Fono officially endorses new head for Dept of Agriculture
The Fono has officially endorsed the governor’s nomination of Lealao Soloata Melila Purcell Jr. as director of the Department of Agriculture, after the Senate yesterday voted 11-3 to confirm the nominee, who was approved by the House last Friday.
Lealao’s term will only be for nine months, which is the remainder of the Togiola Administration. Prior to being appointed director, Lealao was working as a consultant for the Agriculture department under funding from the American Samoa National Emergency Grant program, teaching local residents — mainly those who were affected by the closure of COS Samoa Packing — farming skills in order for them to care for their families.
Some 102 individuals participated in this DOA program, in which Lealao provided self-sufficiency training and instruction to persons interested in starting and maintaining home gardening projects.
According to his resume submitted to the Fono, among work experiences, Lealao had previously served as human resources manager at StarKist Samoa from 2007 to 1990; he was the assistant personnel manager from 1988 to 1990; he worked for the Department of Education, from 1981 to 1988 as program coordinator for health, physical education and athletics, and was also a project director at DOE from 1983 to 1988.
A graduate of Kahuku High School in Hawai’i, Lealao holds a bachelor of arts degree in health education from Brigham Young University and a master of education degree from the University of Hawai’i-Manoa. He served for 20 years as an Army Reservist and was deployed to Iraq.
Lealao appeared earlier yesterday before the Senate Agriculture Committee for his confirmation hearing where the director-nominee fielded few questions from senators, who reminded Lealao that its this department that should be at the forefront in the development of agriculture in the territory.
Sen. Alo Dr. Paul Stevenson asked about plans for the department going forward, if the Senate endorsed the governor’s appointee. He also said that there have been problems that have risen in the past regarding the Market Place — but didn’t elaborate further.
Lealao said it’s the department’s goal to ensure there is sufficient agricultural produce for the community and that is a priority. As for the Market Place, the nominee said he truly believes that some improvements are needed but he has yet to conduct a complete assessment, which will be carried out soon.
He said the Market Place is the facility that should provide sufficient produce for consumption by the community. Responding to a follow up question from Sen. Lualemaga Faoa about conflicts in the past between DOA and Market Place operations, Lealao said he wants to resolve such issues between the individual currently assigned to oversee the Market Place and the department.
(The Market Place is co-managed by the departments of Agriculture; Marine and Wildlife Resources; and Commerce, whose staffer Falefata Moli Lemana is currently acting manager for the facility)
Lualemaga also pointed out that there are a lot of man-made stalls along the main highway selling agricultural products, and people selling these products should be using the Market Place. He also inquired as to the number of farmers providing produce for the federally funded school lunch program.
Lealao said the department is currently trying to identify all farmers in the territory, including those operating these stalls and agreed that these people should be utilizing the market place. He said once the department completes identification of these individuals as well as an assessment of the agricultural produce, DOA will encourage these sellers to use our new Market Place.
He also said that there are currently 202 farmers registered with DOA, and providing produce to the school lunch program, adding that he does not believe it’s enough to serve the needs of students. He said that he wants to register all farmers, and wants to see how they are helping the community as well as the school lunch program.
Responding to a committee questions about DOA plans for the Manu’a Island group, Lealao said he will be conducting, in the next two to three weeks, a site visit of DOA in the island group and meet with staff there, as well as assessing current operations to find out what more can be done to help develop agriculture there.
Sen. Mauga T. Asuega noted that the FY 2012 budget for DOA is small compared to its important role of focusing on agricultural issues in the territory, adding “do as much as you can with the money that you have.”