Federalism, Governance, & Bankruptcy

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eBlog, 2/15/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the evolving governance challenge in New Jersey and the state takeover of fiscally troubled Atlantic City—a breach into which it appears the third branch of government—the judiciary—might step. Next, we turn to whether governmental trust by citizens, taxpayers, and voters can be exhausted–or bankrupted–as the third branch of government, the judiciary–as in the case of New Jersey–could determine the fate of the former and current mayors of the fiscally insolvent municipality of Petersburg, Virginia. Finally, we try to get warm again by visiting Puerto Rico—where the territorial status puts Puerto Rico between a state and a municipality—what Rod Serling likely would have deemed a fiscal Twilight Zone—further complicated by language barriers—and, in a country where the federal government may not authorize states to file for bankruptcy protection, in a governance challenge with a new Governor. No doubt, one can imagine if Congress appointed an oversight board to take over New Jersey or Illinois or Kansas, the ruckus would lead to a Constitutional crisis.

We Await the Third Branch. The first legal action challenging the State of New Jersey’s takeover of Atlantic City finances will be decided at the local level in the wake of U.S. District Court Judge Renee Marie Bumb’s decision to remand the case back to Atlantic County Superior Court. The case involves a lawsuit from the union representing Atlantic City firefighters which alleges state officials are unlawfully seeking to lay off 100 firefighters and alter the union’s contract; Judge Bumb held that the federal court lacks jurisdiction, since the complaint does not assert any federal claims, thereby granting International Association of Firefighters Local 198’s “emergency motion” to remand the lawsuit to New Jersey state court, saying it was inappropriate for the defendants to remove the action to federal court. Thus, the case will revert to New Jersey Superior Court Judge Julio Mendez, who temporarily blocked the state-ordered firefighter cuts at the beginning of the month. The case involves the suit filed by the International Association of Fire Fighters, Local 198, and the AFL-CIO challenging the state’s action to proceed with 100 layoffs and other unilateral contract changes under New Jersey’s Municipal Stabilization and Recovery Act—the legislation enacted last November in the wake of the New Jersey Local Finance Board’s rejection of Atlantic City’s rescue plan. The suit claims the act violates New Jersey’s constitution. This legislation, which was implemented last November after the New Jersey’s Local Finance Board rejected an Atlantic City rescue plan, empowers the state alter outstanding Atlantic City debt and municipal contracts. Prior to Judge Mendez’s Ground Hog Day ruling, the state was planning to set up changes to the firefighters’ work schedule, salaries, and benefits commencing by cutting the 225-member staff roughly in half beginning in September.

Hear Ye—or Hear Ye Not. A hearing for the civil case brought against Petersburg Mayor Samuel Parham and Councilman and former Mayor W. Howard Myers is set for tomorrow morning. Both men are defendants in a civil court case brought about by members of registered voters from the fifth and third wards of Petersburg. Members of the third and fifth wards signed petitions to have both men removed from their positions. The civil case calls for both Parham and Myers to be removed from office due to “neglect, misuse of office, and incompetence in the performance of their duties.” The purpose of hearing is to determine trial date, to hear any motions, to determine whether Mayors Parham and Myers will be tried separately, and if they want to be tried by judge or jury. James E. Cornwell of Sands Anderson Law Firm will be representing messieurs Myers and Parham. (Mr. Cornwell recently represented the Board of Supervisors in Bath County, Virginia, where the board was brought to court over a closed-doors decision to cut the county budget by $75,000 and eliminate the county tourism office.) The City Council voted 5-2 on Tuesday night to have the representation of Mr. Myers and Mayor Parham be paid for by the city. Mayor Parham, Vice Mayor Joe Hart, Councilman Charlie Cuthbert, former Mayor Myers, and Councilman Darrin Hill all voted yes to the proposition, while Councilwoman Treska Wilson-Smith and Councilwoman Annette Smith-Lee voted no. Mayor Parham and Councilmember Hill stated that the Council’s decision to pay for the representation was necessary to “protect the integrity of the Council,” noting: “It may not be a popular decision, but it’s [Myers and Parham] today, and it could be another council tomorrow.” Messieurs Hill and Parham argued that the recall petition could happen to any member of council: “[The petitions] are a total attack on our current leadership…We expect to get the truth told and these accusations against us laid to rest.” The legal confrontation is further muddied by City Attorney Joseph Preston’s inability to represent the current and former Mayors, because he was also named in the recall petition, and could be called as a witness during a trial.

Federalism, Governance, & Hegemony. Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló has said that he is setting aside $146 million for the payment of interest due on general obligation municipal bonds, noting, in an address to the Association of Puerto Rico Industrialists, that he plans to pay off GO holders owed $1.3 million, because the Commonwealth defaulted on its payment at the beginning of this month, so, instead, he said the interest would be drawn from “claw back” funds, a term the government uses to describe the diversion of revenue streams which had supported other municipal bonds. Now the Governor has reported the $146 million would be held in an account at Banco Popular, ready to be used to meet subsequent general obligation payments to bondholders—noting that the funds to be used had not been “destined” to be used for essential services for Puerto Rico’s people; the Governor did not answer a question as to which bond revenues were being clawed back; however, his announcement creates the potential to partially address the nearly 9 month default on a $779 million payment.

But mayhap the harder, evolving governance issue is the scope of the PROMESA Board to “govern” in Puerto Rico: the statute Congress enacted and former President Obama signed does not vest authority in the PROMESA Oversight Board to review all legislation introduced by the current administration before its approval—thus, the growing perception or apprehension is the implication that Congress has created an entity which is violating the autonomy of the Government of Puerto Rico. It is, for instance, understood that Congress and the President lack the legal or Constitutional authority to take over the State of Illinois—a state which, arguably—has its own serious fiscal disabilities. Thus, it should come as no surprise that Gov. Rosselló’s administration is feeling besieged by disparate treatment at the receipt of a letter sent by the PROMESA Board at the beginning of this month—an epistle in which Board Chair José B. Carrión requested that the Puerto Rican Government discuss with the Board the implications of any new legislation before submission, citing §§204, 207, and 303 of PROMESA as part of the “many tools that can be deployed in terms of legislation.” Unsurprisingly, Elías Sánchez Sifonte, Gov. Rosselló’s representative to the Board, wrote that the Board’s “request to preliminarily review all legislation, as a right they can exercise, is not considered in PROMESA, and it violates the autonomy of the Government of Puerto Rico,” noting that Governor Rosselló’s administration “is working and will continue to work in cooperation with the Oversight Board on all issues” considered under PROMESA. Nevertheless, in the epistle, Mr. Sifonte wrote that “nowhere” in §204 is there any mention that the Government of Puerto Rico must submit its legislation for revision, rather: “It only requires that the legislation be submitted to the Board after it has been properly approved,” even as Mr. Sifonte acknowledged in the letter that after the Fiscal Plan has been certified, the Commonwealth must forward any adopted legislation to the PROMESA Board, accompanied by a cost estimate and a certification stating if it is consistent with the fiscal plan. Moreover, Mr. Sifonte added, because there is currently no fiscal plan, such a certification is not applicable, although a cost estimate is—the deadline for the fiscal plan is February 28th at the latest.

Moreover, according to Mr. Sifonte, “[o]nce the Plan is certified, every piece of legislation to be submitted will be consistent with the Fiscal Plan and will be accompanied by the proper certification, which, in his view, means that it should be protected from Board review, according to the Congressional report that gave way to PROMESA, adding that his purpose in communicating was to “help” both Puerto Rico and the PROMESA Board understand and respect each other’s authority—or, as he noted: “PROMESA’s broad powers are recognized, and we recognize all of the Board’s powers contained within the law. What shouldn’t happen is for them to want to go further, despite those extensive powers, and occupy a space that belongs to the officials elected by the people, because then that would in fact infringe upon the full democracy of our country,” adding that “the administration’s intention is not to interfere with the Oversight Board while the members carry out their mission under the federal statute, but the letter seeks to clarify “the autonomy of Puerto Rico’s Government, which is safeguarded under PROMESA.” The letter also states that the Government’s interpretation of PROMESA is based on Section 204(a)(6), which establishes that the Oversight Board may review legislation before it is approved “only by request of the Legislature.” Finally, Mr. Sifonte addressed a fundamental federalism apprehension: referencing §207 of PROMESA, which establishes that “the territory” cannot issue, acquire, or modify debt, he wrote that Puerto Rico has not issued, nor does it intend to issue any debt, referencing the Puerto Rico Financial Emergency & Fiscal Responsibility Act, and emphasizing this statute marks a change in public policy, with the intention of paying the creditors, just as Governor Rosselló this month had announced. Finally, he noted: the “inappropriateness” of the Chairman’s proposition, where—under the protection of §303 of PROMESA—he tells the Government that “the compliance measures under PROMESA should be a last resort and hopefully won’t be necessary,” noting that that provision “expressly says that the Government of Puerto Rico retains the duty to exercise political power or the territory’s governmental powers.”

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