Local group questions suspension of Open Government Law

OPEN GOVERNMENT: Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero responds to a question regarding her executive order that, in part, suspends portions of the Open Government Law. Screenshot from video

A local organization is protesting the governor's suspension of the Open Government Law, saying it "encourages abuse of public trust."

The Vigilance Committee, an organization that promotes government transparency, wrote to Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero, questioning her decision to suspend a law that holds the government and its board and commissions accountable to the public.

The committee also requested "a copy of any and all public records, citing specific sections of the Organic Act of Guam, laws, and rules and regulations, which grant you, the Governor of Guam, the authority to suspend the Open Government Law in part or in whole," their letter states.

During a recent press conference, the governor said government meetings should still be open to the public. Executive Order 2020-06 only aims to improve government efficiency by removing the "bureaucracy" or requirement of announcing a government meeting five days in advance, she said.

"Believe me, up at Adelup and Homeland Security, there are times when we have to make quick decisions and we need to bring in more people from an agency to make that happen," the governor said during the press conference. "So I just want to make sure we are given that opportunity and not have to follow the five-day rule."

Michelle Armenta, Vigilance Committee president, said the suspended sections "require that the public be given notice of board and commission meetings, and because no one would know when a board or commission is meeting, any board and commission can meet without running the risk of public participation and thus your executive order has created a situation which encourages abuse of public trust."

It is during government meetings when boards and commissions have to publicly vote on decisions that could potentially change a policy or determine spending, Armenta stated.

She cited the recent raises given to top-tier utilities managers as an example. If requirements to announce meetings or provide government reports were not allowed, the public would never have known of the raises, she stated.

"In short, your executive order has de facto repealed the Open Government Law and opened the door for what, in light of violations of the law by the Consolidated Commission on Utilities and the Guam Housing and Urban Renewal Authority commissioners, allows intolerable mischief," she said.

The Vigilance Committee acknowledged that dealing with COVID-19 requires measures that would not be contemplated in ordinary circumstances.

However, the committee notes, "draconian measures that abolish, even temporarily, the public's right to know what its government is doing cannot pass without the most strenuous objection."

"A simple modification of the first sentence of 5 GCA § 8103 would allow boards and commissions to conduct business while doing vigilance to the Open Government Law and at the same time maintain the requirements of social distancing. This is how you can protect public trust, defend the Open Government Law, and promote transparency and accountability with social distancing," the committee said.

"Governor, we beseech you to revoke paragraph 5 of your Executive 2020-06 immediately," Armenta stated.

Nonprofit organization

The Vigilance Committee is a nonprofit organization dedicated to requiring compliance with the Open Government Law and the Sunshine Reform Act by public officials and government representatives; and to promote ways to improve the dissemination and disclosure of information to the general public.

In December 2019, the committee questioned the Ethics Commission, which had been empaneled earlier in the year, for not providing a committee report and budget request. The Ethics Commission, which is charged with handling ethics complaints against government employees, held its inaugural meeting in September 2019, which is when it learned it had neither a budget nor staff.

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