Gov says let voters decide how senators are selected
Gov. Togiola Tulafono has called on the Senate to allow residents of the territory to decide on whether or not to elect senators of the Legislature, and his public call was made on his weekend radio program.
During his program, Togiola confirmed that he is sending to the Fono for approval a proposal that would put to voters in the November general election, the question of whether or not to elect senators. Also in this proposal, senators would serve a six-year term instead of the current four year term, after being “selected” by their respective counties.
GOVERNOR’S REACTION TO STATEMENTS
Togiola first revealed his plans during a cabinet meeting last week and confirmed it on his Saturday radio program, followed later in the day with a response to media questions for confirmation and the reason for such a proposal.
When a local radio station reported last Friday about the governor’s plan revealed at a cabinet meeting, citing three directors, the issue didn’t sit well at the Senate session last Friday, with some senators voicing their strong opposition to the governor’s proposal.
Sen. Velega Savali Jr. also spoke out against the governor’s plans, and said that his final comments to the governor are, “serve your term and get out.”
That brought a swift reply from the governor on his radio program, but Togiola didn’t identify any senator by name. Instead the governor says that he holds a high ranking chiefly title, and reminded those who have stated in the news media to serve his term and get out of the office, to show respect. He said the statement was very disrespectful, especially when their matai ranking is lower than his (Togiola’s) chiefly title.
The governor said those who made such a statement, are using their posts in the Senate to challenge him, but they have forgotten the Samoan tradition of respect shown between chiefs. Togiola reiterated that his matai title is of higher ranking, which is an important matai title of Tutuila and Manu’a from the beginning of time.
He described the statement for him to serve his time and get out as “fa’avalevalea” or, in other words, "stupid" which he repeated at least two more times on the radio program.
He said these men — referring to some senators but again, not identifying them by name — are afraid that if senators are elected, none of them will return to the Senate; then the governor laughed briefly, and could be clearly heard on the radio. He further reiterated his viewpoint, and was heard to laugh as he uttered the sentence.
Later on the same program, the governor apologized for harsh statements towards any chiefly title holders including senators, and noted there are times when chiefs are in disagreement over issues, but in the end it's resolved in a peaceful and respectful manner, as part of our Samoan tradition of respecting each other.
On his radio program as well as in his response to media questions, the governor said he will be sending today to the Fono a proposal for approval, to put on the ballot this November for the voters to decide whether or not they want their members of the Senate elected.
For many years the governor has come out in strong opposition to any notion of having senators elected, as he was a strong supporter of maintaining the status quo to protect the Senate membership, who are made up of traditional leaders.
“I have modified my position from a few years ago. A lot has happened since then, and I, for one, believe if we are to continue the momentum towards self governance, evidenced by the desire of the Fono to become the ultimate determinants of our public policies by giving them the right to overturn the veto of the Governor on these public policies, we need to democratize all the functions of our democracy, and not just parts of it,” said Togiola.
Already on the referendum for this election year is the question to voters as to whether the Fono should be given the authority to override the governor’s veto, instead of the current process involving the U.S. Secretary of Interior.
The veto override referendum as well as the proposal from the governor are both a move to amend the Revised Constitution of American Samoa.
“I support the position of the Fono to possess override authority. It’s a good thing for western democracy, but our people, especially the cultural leaders, must also step up to the plate and accept the responsibilities that come with democratization,” said Togiola, a former senator.
“We can't say let us be a full democracy, and refuse to take all the steps to achieve that full democratization. The last item on that agenda is the proper election of the Senate. The Senate SELECTION process is not conducive to achieving that goal for us,” said Togiola.
“I am full of respect for the culture and the limited resources of our islands, so I am proposing certain difficult limitations that will retain some aspects of the process for the culture,” he said adding that the “two controversial elements in the proposed amendment to the constitution” are that:
• only those who hold certain Matai titles can be eligible to run for this position,
• only those US Nationals who were born in American Samoa, of American Samoan ancestry, will be qualified to hold this position.
“This proposition appears discriminatory on its face. But I believe we are entitled to protect certain rights for the indigenous people of the land, much like how the United States does not allow a naturalized U.S. citizen to run or hold the positions of President and Vice President,” he said.
Under the governor’s proposal, members of the Senate will be elected in the 2016 general election. A provision of the proposal will restructure senatorial voting districts and, starting in 2016, it should be one senator per 2,500 voters, to ensure that all districts are well represented between the small and larger districts, said Togiola.
Togiola is also proposing that the terms of senators be six years “for the reason that this chamber will help maintain the stability of governance that can be greatly rendered unstable when you begin to have high turn overs in other parts of our governance and other elected officials.”
He is also proposing a reapportionment for the House of Representative districts. Samoa News will report in tomorrow’s edition on this proposal.
Togiola also said that during the cabinet meeting he informed directors “that it is my considered opinion that if the Senate should participate in overriding the veto of the Governor who is a popularly elected official of our government, it is my position that they too should be elected officials.”
As reflected in the telephone calls during his radio program, the governor said the selection process of the Senate continues to make it possible for one man to appoint himself a Senator, notwithstanding the desire of his county. “If we want to act like a real democracy, let's make ours a real democracy,” he added.
“Now, having said that, I suspect that scholars learned in this topic might argue — how can we be a real democracy when we still have to answer to the Secretary of the Interior and we are nothing more that an administrative fiat of the US Department of the Interior? My answer: That is ultimately the question. Isn't it? Something to continue to think about,” he said.
Togiola called on the public to think about this issue: the voters elect a governor, whose decision is then overturned by individuals who selected themselves to be the ones to serve in the senate for their county.
He suspects that the first move by the Senate is to reject his proposal and he hopes that the Senate will not reject the voters’ rights to cast their vote on the question.
The governor said it's important to him that voters are given the chance to voice their opinion via a vote. He said the senate should endorse the proposal so that voters are given the chance to voice their opinion by voting on the matter.
And if voters want senators to be voted into office, then it’s a move to the next direction of democracy but if not, then we'll leave it the current way, he said.
Togiola then urged senators to allow the more than 18,000 residents in the territory to decide on this matter, not just the 18 members of the senate.