired after more than three decades of service, attaining the highest rank of any enlisted Samoan ever — Command Sergeant Major.
Utualii explained that as the director of the DHS, he will oversee the operations of other agencies like the Territorial Emergency Management Coordinating Office (TEMCO) and the Office of Vital Statistics, as well as OTICIDE, SPICIN, and INTERPOL, working hand in hand with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). He said their department has many functions, including the protection of the territory from terrorists and international threats, and are the first responders during natural disasters.
Rep. Faimealelei Anthony Allen, who is also a retired military man, said Utualii should do well in his new position, as he has what they call a "command voice," having led tens of thousands of military servicemen and women during his time in the US Army.
Utualii said as DHS director, he will head a department of about 54 employees. This is a huge difference from his last post, where he was a Command Senior Enlisted Leader of the US Pacific Command and in charge of about 350,000 civilians and military personnel, representing all different branches of the US military.
Rep. Atualevao Gafatasi Afalava urged Utualii to look into the Office of Vital Statistics, as he does not understand why this office has specific dates for when people can pick up personal documents.
(The Office of Vital Statistics is where people can obtain marriage licenses, birth certificates, and other important documents. Certain documents can only be picked up on certain dates; meaning, you can't just walk in and request a copy of your birth certificate. You must come in on the day the office has scheduled birth certificates to be issued).
Atualevao said he is bothered by this practice, as people in his district, most of them elderly, have complained about having to travel all the way to the town area only to be told to come back on days already set aside to pick up the documents they are requesting.
"My district of Aitulagi is far from the Fagaalu area and when these people come to the Office of Vital Statistics, it costs them money for transportation," Atualevao said. "Not everyone is aware of this schedule and this is something that needs to be looked into," he told Utualii.
"Some people come from as far as Fagalii and Fagamalo, Onenoa and Tula," he added. "I know there are enough employees in that office to distribute the work load to, so personal documents can be issued everyday of the week. The people of the territory need and should be served everyday. I am very much against this policy."
Rep. Florence Vaili Saulo thanked Utualii for deciding to move back to American Samoa, saying not every retiree is willing to come back and serve the territory. The whole line of questioning changed after that, with Saulo asking Utualii, “Who is it that is investigating the issue of my birth certificate?” Utualii did not offer a response.
(After the recent elections, Saulo made headlines when two of the female candidates who ran against her for the Tualauta House seat claimed that Saulo wasn't eligible to run for a seat in the Fono, as she was not born in American Samoa).
With a lighthearted laugh, Saulo said, "they are investigating the wrong person”, adding, “perhaps you are the one that has put a stop to this? Well, I can say that I am breathing easy now."
Rep. Talaimatai Elisaia Su'a took the floor next, suggesting that Homeland Security establish an office in Aunu'u. The Saole faipule said, "Aunu'u is surrounded by water and during a natural disaster like a tsunami, will you guys be able to call us and tell us to run to the mountains for safety? Are you guys able to come over to Aunu’u or even call us during that time?" He noted that he hasn't been home with his family for two days, because of the bad weather conditions that have caused the cancellation of all boat trips to Aunu'u.
Committee vice-chair Rep. Puletuimalo Koko concluded the hearing by telling Utualii to be a good leader, to lead by example.
He remarked he was saddened to read in the newspaper that a former director of this same department was arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol. Puletu didn't mention any names but it is certain he was referring to Mike Sala who was arrested a few days ago following a car accident that occurred in Laulii while he was behind the wheel and allegedly driving under the influence of alcohol (DUI).
Last week, during the Senate confirmation hearing for William Haleck as Police Commissioner, Senator Solia’i Tuipeni brought up that some younger officers seem to be too enthusiastic in their duties, arresting ‘fathers of the territory’ (referring to senators and faipule) in DUI situations.
The senator noted that cultural respect dictates they should be ‘escorted’ home, not put in jail; and, told the nominee this should not happen. Haleck said in later remarks that he while many senators think he doesn’t know the culture, he is well versed with the faa Samoa, because he grew up and lived here, and while there is the need to balance the western way and the faa Samoa, this must be done within the confines of the law.
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