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UPDATE: Utu resigns as utility chief in Northern Marianas

American Samoa native and former territorial senator, Utu Abe Malae has confirmed that he resigned as executive director of the Commonwealth Utility Corporation (CUC), the government owned utility provider in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.

The Saipan Tribune newspaper reported yesterday that Utu had resigned and CNMI Gov. Benigno Fitial has accepted the resignation. In a statement, Fitial cited four reasons for believing that “a change in leadership is necessary,” including not seeing “evidence of aggressive action to seek out viable alternative energy sources [that] would provide cheap power.”

Responding to Samoa News inquiries, Utu confirmed the resignation and June 25th (Thursday, American Samoa time), is his last day as the CUC boss, the post he has held since the latter part of 2009, after he stepped down as Saole senator that same year. He was asked by the CNMI government to come help turn around its then failing CUC.

Asked about his future plans, Utu said via e-mail from Saipan, “[I’ll] take a long break and then work again.”

Last year, Utu announced via teleconferencing to supporters of his intention to be a candidate in this year’s governor’s race and he planned to step down as CUC boss at the end of March 2012. However, he issued a statement in early March this year saying that he would remain with CUC.

Early this week, Fitial issued an emergency order for CUC, and the emergency declaration effectively suspends regulations and allows the reprogramming of funds to address cash, procurement, and hiring crises, according to news media. CUC was first placed under emergency status on August 2008 and finally lifted it in March last year.  The emergency order means the CUC is under the Fitial administration’s jurisdiction.

Saipan Tribune reports Fitial saying this week that CUC is owed over $8 million by the cash-strapped central government, the Public School System and Commonwealth Healthcare Corporation. Additionally, CUC is also owed over $4 million by residential users and is facing $2.6 million in accounts payable to vendors.

Asked for the reasons he resigned, Utu told Samoa News, “We are being scapegoated for the high cost of fuel and the insolvency of the central government. It is easier to go after the outsider rather than try to fix the structural failings of government and leadership.”

“Fortunately, the Emergency Order was issued just in time to allow us to act quickly,” he said, but didn’t elaborate further.  (He also provided a side note: Of all the US states and territories, CNMI has the second highest per capita number of attorneys after Washington, D.C.)

Asked about his overall review of the years at the helm of CUC, the former boss of the American Samoa Power Authority said:

•            Improvements in Customer Service (“I used to dread calling my own office from the outside”), power reliability and quality, meeting Stipulated Orders without getting fined by the US EPA, more reliable and increased coverage (90%) of 24/7 water on Saipan;

•            reduction in energy intensity of water & waste water;

•            major strengthening of the main power plant that was once given up for dead;

•            huge improvements in wastewater treatment; and

•            improved engineering and re-engineering.

He also spoke about the difference between American Samoa and the CNMI — both U.S. territories, although located on different sides of the vast Pacific Ocean — as well as the CUS workers, who he will miss.

“It is unfortunate that American Samoa and the CNMI are so far apart geographically,” he said. “It would be great for the people of both territories to learn from one another and the two are so similar, yet far apart.”

“CNMI has a tumultuous history and American Samoa is relatively quiet. American Samoa is in a protected enclave, CNMI the westernmost outpost of the empire, next to Hadrian's wall so to speak,” he points out.

“The indigenous people of the CNMI are kind and gentle — take care of their elders just like we do. My workers are even tempered and reliable and they are what I will miss the most,” he added.