Food For Thought 4-18-08
Hi friends, this is Harry Blalock; General Manager for radio stations KZMI & KCNM. It’s that time once again to take a look at the issues of the week, and to offer some Food For Thought.
This past week has been one of the more trying weeks I can ever remember during my 12 years on Saipan. The main reason is that Commonwealth Utilities Corporation told us they had no money to pay for more fuel and they only had enough to go through Thursday. They said if the administration or legislature didn’t come up with more cash to give them, they would have to turn off power for the island on Friday. When you’re in business, that’s the last thing you want to hear, that there will be no power anywhere. So all week everyone on island has been waiting to hear what was happening. Did CUC all the sudden come up with enough cash to buy more fuel? Did the legislature come up with the money to buy fuel? Did the administration reprogram enough funds to keep the lights on for a while longer?
As we read the newspapers every day they didn’t really answer any of our questions, they just seemed to be blaming each other and coming up with excuses. I was hoping that since this was the #1 issue in the Commonwealth at the time, that maybe the Governor would come in Wednesday morning and tell everyone what his plan was and what the status of the utility was. Or at the very least that they would send in the Lt. Governor and Tony Guerrero, the Executive Director of CUC to give us some answers so that we all knew how to plan. But no, even though the Lt. Governor promised me just 2 weeks ago that they realized they had to be much more transparent about the crisis situation at the utility, and they would be coming out in the public to explain it more often, they didn’t come in either. Instead, the administration had the acting director of the Emergency Management Office come in to talk about their plans. Now it’s not that EMO isn’t important, but frankly it’s not what anybody wanted to hear, we all wanted to hear if the lights were going to be on Friday or not. But not one word from the administration or the utility as to the status of fuel to keep the generators operating.
So then Thursday came, the day before the utility told us the lights would be going out if they didn’t come up with more money to buy fuel. The Saipan Tribune didn’t really have any news about the situation at all. The Marianas Variety had a story from the Governor’s Press Secretary saying that the administration would not be giving the utility any money; there was no money to give or to reprogram. Earlier in the week there was a story in one of the papers in which the Governor’s Press Secretary was blaming CUC for their current mess, saying that since they had refused to take the pay cuts last year that everyone else had to take, they made their own mess and no one was going to bail them out now. Maybe if they had taken those pay cuts, they wouldn’t be in the financial mess they are in now. While there may be some truth in that story and those statements, this really wasn’t what anyone wanted to hear. Here we were all wondering if we would be able to keep the doors open for our businesses, and they were still playing politics, pointing fingers at each other. Now this whole thing was beginning to smell like a political power play, and it really stunk.
Around 11 am on Thursday as I was driving up to Mt. Topochou to start our generator for the next power outage, I had Lewie call CUC to find out if they were able to buy fuel or what the situation for Friday was going to be. The person Lewie talked to said they did get a fuel shipment the day before, so that would have been on Wednesday, but it was a secret, and they weren’t allowed to let that information out yet. So at 11 am on Thursday I knew that there wouldn’t be any island-wide blackouts over the weekend due to a lack of fuel, however I still couldn’t go on air and say anything, because I still didn’t have any official notice from the administration or CUC, basically all I had was hearsay, even though it was inside information.
I had a million questions going through my mind at this point, the first of which was, who is lying? The administration said they weren’t going to give CUC any money to buy fuel, and CUC had been telling us they had no money to buy fuel, yet evidently they somehow came up with money to buy another week’s worth of fuel, so where did they get the money, and who was lying about it and why? And why were they keeping this information a big secret? Shouldn’t they be telling people to avoid panic? Shouldn’t they be letting businesses know so they could also plan accordingly? Shouldn’t they be telling schools so they knew if there was any point in opening on Friday or not? What were they waiting for? If they already had the fuel, they obviously knew what their plan was, so what was the purpose in keeping quiet about it for over a day? Was this just another political ploy by the administration or by CUC? The more I thought about it, the more pissed off I got about it. There was no good or acceptable reason to not let the public know what was going on. This was part of some political game, pure and simple, and there is no excuse for it. Whoever was behind withholding this information should lose their job immediately, and I don’t care whether it was the Governor or the Executive Director of CUC. You are now putting political games ahead of the good of the Commonwealth and you need to lose your job for it, it’s really just that simple!
Then I started getting calls all Thursday afternoon from people saying they heard on a radio station that there would be total blackouts starting Friday because CUC had no money to buy any fuel and everything would go dark on Friday. Other rumors popped up on blogs that there would be total blackouts from 6 am to 6 pm on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. The rumor mills were going into overdrive and everyone was grasping for straws. Why would a radio station start such rumors without any hard facts to go on? Were they just drawing their own conclusions from what they had read in the newspaper and then stating their conclusions as facts? Was this just simply a case of disc jockeys going too far and creating a public panic? But why would the management of those stations allow them to keep adding fuel to the fire and spreading these rumors? Did they think it was good for their business, to be screaming “wolf” and then watching the public panic as they called all their friends to let them all know the “latest news”? It was completely irresponsible for that station to be saying those things on the air and spreading false rumors, but then again, they have really never been known for taking the responsible route or for being a reputable source for any information. So why would anyone believe anything they had to say on the matter? I guess that’s a question that only those people can answer; I just hope they’ve learned a lesson through this whole thing.
I could have gone on the air at noon on Thursday and said that I had learned through an inside source that CUC had bought fuel the day before and therefore there would be no island-wide power outage over the weekend. But I didn’t have any official notification from the utility, because they were still playing their secretive games. So I waited to go on the air to say anything until 3:30 pm, when I finally received official notification from CUC that they had purchased 3500 barrels of fuel which was another week’s supply. It’s called doing the responsible thing, and not reporting on a situation when all you have is hearsay and rumors. Unlike other stations, I don’t believe in whipping the public into a false panic just to try and make a name for myself, I’d rather wait and just report the facts.
I also don’t understand why a private school principal would cancel school for half a day based on those same rumors and misinformation? But then again there are many things that I haven’t understood in the past, like why we wasted the money to put a float in the Rose Bowl parade. Wouldn’t be great if we had that money right now to give to CUC? But then I guess we wouldn’t have all those extra tourists that came here as a result of seeing our float in the Rose Bowl parade and came here as a result. Oh wait, we didn’t get any extra tourists did we, so I guess it would be pretty nice to have that money right now after all, wouldn’t it?
The topic today is really about responsibility and doing the right things for the right reasons, something that seems to be sadly lacking in the Commonwealth. We have legislators that bought their re-election by lowering the rate that CUC had to charge to their residential customers, even though they knew it would drive the utility to the point of bankruptcy. We have an administration who seems more concerned about pointing fingers at the utility and making an example of them for not taking an across the board pay cut than they do about coming up with the funding for paying for fuel. We have a utility that seems to also be involved in playing the political games by not disclosing that they had come up with money to buy another week’s worth of fuel and there would be no island-wide blackout this weekend. And we have another radio station that is more interested in starting and spreading rumors than they are in getting out the truth and checking their facts before going public with them. I don’t see any examples of taking proper responsibility and doing the right things for the right reasons. If this is what we are going to have to continue putting up with, is it any wonder that Hollywood Theaters is closing their doors? They won’t be the last business to shut their doors and say it’s just not worth it anymore, the only question is, how many businesses and residents will leave before our leaders finally wake up and realize they can’t operate this way anymore?
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I’m Harry Blalock, thanking you once again for giving me a generous slice of your valuable time, and allowing me to share my Food For Thought.