Plain English, please
SHPO says jargon-heavy Programmatic Agreement memos render project proposals vague to most people
Guam residents may have the opportunity to comment on military buildup-related projects proposed by the U.S. Navy, but how well do they understand military documents?
Maybe not much or not at all, according to Patrick Lujan, Guam’s state historic preservation officer.
The Navy’s proposed projects are presented to the public through Programmatic Agreement memos that are typically riddled with acronyms, military jargon and technocratic phrases that are alien to regular people.
The Programmatic Agreement was signed between the Navy and Guam in 2011 to ensure that historic properties are taken into account in the military’s project planning and execution.
According to the Navy’s document, “The 2011 PA states that in the course of supplemental reviews pursuant to Stipulations IV and V, the signatories and invited signatories may request that additional project-specific APEs be defined consistent with 36 CFR §800.16(d) to address potential direct and indirect effects of individual projects. Consistent with the PA, project-specific APEs are represented in PA memos.”
PA memos are posted on the NAVFAC Pacific website for public review within a 30-day comment period. The text of an actual memo oftentimes leaves the regular reader scratching their head.
“In general,the PA memo for the public provided is jargon-heavy, which may negatively impact public comprehension and engagement with the notification and consultation process,” Lujan wrote in a July 21 letter to Jeffery Laitila NAVFAC Marianas U.S. Naval Base Guam.
Lujan suggested that PA memos be written in a manner easier to digest. “For example,it may be useful to define terms like ‘CFR’, ‘vertical construction’, ‘mitigation’, ‘qualifying characteristics’, and ‘site integrity’, as these terms may not be immediately understood by individuals outside the field of cultural resources management,” he said. “This would directly improve transparency and public comprehension, and help to combat any misinformation that may surround the projects.”
Lujan noted that the federal law on open government requires a system of transparency through plain writing.
The Plain Writing Act of 2010, which was signed into law on Oct. 13, 2010, “calls for writing that is clear, concise, and well-organized” and “avoids jargon, redundancy, ambiguity and obscurity.”
In an executive memo issued on April 13, 2011, then-President Barack Obama noted the value of clear and simple communication. “Avoiding vagueness and unnecessary complexity makes it easier for members of the public to understand and to apply for important benefits and services for which they are eligible,” the memo read.
“Plain writing can also assist the public in complying with applicable requirements simply because people better understand what they are supposed to do. Plain writing is thus more than just a formal requirement; it can be essential to the successful achievement of legislative and administrative goals, and it also promotes the rule of law."
Lujan wrote the letter to Laitila in response to a PA memo covering the projects labeled as P-306, P-307, P-310, P-314 and P-803— which raised another issue. “I understand that they refer to these locations by the project names and how they can be identified by categorizing them, but from a local and historical perspective, it diminishes the cultural value of what was once there,” Lujan wrote in an email. “That is why I prefer to call them by either their ancient village names or most common names of recent history.”
The military and the civilian community occasionally find themselves at odds over certain projects, particularly the ones proposed in sites determined to be archeologically rich. Ancient human burials have been discovered at project areas at the Camp Blas Marine Corps Base.
The Programmatic Agreement covers hundreds of projects, worth approximately $8.7 billion, in preparation for the relocation of 5,000 marines from Okinawa to Guam. These include the construction of live-fire training ranges, housing facilities for the marines and their families and a transient nuclear aircraft carrier wharf, among others.
Among the ongoing military buildup-related projects on Guam include the construction of live-fire training ranges, housing facilities for the marines and their families, and a transient nuclear aircraft carrier wharf.
In an op-ed piece distributed to the local media in October, rear Adm. Benjamin Nicholson, commander of the Joint Region Marianas, vowed to “continue to plan and execute the Marine Corps relocation to Guam in a responsible collaborative and transparent manner,
and we are committed to the same for any future military growth.”
“We collaborate daily with the SHPO to maintain a fine balance
between sharing cultural information with the community and upholding the
regulations and laws designed to protect sensitive cultural resources,” Nicholson wrote.
“While the preference is to preserve sites and resources in place, in the event that avoidance is not possible, the 2011 PA has a provision that allows data recovery as standard mitigation in coordination with the SHPO. The careful and meticulous archaeological work allows us to permanently record the important details and physical evidence of Guam's history to share with the public and our future generations.”