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Amendments to ASG land lease statutes rejected by Senate

Sen. Togiola T.A. Tulafono
Confusion from where the amendments originated also part of discussion

Pago Pago, AMERICAN SAMOA — Senators agreed with testimony by Attorney General Fainu’ulelei Falefatu Alailima-Utu that current laws pertaining to ASG land leases are good ‘as is’ and the Senate therefore rejected yesterday, in second reading, a Senate bill, seeking to overhaul local statutes on land leases that would have simplified the process of leases, as well as bring final approval of “all” ASG land leases, no matter how long,  to the Fono.

Fainu’ulelei along with Commerce director Petti Matila testified before a Senate Judicial Committee hearing, where it was later learned the bill was incorrectly marked as legislation from the Administration — it was sponsored by Sen. Soliai Tuipine Fuimaono.

Current law sets provisions for allowing the government a “four-year lease” and “six-year lease”, and the bill seeks to repeal these two provisions.

Also under the current statute, any lease of 10 years or more is subject to endorsement by the Fono, but the bill amends this provision, with all ASG leases subject to Fono approval — no matter how long the lease.

Alailima-Utu gave a brief summary of current law, which he says was set by “our forefathers” in the Fono in 1978, which is also the year that American Samoa elected its first governor.

He said other ASG leases less than 10 years are thoroughly reviewed by the Executive Branch, with input from the Attorney General and ASG agencies involved in the lease.

The AG explained that many leases come up every year but the Fono is only in session for 90 days (two 45-day sessions) a year. He said the proposed amendments will tie-the-hands of the sitting governor in moving leases forward for the economic development of the territory.

Matila briefed senators on the role DOC plays in overseeing these land leases and taking into consideration, when negotiating leases, the “fair market value” at the time. And this is all in efforts to promote economic development for the territory for businesses that want to open here.

She also said that all leases less than 10 years have the option to be extended for 25 or 30 years, and such options are then subject to endorsement by the Fono.

Several senators voiced concerns over the “sub-lease” of ASG land, saying that the business that leases the land would later sublease it to another party.

Alailima-Utu points out that ASG must agree to any “sublease” while Matila said DOC, in “moving forward” and will try not to entertain any subleases.

Togiola, a former governor, argued that the bill ties the hands of a governor in getting investments and moving the economy forward with more businesses wanting land leases. He asked why the Administration wants to amend the current law, as the bill is from the Administration.

Alailima-Utu said the bill in committee is not an administration bill and that he had already checked with the Governor’s Office confirming this, and then reiterated his earlier statement that current statutes are perfect ‘as is’.

His statement about the origin of the bill came as a surprise to the committee, causing some commotion and word went out querying who submitted the bill. The AG returned later, after the committee’s hearing ended, to confirm to the committee chair, what the Governor’s Office had said — it’s not an Administration bill.

Despite the bill’s origin being mislabeled, committee chair, Sen. Tuiagamoa Tavai said during the Senate session that the majority of senators agreed to maintain current laws following testimony from Alailima-Utu.

The legislation was introduced in the Senate on Aug. 18th and Samoa News then sought, through its source, a copy of the cover letter from the governor to the Fono leaders on the bill. Samoa News then learned that it was not an administration bill and is the reason, a story was never written on the issue — until now.