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Governor chastises House Speaker for reopening Fono session

House Speaker Savali Talavou Ale
No consultation is most disconcerting to me, says Lolo

Pago Pago, AMERICAN SAMOA — “Your decision to reopen the Legislative Branch without extending the courtesy to discuss it with me defies standard leadership protocols, cooperation and support,” wrote Gov. Lolo Matalasi Moliga to House Speaker Savali Talavou Ale in a May 13th letter.

The governor was responding to Savali’s letter seeking an explanation on why cabinet directors requested to appear for House hearings didn’t show up. The governor points out that expecting cooperation and deference — as referenced by the Speaker’s letter — should be mutually extended by one branch of government to the other.

Priori to the COVID-19 emergency health declarations, the governor said that he made it a point to reach out to the Fono leaders to address the contents of these declarations along with the solicitation of their cooperation and support.

Lolo also pointed out that the Fourth Amended Declaration is still in place extending enforcement of the same restrictions, which limit public activities “based on our commitment” to social distancing being the most effective mode to contain the spread of the coronavirus and to continue to advance the collective objective not to lose one’s life to the coronavirus pandemic.

Samoa News notes that the current declaration lapses on June 1st but the Fono reopened on May 11th. However, the Fono leaders decided to conduct their respective Regular Sessions on Mondays and Wednesday while committee hearings met through the workweek, but none of the ASG witnesses showed up for House committee hearings and they were told that no witnesses would come due to the coronavirus declaration.

Then the Fono — through a Senate Joint Resolution — approved on May 18th its third COVID-19 related recess until June 8th.

In his letter, the governor says the message sent to the community by the Legislature by resuming its activities “in the midst of the emergency declaration, extremely undermines the integrity of the actions we are taking to protect the lives of our people.”

Lolo explained that the emergency declaration is designated “to protect all of us and it demands individual responsibility, particularly our leaders, to take personal ownership of this deadly pandemic.”

According to the governor, scientists and health experts are forecasting second and third waves of coronavirus infection, “so the probability is still very high that we will have a confirmed case down the line if we relax our vigilance and diligence by assuming unreasonable expectations that we will continue to be COVID-19 free.”

Furthermore, COVID-19 infection and health trends continue to rise in the United States and the world. He also said that American Samoa currently doesn’t have enough test-kits to test first responders, symptomatic individuals, and vulnerable population — the senior citizens.  And LBJ Medical Center has 8 COVID-19 beds, 8 temporary beds for COVID-19 overflow and possibly 8 more when the Behavioral Health Center conversion is completed.

“We are in a health emergency situation, thus, if the Legislature elects to exempt itself from this emergency declaration status, the Executive Branch cannot be compelled to defy its own promulgated emergency restrictions aimed at saving the lives of our people,” Lolo wrote to Savali. “Moreover, the directors are currently overwhelmed and overburden by the additional COVID-19 related duties and responsibilities which have been assigned to them.”

In spite of the additional cost burden to ASG’s financial resources, Lolo explained steps taken to “protect the most vulnerable of our population” all people who are 60-years and older, by order to work from home. He also explained the current employment 50%-50% format put in place.

“These actions were taken as our social distancing initiatives to prevent the entry and spread of the Coronavirus,” he said, adding that the Fono leaders had joined these efforts from the start.

However, Lolo said it was “most disconcerting to me” when the House Speaker and the Senate President decided to reopen the Legislature “without extending me the privilege to discuss this issue with you given that I have not seen pressing agenda issues which would justify resumption of the Fono” while the emergency declaration is in effect.

If he would have been consulted, Lolo said he would have suggested suspension of the Fono re-opening until the end of the current 4th declaration.

“While the COVID-19 pandemic has usurped the majority of our time, there are so many government projects which need to be started and completed, and it is my intention to place priority on their completion before I exit the political scene,” he wrote.

Therefore, the directors are being “instructed to apply equal focus on the completion of these projects which will improve social and economic benefits for the years to come,” he said adding that he hopes the letter would provide sufficient explanation behind this issue and that he will revisit the Speaker’s request when the current declaration ends on May 31st.

A copy of the letter was also sent to Senate President Gaoteote Palaie Tofau.