Friday, July 18, 2008

Do We Really Need Them?

Food For Thought 7-18-08

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.

I understand that the Fitial administration has its hands full right now with more problems than they can handle at one time, but to me that still doesn’t let them off the hook for certain promises they made to us a couple years ago. Their promise to get rid of the fuel surcharge for CUC when they came into office was an absolutely ridiculous promise that I knew there was no way they could ever keep. So I never put any stock in that promise in the first place. But there were other promises that I did expect them to keep, and have been extremely disappointed that their word seems to be about as dependable as the CUC engines and generators.

Before the Governor even took office he promised to come in each Wednesday morning that he was on island to answer any questions and keep the record straight about what was going on. He did fairly well with that for a couple months, then started having back problems so he stopped coming in. But even after he has recovered from his back surgery, I think he’s only been in studio one or two times in the past year. I don’t know if he’s been upset at some of the things I’ve said about his administration in my commentary, or if he just really doesn’t want to have to face some of the questions he knows I’ll have, but I’ve been disappointed that he didn’t live up to his promise of transparency and being accountable to the people in that way. I’m sure he doesn’t like having to come up with answers for many of the problems that we’re currently embroiled in, but isn’t that what we elected him to do, come up with answers and tell us what is going on?

This Governor also promised to end deficit spending and to finally have a balanced budget and only spend what we were taking in, and they claimed they actually accomplished this a year ago or so. But if that is really true, then how is it that we accumulated another $30 million deficit last year alone? You can’t just stop paying some of your obligations and pay only the ones you can afford and call it a balanced budget; it just doesn’t work that way. This administration has certainly tried to spin things in a favorable way, but that doesn’t mean that it was really the truth. The truth is in the figures and the audits, and the last one just pegged our cumulative deficit at $218 million. It’s spiraling out of control and in spite of the measures that have been enacted, it really hasn’t put a dent in our negative cash flow. We need to make much more substantial cuts and stop the needless spending immediately. We still haven’t figured out that we can’t afford to go to stateside conferences and spend money like it grows on trees.

Then what about the promises of prosecutions having to do with the messes that were uncovered at Marianas Public Land Authority, did they forget about those, or are they just waiting for the statute of limitations to run out? It’s been over 2 ½ years, just exactly how long does it take them to build a case? For the longest time we were told they were waiting for the report from the Office of the Public Auditor, but then that report came out saying they had found numerous instances of questionable if not outright illegal activities. But that report has been out for well over a year and still not a single word from the administration or the Attorney General’s office about any follow up or prosecutions for the financial atrocities that took place at that autonomous agency. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve been told by the administration to just be patient, there would be an announcement any day now. That was over a year ago!

It’s just more of the same old same old, lots of talk, but never any follow through or results. Why is there such a hesitancy to prosecute white collar crimes in previous administrations? Is there some unwritten code that as long as you don’t prosecute the guys who came before you then the next guy who comes along won’t prosecute you for all your misdeeds either? Of all the promises that were made by this administration and consequently broken, this is the one that disappoints me the most. I expected they wouldn’t really follow through on the rest, but I thought they were as outraged as I was about the blatant corruption and money grabbing that took place at MPLA during the last administration, and I thought they were serious about holding them accountable for it. This administration has proven that they are no more serious about following up the OPA’s recommendations than any other administration has been.

I guess I’m just a bit confused about why we wouldn’t want to go after those who have taken advantage of their positions and misused the taxpayer’s money. We all know it isn’t because we have such a surplus of cash at the moment. This won’t be the first time I’ve suggested such a thing, and it most likely won’t be the last, but can you tell me what the point of even having an Office of the Public Auditor is if we are never going to follow up on their recommendations or make any prosecutions as a result of their investigations? I mean really, why bother staffing the office and having an operating budget for them? If all of their findings just wind up collecting dust anyway and we never see any follow up, then why spend the money and go through the exercise in the first place? Is it just so that we can pretend to be a society of law and order? Is it so that we can appear to respect the law?

And why do we go through the pretense of having enforcement agencies? Sure we have made laws and supposedly we expect those laws to be upheld and enforced, but I think we all know they’re not. So why should we have Fish & Wildlife officers if the Attorney General’s Office is just going to recommend plea bargains for those the Fish & Wildlife officers catch violating our laws, and they only wind up with 6 month sentences all suspended except for the 4 days already served and $25 fines? Couldn’t we save a lot of money if we did away with those jobs since we’re obviously not serious about enforcing anything anyway?

And if the Attorney General’s office can’t be bothered actually taking a case to trial and following the recommendations of the Office of the Public Auditor, why have it then? We could save a bunch of money if we didn’t have to pay all those “over the salary cap” lawyers up there. And why have a court if the judges are just going to slap everyone on the wrists anyway and tell them not to do it again? Just think of all the money we’d save by not paying those salaries and for their office staff. And why have a jail if we really can’t afford to put prisoners in it anyway and don’t have the stomach to actually give out real sentences?

I realize that this may seem absurd to some to even contemplate doing something as extreme as getting rid of all these agencies, but seriously, if we’re not going to get serious about utilizing them, then why have them in the first place? Seriously, what are we really accomplishing if we are not going to utilize them? I believe if you take a look at just how many of the Office of the Public Auditor’s recommendations that have actually been followed up on or been prosecuted over the last 6 years, you will quickly see what I mean. It’s not that their work isn’t good or that they’re not thorough, it’s just that there is no will to actually follow through on their recommendation and push through with prosecutions. I believe if you ask the Public Auditor himself, you will also find that he has been very frustrated by the lack of follow through on any and all of their investigations during his time in the office.

I believe that the Governor, the Department of Public Safety and the rest of the enforcement agencies, the Attorney General’s Office, the courts and the jails would all try to tell us that they are all doing a great job. It kind of reminds me of the Emperor’s new clothes. A scam artist convinced the Emperor that he would make him clothing of the finest material, it was so fine that he couldn’t even see it. The Emperor, being the pompous and vain dictator he was, wanted only the finest for himself, so he paid the scam artist and then went parading around in his new clothes. As he walked down the streets the people all laughed at him as he was prancing around naked. I think all the administration and all these agencies would try convincing us they are all doing a great job, when in reality they are all parading around naked, not accomplishing a thing. I would love to be proved wrong about any of this, please just show me a successful prosecution of any of the former MPLA board members or their questionable attorney and I’ll issue a public apology. But in the meantime, I’m going to go around saying that we’ve been lied to over and over and over again, and that somebody is prancing around naked!

Food For Thought is now available online at and if you want it by e-mail distribution please send me an e-mail at

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.

Friday, July 11, 2008

The "B" Word

Food For Thought 7-11-08

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.

For several weeks now, I’ve been hearing from several different sources that our government, specifically the administration is slowly coming to the realization that the problems at Commonwealth Utilities Corporation are far beyond anything they can cope with or solve. They are realizing that for far too long we had political appointees running and managing the corporation that really didn’t have the required background, expertise or experience to do the job properly. And then we had the interference from politicians who had their own plans and designs on the future of the power plant and refused to spend any money on maintenance for the engines and generators because they were just going to privatize it anyway. The money kept in surplus to order spare parts and fuel was quickly squandered and wasted. Then we had a bunch of pandering politicians seeking desperately to hold onto their jobs artificially lower the rate that CUC had to charge to residential customers, charging far less even than the fuel costs to produce the electricity, not to mention all of the other associated costs. Then this administration learned that they had been led astray and told that the repairs would be completed much sooner than was feasible or realistic. So now they had engines and generators that were breaking down on a daily basis, parts that had not been ordered yet that were needed for overhauls of the engines, no end in sight of the rolling blackouts, and they were continually unable to pay for adequate fuel shipments to run the generators for the next month.

When you find yourself in the middle of a situation like this, it severely limits your options. You realize that continuing to depend on fossil fuels to produce your electricity will not be sustainable much longer, yet you have no money to invest in alternative energy sources. So do you continue throwing millions of dollars into the old, inefficient generators we have? Do you invest in new generators that will continue to burn expensive diesel fuel that you know you won’t be able to afford to pay for, and that will drive the cost of electricity so high that no one will be able to afford to live here any longer? Or do you eventually come to the realization that the problems have spiraled out of control to the point that there is no possible way you can begin to address all the issues and come up with a workable solution? Do you finally have to start discussing the “B” word? And can you discuss the “B” word since the utility is owned by the government, without admitting that the entire government is also teetering on the verge of the “B” word as well? The “B” word in case you are wondering, is Bankruptcy.

I have heard from several different people in the last few weeks that the administration is getting closer and closer to the conclusion that bankruptcy might be the only viable option they have left, and that it has been discussed extensively. Could that also be the reason that the administration placed an accountant in charge of the failing utility company instead of a power plant operations manager or engineer? Was his sole objective to get the financial books organized enough to be able to formally declare bankruptcy? When I had Tony Muna on my talk show last week, I came right out and asked him whether the administration has been considering declaring bankruptcy for CUC. He was reluctant to answer the question at first, and wanted to point out all the things the administration has tried to do to avoid this. He blamed the Retirement Fund for not being willing to give CUC the loan a couple years ago, then he blamed the legislature for lowering the rate the utility had to charge to residential customers. Yes, we all know there is plenty of blame to go around, but the question I asked was whether the administration has been discussing putting CUC into bankruptcy. After dancing around the issue for the better part of a half hour, Tony finally came out and said yes, the administration has been discussing the viability of declaring bankruptcy for CUC. He was careful to point out that it was not the course of action that had been definitely decided at this point yet, but it was certainly one of the options that were being considered.

But the mere fact that bankruptcy is even being considered for CUC brings up a whole host of other questions. If the administration, who is in effect running CUC at the moment, declares the utility is bankrupt, where does it go from there? Do they march into Judge Munson’s federal courtroom and say, here you go, we don’t know what to do with it anymore or how to solve the problems? Would Judge Munson have the authority to appoint a receiver to oversee the operations of CUC from that point forward? Who would then be responsible for paying for future fuel shipments? Would a receiver have the authority to take bids and privative the utility company? If the utility company were under the direction of a federally appointed receiver, would that mean that they could tap into federal funds to bring in alternative energy producing plants, whether wind, wave, solar or deep cold water ocean thermal energy conversion?

I think the administration has finally realized that just going to the federal government asking for financial help while continuing to have a dysfunctional, corrupt, inefficient and malfunctioning system in place to operate the utility company isn’t going to work. We’ve tried that before, and the federal government is tired of throwing good money after bad. I think they are going to want to see some real reforms and changes before they bail us out again. They are going to want to be sure we don’t find ourselves right back in the same position in another 10 years. And they should put some very strict demands on any help they wind up giving us, as we haven’t always been known to honor our previous agreements.

But should the receivership stop with just the utility company? What about Commonwealth Health Center? It has been swimming in a sea of red ink for more years than I can count. Their billing department there is a complete joke and they can’t seem to keep the staff or equipment they need. Could a federally appointed receiver straighten out their messes as well and get them on the path to being a professionally run and operated hospital?

And what about our Retirement Fund? Will they be financially solvent 10 years from now? Will retirees actually be receiving their checks? But is that really the Retirement Fund’s fault, or is it the fault of the government who isn’t paying the proper contributions to the Retirement Fund? And if the government isn’t paying all their obligations and doesn’t have enough money to meet all their financial obligations, should they be placed under receivership as well? After all, what is the definition of bankruptcy? Isn’t it when your liabilities exceed your income and your assets and you have no way of generating enough income to pay for all your liabilities? If that is the definition of bankruptcy, I’d say our local government has been operating in bankruptcy for several years now, or not operating as the case may be. It wouldn’t be the first time that a government was bankrupt and placed into receivership. It happened to Orange County, California several years ago. And while you may say, but wait, that was only a county government, not something like the Commonwealth government, you need to realize that the population of Orange county is far, far higher than that of the CNMI, and the scale of everything was that much bigger as well.

There are those that would say the federal government has no business intruding into our affairs, and they should only be there to give us money and nothing more. We have the right of self-governance and the right to choose our own leaders and then watch them run things straight into the ground. That may be true, but then the federal government also has the right to say no to our continued requests for funding to bail us out of whatever the current mess is. I’m sure they are getting tired of watching the same scenarios play out over and over out here, while we never seem to learn any lessons from it, or hold any of those who got us in these messes responsible. Honestly the federal government would have to be insane to offer us any financial assistance. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing, in the same situation over and over and expecting different results each time. The federal government knows our track record and has watched us repeat the same mistakes over and over again. If they were to give us money again without requiring some drastic changes, they would fit the definition of insanity.

We just keep electing the same ones who got us into these problems right back into office, which is why our last governor actually thinks he has a chance and is planning on running to be governor again in the next election. He’s counting on the fact that you’ll forget he kept claiming things were pretty darn good when he was in the process of destroying CUC and letting our economy quickly flush down the toilet. He’s hoping that you won’t put 2 and 2 together and realize that he’s a big part of the reason we are in the messes we are in right now. If insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results, then what would voting for any politician once again who you’ve already given a chance to and who has failed you be?

Yes, we have fewer and fewer options available to us these days, and maybe that’s what it’s going to take to finally effect any real and meaningful change. The “B” word may be closer than you think, or at least finally admitting that is where we are, and have been.

Food For Thought is now available online at and if you want it by e-mail distribution please send me an e-mail at

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.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Sometimes A Little Extra Effort Is Required!

Food For Thought 7-4-08

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.

Happy Independence Day! I hope that somewhere during your time of celebrating and partying over the weekend you are able to reflect on what a privilege it is to be an American and to have all the freedoms that come along with that blue passport. And even though this holiday is not specifically about our soldiers and those who have served in the military, I hope that you will take this opportunity once again to thank all those who have served in the military to protect our freedoms and ensure our liberty and independence. Honestly, I don’t think we can ever thank them quite enough, especially for the things they have been willing to go through and endure for the rest of us.

I think that all of us who live in the CNMI, or who have spent any time here in the past, realize that we face some pretty unique challenges as a result of where we live. But how we respond to some of those challenges can be very important and can make a big difference. I ran into another one of these challenges the other day and learned a few lessons that I thought I’d share with you as they may apply to situations you run into as well.

I was setting up an online store to sell shirts, hats and assorted other merchandise with my Axe Murderer Tours logo on it. No, I don’t really have a company called Axe Murderer Tours, well not yet at least. But I have taken hundreds of military visitors and other guests to the island out diving over the past 12 years. I have never charged for it, I just like being able to share the underwater world here that I have come to love so much, so I let them go along as a dive buddy. Several years ago, a lady who was serving in the U.S. military and was stationed in Seoul, South Korea came here for a long weekend. I ran into her as she was trying to figure out how she could go out on a dive, since there didn’t seem to be many shops that were really interested in English speaking customers. My dive buddy and I offered to take her along with us the following day, and she jumped on the offer. When we went to the hotel to pick her up the next morning, she and her friend were sitting on the curb laughing. When they came up to the truck I asked what was so funny, she said they were just discussing that here they were going out with a couple guys who could be Axe Murderers for all they knew. To which I replied, yup, we could be, so are you going to take a chance on going diving with a couple axe murderers, or are you going to sit here at your hotel all day? They climbed into the truck & I wound up taking her on two dives, an island tour and out to dinner at Sunset Bar & Grill back when it was still open. As we were sitting there on the beach, drinking our daiquiris, watching the sunset and listening to the live band, she said, Axe Murderer Tours is the best tour company ever! And that was the official naming of Axe Murderer Tours; I mean how do you not use a name & story that cool?

I still wasn’t charging to take anyone diving, and was just doing it for fun, but people kept asking me if they could buy an Axe Murderer Tours shirt or hat as a memento of their dives with me. I always had to tell them it was just a make believe company and I didn’t have any hats or shirts. But after years and years of this, hearing people ask for hats & shirts over and over and over, I finally figured, why not? So I had my dive buddies Doug & Barry come up with a few different designs for me and we finally settled on one.

Then I found out about an online company called Cafepress, which prints your logo onto hats, shirts, and other merchandise that you select. You can find them online at One of the things I really liked about this company was the fact that they let you set up your own store online, they let you design your own logo, they let you pick the merchandise to be sold in your store, and they don’t charge you a penny to do it. Then you can set your markup over what the base price for the various items is, and they will pay you the difference when people buy your merchandise. That meant I didn’t have any set up costs, website costs or inventory costs. They would print or stitch the merchandise as people ordered it. This sounded like the perfect solution for me, all I needed was the logo, I could choose the merchandise I wanted to offer, customize it, and then it would automatically pop up in my online store, but I didn’t have to spend a penny to make it happen.

I decided I wanted to order a bunch of the merchandise right away though so I would know the quality and feel good about recommending it to other people. As I got to the end of the ordering process and filled in my billing and shipping information, I noticed that it changed the amount of shipping from regular to international, and went from $11 to nearly $60. They did have Northern Mariana Islands in their pull down menu for country choices, but if you chose United States for your country choice, they didn’t have Northern Mariana Islands or MP available in their state pull down menu. I wanted the merchandise pretty bad, but not bad enough to pay that much of a difference in the price of shipping. So we decided to have it shipped to my wife’s sister in the states, and then have her mail it out to us. But I wanted them to get this obvious problem fixed so that any other potential customers who live in the Northern Mariana Islands wouldn’t have the same problems and hassles.

I clicked on their “contact us” button and wrote them an e-mail about my concerns and not having them recognize that we have the U.S. Postal system here and should have the same postal rates as any state, or Hawaii, which they did list in their state pull down menu. I got an e-mail back from one of their customer service representatives who said, “Dear Harry, I would be happy to help you with this. However, I am unable to change the shipping options once the destination address has been entered. It will only be able to ship with the corresponding shipping method. If there is anything else I can do for you, please let me know”.

I read that e-mail first thing Thursday morning, so I wondered if I hadn’t shaken all the cobwebs out of my head yet. I gave my head a good shake and read it again. Nope, same thing, she was basically telling me, yes – I’d like to help you, but I can’t so I won’t, but if there is something else I can do for you, let me know. That was a customer service representative? With the time difference, their office was now open so I could call their toll free assistance number. I figured I might have better luck talking to someone on the phone. It was just my luck to have the same girl who wrote me the lame e-mail answer the phone. I tried explaining to her once again that the Northern Mariana Islands are a U.S. Commonwealth, and we have the U.S. Postal system here, so they should be charging us the same or at least giving us the same options they would give any state. Her response was that she didn’t have the ability to change anything on the order form so therefore she couldn’t help me, was there anything else I needed? I said yes, I need to talk to someone who can actually help me then and will listen to what I’m telling them. She asked if I’d like to speak to someone in the head office, I said sure, so she transferred me. I wasn’t really surprised when she screwed that up too and just connected me back to the same customer service number I had called originally. But this time I got a guy who was much more helpful and on top of his game. After explaining the whole situation to him, he said, well that’s something that our IT guys should be able to fix very easily, and either add Northern Mariana Islands to the state pull down menu, or allow various shipping options if you list Northern Mariana Islands in the country pull down menu. He said he would happily pass it along to them and request that they fix and update their system. That is all I was asking for, someone who would listen to the situation, apply some logic and then find a way to fix the problem.

I was very tempted to just write back a disgusted e-mail when I got her first response thanking her for doing nothing. But that wouldn’t have accomplished anything besides possibly making me feel slightly better at the time. But by following up, and calling the company, I’m hopeful that they will actually recognize us as part of the U.S. Postal system now and give us more affordable shipping options. Not only will that be good for my little online Axe Murderer Tours merchandise store, but it will also be good for anyone who decides to buy one of my shirts, hats or other pieces of merchandise, and it will also be good for any other budding entrepreneur in the CNMI who wants to come up with their own logos and start their own online store too. I’m still waiting to hear back for sure whether they will actually follow through on this or not and offer various shipping options to us, but I’m hopeful that once they check into the situation, they’ll realize there is no reason not to update their system. And if they are a good business, they will do what it takes to attract more customers and to make it easier and more affordable for customers to use their service from out here.

But when we’re confronted with those situations, what do we usually do? Do we take the time to try explaining it and finding someone who will actually listen, or do we just write them a nasty gram thanking them for nothing? One gets results that will help not only you, but everybody else as well, and the other only makes you feel better temporarily. It may take a little more patience and determination to pursue these sorts of things, and you’re never guaranteed to get the results you’re going after, but if you don’t try, you’re almost guaranteed that nothing will change. Unfortunately not all employees that are in the Customer Service department really belong there or will go above and beyond to actually deliver customer service. But don’t let that stop you, ask to speak to another customer service representative or ask to speak to their supervisor, keep trying until you find out that they don’t understand the situation and don’t want to understand the situation, they refuse to do anything about it because they really don’t want your business that bad, or until you find someone who can actually do something about your problem and come up with a solution.

If you want to see my store and see just how easy it is to have your own online store without spending a penny of set up money, you can check it out at What kind of logo or design ideas are just floating around in your head waiting for an opportunity? Good luck with your ideas and good luck to all of us in having Cafepress offer us all more affordable shipping options since we are indeed a part of the United States.

Food For Thought is now available online at and if you want it by e-mail distribution please send me an e-mail at

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.