Article published Oct 24, 2006

Efforts to raise drinking age continue

By Steve Limtiaco

Pacific Daily News

The effort to increase the island's legal drinking age from 18 to 21 continues, despite a judge's decision last week to remove the drinking-age initiative, Proposal A, from the General Election ballot.

Superior Court of Judge Arthur Barcinas on Friday ruled the initiative cannot be voted on because the Guam Election Commission failed to follow its own rules and the laws for the processing of initiatives. He said the Election Commission "substantially interfered" with the public's right to be informed about the initiative, and he spent several minutes talking about the processes that were not followed by the commission with respect to Prop A. The issue was in court because of a legal challenge by Prop A opponents Responsible Choices for All Adults coalition.

But lawmakers are working on a bill that would allow the drinking-age vote to happen anyway, and the group that placed Prop A on the ballot said it will ask the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Office of the Attorney General to investigate the Election Commission.

That's because some of what Election Commission Executive Director Gerald Taitano told the court last week is inconsistent with what actually happened during the initiative process, said Coalition 21 Chairman Dr. Thomas Shieh.

"Somebody played around, and that has to be investigated," he said.

Barcinas did not have all of the information about what happened during the process when he decided to remove the drinking-age initiative from the ballot, Shieh said.

As an example, Barcinas on Friday said Nov. 20, 2005, was the official "summary date" for the drinking-age initiative. That "summary date" is important because supporters have only 90 days from that time to submit enough signed petitions to the commission to qualify for placement on the ballot, according to the commission's rules.

The deadline would have been Feb. 18, based on that summary date, but Coalition 21 submitted the last batch of signatures in mid-March, working under the assumption that the 90-day countdown started in late January. Barcinas on Friday said the commission gave Coalition 21 an "enlarged time frame" to gather petition signatures.

"We got enough signatures, then we stopped," Shieh said. "If not, we would have kept going, but we did it in 47 days from the day (the commission) gave us the letter to say you can start."

He said the court is confused because Coalition 21 never submitted the initiative in November -- it sent two letters, asking the commission for advice on the process.

"We never said go forward with it," Shieh said. "So we never paid (a filing fee) for that one, because that wasn't our initiative. Then in December we said that's our initiative, then we went ahead and paid the $200. Then we paid another $200 in January. So the November is not the initiative."

Filing fees

Barcinas on Friday said Coalition 21's resubmission in January didn't reset the "summary date" because new filing fees were not paid, but Shieh yesterday provided the Pacific Daily News with copies of receipts, showing that Coalition 21 paid the Election Commission $200 on Dec. 21, and $200 on Jan. 10.

"Look at who's being punished here," Shieh said. "If the judge says GEC's fault, then where is the justice? ...Why are they punishing us? Why are they taking the right of the people to vote on the issue, when it's not even the people's fault?"

Commission Executive Director Taitano during testimony last week said the commission did not follow other rules, which set deadlines for official notice and for the publication of initiative information in the newspaper.

He also said the process of mailing informational ballot pamphlets to voters was ongoing last week. The commission's rules state those pamphlets were to be mailed at least 30 days before the General Election.

Barcinas on Friday said Taitano improperly wrote the summary contained in the ballot pamphlet -- a task the commission's legal counsel is supposed to perform.

The commission's attorneys argued unsuccessfully that there are discrepancies between the commission's rules and election laws, and said any problems were not significant enough to affect the initiative.

Legislative action

Sen. Robert Klitzkie, R-Yigo, who met with Shieh yesterday, said he talked to the Legislature's legal counsel about writing a bill to keep Prop A on the General Election ballot.

Klitzkie said he is not certain when that bill would be introduced or who will introduce it, but said he would vote for it. "Someone is working on the legislation," he said. "There is division in the community, but there is great public interest, and it just seems that it's not right because of some screw-ups by the election commission that the people aren't gonna have a chance to vote on this."

Klitzkie said Prop A is a simple issue, compared to initiatives in the past. "This is a pretty easy one to understand, and I think people probably have a pretty good understanding of it, and I think people probably know which way they want to go on it," he said.

Shieh said Coalition 21 also would send the Election Commission a letter, asking to meet with commission members and staff to get answers.

'Came down hard'

The commission is not scheduled to meet until Nov. 3 -- commission Chairman Fred Horecky left island the day after testifying -- but Republican commission member and vice chairwoman Mary Torres yesterday said it is trying to schedule a meeting during the next couple of days for an update on legal issues, including Prop A and the ongoing challenge to the Sept. 2 Primary Election.

"Obviously the decision was very disappointing, and we respect the courts, but one thing that I felt most disturbed about was this perception that rules weren't followed," Torres said. "I think the order really came down hard on the commission."

She said commission staff is not deliberately breaking or ignoring rules.

"I give them a lot of credit for what they do on a day-to-day basis," she said. "I can't imagine it was anyone's intent to not follow procedures or rules. That's really a tough thing to swallow."

Shieh said the commission has not admitted any fault, despite the judge finding it at fault.

"Did they ever apologize to the people for making those mistakes? Did they ever apologize in public to Coalition 21 for making those mistakes?" he asked. "I agree that they're hard-working, and it's because they're hard-working the (court) testimony needs to be consistent, and they're not consistent."




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