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Op-Ed: Misguided propaganda campaign by ASPA

As a former candidate for Lt. Governor, obviously I was very disappointed in the outcome of the elections for our Save & Sandra team; however, I was just as disappointed at the failure of the veto override referendum.

Although not a legislator, that is irrelevant to why I strongly support the veto override power for the Fono. The veto override is a necessary tool that the Fono needs to govern in a co-equal tripartite government system and will help move us towards more accountability in government. 

As a territory, we need to fill in the gaps and make policy decisions that will make our government operate more justly and fairly. The veto override power for the Fono will help realize true checks and balances among the three branches of government — and ASPA or the Governor and their disagreements with the Fono should never have polarized it as an issue. Disagreements between the Executive and Legislature are an inherent part of our government system and shows that our system is working, except that it’s not because the Fono does not have a true veto override authority.

To learn that the ASPA board and management actively took part in defeating this referendum was shameful, irresponsible and a great disservice to our people and our government on the part of ASPA. Both ASPA and the Governor are misguided in their reasons for not supporting the veto override for the Fono. They are making this issue personal and it’s not about them. 

The management of ASPA and Governors will come and go, but the democratic principles that are the foundation of our civil society must be constitutionally sound to withstand the test of time and the whims of Governors and Legislatures.

Under a tripartite form of government, the three branches of government are supposed to be co-equal, and yet, our Fono for many years, remains the weakest branch in our government system while the Executive branch through the Governor’s office has increased its executive powers and overly micromanages in every sector of our government. This is all the more reason why the veto override power must be given to the Fono to check the powers of the Executive Branch.

Every legislature in every state and territory in the U.S. has some form of legislative veto override power, except American Samoa. ASPA and the Governor are ignoring a fundamental concept in the legislative process, that when the Fono kills a bill or cuts an agency’s budget, that’s ok, it’s the way the legislative system works under a tripartite government. That means the system is working — and if we don’t like what the Fono is doing, then we use the power of our vote to vote them out — or how about selecting wise and qualified people to be matai who eventually serve in the Senate?

Agencies may not agree with the Fono, but that’s why they have to work harder to build alliances and lobby legislators to support their bills — or how about writing good bills and not overspending agency budgets?  When agency budgets are cut, the head of the agency can’t get personal and campaign against a fundamental constitutionally driven referendum that is necessary to the transparent functioning of our government. Rather, the agency needs to do its job and cut its expenses and live within its budget. 

As a semi-government agency, it was completely inappropriate for the board and management of ASPA to campaign against the veto referendum in its public offices with its public employees. This was a clear violation of the Hatch Act that prohibits political campaigning for candidates including referendum issues during government time, using government property, and amongst government employees while at their place of work. This was especially egregious as the board members and management are supposed to be responsible for upholding government regulations and laws. In any other jurisdiction, the board and management would be terminated for such blatant violations of prohibited political activities.

We should not look at the veto override power as a threat against government agencies, but we must look at it as a legislative tool that is needed by the Fono to effectively and equally govern under a tripartite government system.

Right now, as a matter of function, the Governor in effect has the power to legislate because currently the Fono cannot override his veto. If they do, it’s a sham and a superficial veto override since it ends up on the desk of the U.S. Secretary of Interior. The Secretary of Interior will defer to the decision of the Governor. This practically ensures that the Governor not only governs, but also legislates — a power that constitutionally belongs to the Fono. Allowing the Secretary of Interior to continue to have the final say whether to allow the Fono’s veto override to stay or by default agree with the Governor by non-action, arguably and effectively violates the constitution because it allows the executive branch of the government to act as a legislator. This has to be fixed in our government system. We have grown as a territory and as a government, we deserve to govern ours.

The argument that the veto power for the Fono will give the Fono control of the government is nothing more than misinformation and misleading propaganda by the Governor’s office — and shows that the Governor is not truly sincere about real self-governance for American Samoa — which we are not now self-governing as some people would say. Furthermore, the argument that if we give the Fono the veto override power then we need to elect Senators pursuant to democratic principles, well, that’s opening up a whole can of worms. 

We need to be careful with what we ask for, because democratic principles would also require for example that, (1) we do away with the requirements for matai titles to be a Senator; (2) we cannot require birth in American Samoa to be factor to be a Senator; and (3) that we grant the power to vote to foreigners after first giving them the right to be nationals. Those are real democratic principles.

The Fono needs the legislative veto override — for the sake of building a more just governance system for now and in the future. The veto override referendum is not about ASPA; it’s about correcting democratic processes so that our government can govern with transparency, accountability and fairness.  It is about correcting our currently flawed government structure so there is co-equal functioning of the three branches of government so that it can stand the test of time. It is about American Samoa having a little more control in governing our internal affairs without having the U.S. be the final arbiter of our legislative actions as if we were incapable of thinking for ourselves. 

The misguided propaganda campaign by ASPA against the veto override referendum was a shameful disservice to our people, our territory and especially to the governance of our government.

If we as a people seriously want to have a say in helping to bring transparency, accountability and a checks and balance system to our government in order to serve the best interest of our people, we must all support the veto override referendum in the next election — and ASPA needs to focus on its mission.