Guam senators on Tuesday voted 14-1 to override Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero's veto of Bill 333-35, which would mandate transparency on the expenditure of the federal funds allocated to Guam through the CARES Act,
"I have said this many times in this session hall and out in the community that transparency and providing information to the people of Guam is the only way we can make the government more trustworthy, more efficient, and more responsive to the needs of the people," Sen, Therese Terlaje, author of Bill 333, said during the legislature's emergency session.
"And it is particularly essential during a public health emergency, that the administration and the government of Guam is honest and upfront about its plans, its challenges, and its priorities. The people of Guam are smart and if given all the data and information, we can all work together to find the best solutions during this unprecedented crisis," she added.
"Standing up for transparency, and checks and balances will ensure that our government responds quicker, becomes more fair, more efficient, more productive and is the only way we can foster trust for when we need it most, in the face of additional health and safety threats requiring swift action, and as we face drastic loss of local revenue forcing cuts in services and additional hardship,” Terlaje said.
Sen. Amanda Shelton, the only senator who voted against the override, said the bill would add "another obscure layer of transparency."
While acknowledging that "there is a lack of trust" in the government right now, Shelton said, "We cannot legislate trust. It is something that we must practice in our daily lives."
"Please do not misunderstand me-the intent of this bill is good," Shelton said. "Transparency is good and absolutely necessary. The truth is bill 333 fails to achieve its intent. Unfortunately, Bill 333 is not rooted in trust so unfortunately it continues to tear down the trust that we need to achieve transparency."
Sen. Mary Torres said Bill 333 may not accomplish anything per se but its merits include a demonstration to the community that "we are going the extra mile to give assurance that things are being done."
In vetoing Bill 333-35, the governor said a local statute "commanding the executive branch to do what federal law already prescribes should not confuse these processes. "Placing additional requirements on the use of these funds is an overreach of legislative authority," she said.
In a statement following the successful override, Terlaje said the inception of the bill stemmed from a lack of response to numerous written inquiries regarding numerous concerns with respect to the Covid-19 response efforts, including a spending plan that had not been received for $117.8 million dollars already deposited into government coffers.
"This lack of response reverberated through the halls of the Guam Congress Building during session last month, with numerous senators sharing their concerns about transparency," she said.
She noted that it has been three weeks since Bill 333-35 was unanimously passed and the bill could have been signed on that day by the governor but valuable time has been lost in lieu of receiving timely reporting of expenditures, copies of agreements with the federal government and swift implementation of relief programs.
“This bill was not meant to be adversarial. It was meant to provide a clear guideline so we did not impede the government’s response efforts, ensured that affected agencies had legal authorization to draft necessary agreements and placed reasonable reporting requirements for hundreds of millions of dollars flowing into the local government,” Terlaje said.
Shelton raised doubt on the enforceability of Bill 333-35.
“Is enforcement even possible Bill 333-35?” she asked. “As it was pointed out to me during debate on my Bill 335-35 regarding the limited curfew during a health emergency, there was no enforcement provision. Bill 333-35 also lacks an enforcement provision. I would like to think that is a question we will not have to answer because the trust and transparency is clearly evident and will not be called into question again.”
"Voters elect and trust us to take on the issues of the day. I believe and I know there is a need for transparency. But the dictate of transparency does not exist this legislation. The mechanism for transparency does not exist in this bill. We cannot add another layer of obscured transparency to prevent us from moving forward," Shelton added.
Prior to the session, the Guam Republican Party issued the following statement:
"Transparency and accountability are the critical foundations of a democracy, and considering the many questionable actions that have occurred with our government over the past couple of weeks, it is paramount that these cornerstones are laid in concrete through strict mandates.
"It is with this, that the Republican Party of Guam encourages the Senators of the 35th Guam Legislature to remain firm in your position and please override the Governor's veto of Bill 333-35 during Tuesday's Emergency Session. If one thing is clear, island residents are expecting this from their elected leaders, as they are tired of questionable procurements, unanswered questions, and the abuse of official authority.
"Failure to support an override would certainly be turning your head away from listening to the people of Guam. While we understand that the Governor will unveil a plan in the afternoon, and one that discusses accountability.
"If the administration was unable to practice transparency throughout the course of this pandemic thus far, unless something is mandated in a local statute, unfortunately we can't hold them to their words moving forward. Ultimately we remind all Senators that it is the electorate and not the Governor who you answer to, therefore we hope you do the right thing with Bill 333-35."