OP-ED: "Communication and Government"
When I got word that my father had a heart attack last year, I immediately video called his hospital room in Long Beach, CA. I was so grateful for my smartphone and today’s technology that enabled me to virtually cross the ocean, see my father, and hear the doctor’s prognosis. Being able to see and hear what’s going on at times like this is critical.
Vivid communication enables people to learn important information quickly and clearly. Tech companies like Apple have invested thousands of hours researching the types of communication that people engage in. Whether calls, emails, texts, or social media, Apple wants to know how it can improve these experiences. Using online surveys, this company identified what people don’t like about their existing phones and computers. That survey information led to new communication devices like the iPhone that enabled me to video call my father.
Recognizing the value of identifying people’s needs and desires, the American Samoa Civic Engagement Coalition (ASCEC) conducted its own online survey, and asked people about communication in American Samoa, specifically as it relates to government. For example, the survey asked: Do you agree with the Fono’s previous decision to stop broadcasts of legislative proceedings? An astounding 97.4% of respondents said, No. The survey then asked: Do you want your Fono representatives to change their rules so that the people can see and hear the sessions, the comments of Fono members, and their votes? A virtually unanimous 99.1% of people said, Yes.
Some expressed discontent with this survey calling it oppositional to legislators. While ASCEC intended no disrespect, should we be more concerned for the status and potential feelings of our legislators, or the interests of those who elected them to office? Many feel that American Samoa is in a precarious situation financially, economically, and otherwise. All of our territory’s families, both on-island and abroad, are concerned about American Samoa’s health. People want to know our territory’s prognosis. They want to see and hear what the elected caretakers are doing for American Samoa’s recovery. In fact, 99.1% of people feel they have the right to know.
Interestingly, our Constitution supports such a notion. Section 14 of Article 2 “The Legislature” mandates that “the business of each House, and of the Committee of the Whole, shall be transacted openly and not in secret session.” Question, how does the Fono’s decision to end broadcasts comport with its constitutional duty to transact its business openly and not in secret?
Some would argue that Fono sessions are open to public attendance, and that this satisfies the requirement for “public session.” In short, the people can attend if they’re really interested. The facts, however, are that 99.1% really are interested, but less than 0.09% of the public can actually fit in a Fono session. In reality, it’s questionable as to whether anyone from the public can attend a House session given its decision to conduct its business in a building where only faipule, staff, and those subpoenaed can fit.
Question, do the Fono’s current provisions satisfy the law when less than one tenth of one percent of the public can attend a session? Or can something more be done to ensure the people’s constitutional right to business transacted openly by the legislature? Currently, the public must rely on news and radio reports. While we are grateful for these summaries, many government officials have expressed dissatisfaction with how their comments and efforts are portrayed. Moreover, summaries by news reporters do not necessarily satisfy the legislature’s constitutional duty to transact business openly.
Fortunately, today’s technology offers a simple solution. For less than $100 a video camera could be purchased and videos of sessions could be uploaded to social media for free, e.g. a Fono YouTube channel. This type of vivid communication by the Fono would satisfy its constitutional duty to transact business openly. It would also provide people with critical information about their beloved territory immediately and clearly. Interestingly, 91% of the people said that they want online access to legislative proceedings.
So the question becomes, what will the Fono do? The House currently has before it a resolution to restart televised broadcasts. ASCEC respectfully exhorts all our faipule to heed the voice of those who elected them. Like any son or daughter visiting the hospital room of his or her weak and aged parent, the people want to see and hear what you are doing to help our beloved American Samoa.
If anyone is interested in more of the survey’s questions and results, please visit the “American Samoa Civic Engagement” Facebook page. If you’re interested in learning more about legislative processes, or the House resolution referenced above, please attend ASCEC’s next town hall meeting on Thursday, March 7 at 5:30pm at the Cancer Coalition in Nu’uuli.
Fono counsels Jessop-Ta’ase and Savali, along with a few faipule have agreed to attend and participate in the dialogue.
-American Samoa Civic Engagement Coalition (ASCEC)