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Governor states his case regarding election of senators

The Legislature having the right to override a veto by a sitting governor would give the legislature a lot of authority over operation of the government, said Gov. Togiola Tulafono when he spoke about the his proposal to amend the constitution by having members of the Senate elected by voters.

Togiola met yesterday morning in the Senate chamber where he spoke on three main issues, including the election of senators which is an issue he first raised on this radio program last month, followed by swift reactions from senators, who are against such a move.

The 18-member senate, in accordance with the constitution, is selected by their respective counties. The main focus of senators opposition to the governor’s proposal is that the Senate, whose membership is made up of traditional leaders, protects our Samoan treasures — our Samoan culture, which includes lands and titles.

During the meeting with lawmakers, Togiola acknowledged that he, too, was among those who in the past strongly opposed the election of senators but pointed out that a referendum to be presented to voters in the general election will give the Fono authority to override a governor’s veto instead of the Secretary of Interior.

He said this vote override authority given to the Fono is an important political change to the territory and he supports such a move. And if the Fono is given that right, the Legislature will have full authority in the operation of the government.

And if it's the case of American Samoa operating under a complete democracy — with the Fono given override authority — then it's time that the territory move towards full democracy with the election of senators, he said.

In a media statement after announcing last month a proposal to elect senators, the governor said he supports the Fono’s position 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 comes 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.”

At yesterday’s meeting with lawmakers, the governor reiterated that he too supports the protection of the Samoan culture, our treasures when it comes to the Senate members and this is the reason he is proposing that only holders of certain Matai titles can be eligible to run for the Senate and only those US Nationals who were born in American Samoa, of American Samoan ancestry, will be qualified to hold this position.

He asked the Fono  to allow this issue to be put to voters, adding that the Fono’s veto override authority will be a major change to the territorial government. He also noted that Congress has the final approval on any amendments to the local constitution.

In response to this issue Sen. Mauga T.  Asuega said he wished that this matter was taken up for full discussion at a Constitutional Convention or raised at the beginning of the Togiola Administration so there is enough time to review and debate such an important issue.

American Samoa selecting its senators makes the territory unique from any other country in the world today, he said and noted that the Senate has always been the Fono chamber made up of traditional leaders,whose responsibilities and duties include the protection of the Samoan culture and its people.

Sen. Galeai Tu’ufuli thanked the governor for sharing again his view on this issue. He said that if such a proposed change is approved here and sent to Congress, that’s where the whole world will know that our territory is not a fully democratic society. He suggested not rushing into making a decision on the election of senators.

Sen. Alo Dr. Paul Stevenson suggested seeking another avenue to address the issue and recommended getting feed back from the territory’s district and county leaders.