To many observers in Puerto Rico and the U.S. mainland, a string of calamitous events has exposed failed leadership. In particular, Puerto Rican Gov. Ricardo Rosselló and the Fiscal Oversight Board have proven themselves to be ineffective and inept in spearheading Puerto Rico’s recovery post Hurricanes Maria and Irma. After the exposure of a crony contract that failed to bring the lights back on, President Trump and his team seem to agree that more oversight is sorely needed.
The decision by the Trump Administration to grant FEMA broader powers over Puerto Rico’s recovery and rebuild comes after a tumultuous 70 plus days that laid bare the inability of Gov. Rosselló and the Oversight Board to get the job done.
Puerto Rico is rapidly spiraling out of control, as at least 50 percent of Puerto Ricans are still without power and an untold number of thousands do not have access to clean water. While the Puerto Rican people are undoubtedly resilient in the face of these challenges, a healthy dose of realism is sorely needed. The inability of territorial leaders to restore basic island services because is taking an untold psychological toll on beleaguered residents.
And, while the power stays off, a privileged few workers in the upper echelons of the Puerto Rican government are disproportionately benefiting from poorly-thought out compensation policies. In a bizarre move, it has been reported that $100 million in Christmas bonuses have been doled out to government employees. For an island that is trying to restore power and get some basic essentials to its residents, this is a waste of valuable resources.
Thankfully, President Donald Trump’s appointment has bipartisan support. Over the last month, congressional Democratic leaders such as Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Nydia Velazquez (D-N.Y.) have called for a czar-type leader to oversee Puerto Rico’s rebuild. The appointment of Mike Byrne, FEMA Operations Coordinator for Puerto Rico, to pre-approve all recovery funds spent will bring transparency and integrity to the relief effort.
For weeks, the Taxpayers Protection Alliance (TPA) has advocated for a czar to be appointed in order to ensure accountability throughout the recovery process. With adequate federal oversight, dubious decisions such as the Whitefish contract could have been vetoed by more competent authorities. Now, thanks to the decision by the Trump Administration, there’s legitimate hope for a better path forward.
Gov. Rosselló conveniently created his own Central Recovery & Reconstruction Office’s (OCRR by Spanish initials) at the same time as the announcement of the appointment of the czar. Rather than a concrete step toward fiscal responsibility, the OCRR is just another one of Gov. Rosselló’s fancy press conferences to distract from his own failings.
Not to be outdone by Trump or Rosselló, the PROMESA-established Oversight Board is also trying to leap into the oversight game. They are pushing for Congress to change the law and give them more powers. Just a few weeks ago, the Oversight Board’s Executive Director Natalie Jaresko asked Congress to give them control over the emergency funding for Puerto Rico.
This comes at a time when the Oversight Board is under intense scrutiny for its lack of transparency and egregious spending of taxpayer dollars. This includes flights to Ukraine for the Board’s executive director and questionable legal contracts for Board members and close confidants.
Time and time again, stories like these have led TPA to call for greater transparency and direct oversight from Washington to safeguard taxpayer dollars. Now, as billions of dollars in recovery funding begin to flow into Puerto Rico, FEMA’s Mike Byrne is in charge.
Only through a single conduit to authorities in Washington, with the proper authority and independence, can taxpayers be guaranteed legitimate oversight into the recovery and rebuilding of the island. One hopes that given his experience, having been a part of the Hurricane Sandy recovery, Mike Byrne has the know-how to understand what it takes to reboot Puerto Rico, economically and institutionally.
Another opportunity to instill some accountability is to start a spending/transparency database (like the one in Missouri) open to the public to prevent mismanaged contracts processes. A transparent database would prevent the bad governance that led to the Whitefish debacle and almost allowed employees of Puerto Rico’s financial agency, Fiscal Agency and Financial Advisory Authority, to secure pay increases immediately after Hurricane Maria.
Enhanced oversight, transparency and structural reforms have worked in U.S. states such as Missouri and Ohio, and can deliver a much-needed jumpstart to Puerto Rico. Avoiding waste will allow residents to keep more money in their pockets, instead of enriching bureaucrats. But, clearly, more guidance is needed. While installing a czar is an important step forward, it cannot be the only step forward. The Trump administration must remain persistent in the pursuit of sound fiscal reform and transparency that will bring Puerto Rico long-term recovery.
David Williams is president of the Taxpayers Protection Alliance.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.