Politics!, said the political kettle to the political pot

HOUSE Legislative Initiative  22-1, which would make the DPS chief an elected official (like sheriffs in many U.S. counties), reminds us of the discussions, many years ago, regarding an elected attorney general which was touted by some of its proponents as the political reform par excellence — almost comparable, some said, to ending world hunger.

But what finally clinched the argument in favor of an elected AG was the perceived excesses and abuses of the then-governor and his then-AG. The proposal was overwhelmingly approved by CNMI voters in 2012. (So how’s that working out for you?)

As for H.L.I. 22-1,  some may consider it an eight-page denunciation of the current commissioner (and governor), but in the end, it’s a political issue that will be decided through the political process.

Incidentally, H.L.I. 22-1 declares that as long as the DPS commissioner is a political appointee, “political interference will continue to exist at DPS.”

In other words,  to ensure that a DPS chief would not be beholden to a politician, we should turn the DPS chief…into a politician.

But, you say, it would be a nonpartisan office! Right. As “nonpartisan” as most of the other “nonpartisan” elective positions the CNMI currently has. And what you just felt, dear readers, is the collective eyeroll of the non-delusional members of the public.

To be sure, as with a colonoscopy, there are compelling arguments for an elected DPS chief — but there are also equally sensible reasons against it.

In an editorial published by the LA Times in 2008, Steve Remige, president of the Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs, said “the advantage of appointing a sheriff is that officials can choose the best and the brightest after a stringent vetting process for what is supposed to be a nonpolitical law enforcement agency. In contrast, elections usually elevate the best connected and the best fundraisers.”

In Orange County in 2006, Remige added, the sheriff “managed to win reelection…despite an emerging scandal that had already led to the indictment of his top assistant. [The incumbent] raised more than $600,000 and vastly outspent his opponents. Or consider Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca’s first election win in 1998. On election day, the incumbent sheriff whom Baca was challenging had been dead five days —  and yet his name on the ballot still garnered 39% of the vote.” (According to LA Times columnist Patt Morrison, “Four-term sheriff Lee Baca, now in a federal slammer for obstructing an FBI investigation into jail abuse, got both a master’s and a doctorate in public administration from USC.”)

Not enough voters listened to Remige back then, and an LA County sheriff remains an elected official. The incumbent, according to Los Angeles Magazine, “ran a crafty campaign, and in stressing his Democratic party bona fides and appealing to a swath of Latino voters, he found a path to topple” the previous sheriff.

Today, Morrison wrote, LA County’s current sheriff has “faced a contempt hearing, for blowing off a subpoena from the civilian watchdog board. He’s been sued and sued again for keeping back records of deputy misconduct. His department has, in the words of one oversight commission member, a pattern of opening ‘criminal investigations’ into ‘public officials and other professionals who are in conflict with the department.’ ”

“A politician with a gun and badge.” That’s what Morrison calls the LA County sheriff.

Meanwhile, on Capital Hill, as CNMI lawmakers ponder the pros and cons of H.L.I. 22-1,  perhaps they would also consider proposing a “stringent vetting process” when reviewing the nomination of a DPS commissioner to ensure that he or she has “law enforcement knowledge, employee management skills and ability to manage a…budget.”

ASAP

THE House leadership’s early Christmas wish-list, a.k.a. H.B. 22-74 or the FY 2022 budget bill, included funding for desk audits and forensic audits and feasibility studies. If they haven’t done so yet, lawmakers should also identify future funding sources for the CNMI government’s obligations to the Settlement Fund, and commission a study on how the CNMI government could avoid wasting an additional $7 million (or more) on the judicial building.

The senators in any case should work on and pass their version of the budget bill as quickly as possible because this time around, any deadlock between the House and the Senate could deteriorate into a game of chicken.  And in that game, the ones who would suffer are ordinary government employees and their families.

Editor

Zaldy Dandan is the recipient of the Best Editorial Writer Award of the Society of Professional Journalists, and the CNMI Humanities Award for Outstanding Contributions to Journalism. His three books are available on amazon.com

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