Governor Pierluisi Favors People Related to His Own Party and a Continuity of the Rosselló Administration’s to Lead the Planning Board

This is the professional background of the officials who will shape part of Puerto Rico’s economic and environmental future.

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In the center, Manuel Hidalgo, appointed as president of the Planning Board.

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Governor Pedro Pierluisi appointed planner Manuel A.G. Hidalgo as chair of the Puerto Rico Planning Board. If approved by the Senate, Hidalgo will be the right-hand man of the governor in the design of public policies for planning, economic development and the protection of natural resources.

The nominee has some fifteen years of experience in the public sector. Until January 2021, he managed the  Planning Office of the municipality of Canóvanas under the administration of Mayor Lornna Soto, member of the New Progressive Party (PNP for its Spanish acronym). One of Hidalgo’s most significant works has been revising the Zoning and Land Use Plan, which determines different land uses in municipalities.

The Conservation Trust of Puerto Rico, one of the entities that protects natural resources, is contesting the legality, veracity and process of this plan before Puerto Rico’s Court of Appeals. This plan allegedly goes against the indications of the Land Use Plan written by the Planning Board.

Pierluisi also appointed as associate members of the Planning Board officials that had already been confirmed during the administration of former governor Ricardo Rosselló, who had to leave office after weeks of public demonstrations claiming his resignation.   They all share a common characteristic: all of them have been tied to past administrations of the PNP.

Among the appointments is that of planner María Gordillo, who chaired the Planning Board during the last four years, as well as the appointment of Rebecca Rivera. Furthermore, the governor named Mercemar Rodríguez, former chair of the Physical Planning Program of the Planning Board, as associate member. Plans and regulations about the uses of Puerto Rico’s land are created in this office.

Other associate members, whose resumes do not show significant experience as planners, will join the bureau. For example, Julio Lassús, who recently ran the Public Safety Commission in the Senate and the office of Senator Henry Neumann (PNP). Additionally, engineer José Díaz, who recently spent two years working for the controversial corporation Innovattel Services; a company who has been installing antennas throughout the island, something that has fueled a strong opposition from community groups in municipalities like Aguada and Salinas. Lassús has already been appointed as vice chair of the Planning Board, as identified in a tweet from February 26 published by the agency.

Suheidy Barreto, who had also been an associate member of the Planning Board during the administration of Rosselló, is among governor Pierluisi’s appointments. However, according to the agency, she has now rejected the position “in order to address new professional opportunities”.

Marissa Reyes, the mobilization coordinator for El Puente’s Latino Climate Action Network, argues that the tenures of Gordillo and Rivera, imply that the “administrative patterns that do not facilitate climate justice for communities or adaptation to the climate crisis” may continue.

The nonprofit organization began overseeing the PB as part of its work for climate justice.  Starting in 2019, the agency drew up a new land classification map.  Like the joint permit regulations of 2019 and 2020, the process was harshly criticized as being precipitated, lacking transparency, and limited citizen participation.

“Once more, these people stay on the Planning Board, but during the past four years we have already seen that they did not comply with the administrative processes that must allow for citizen participation.  We worry that they maintain that same point of view — without incorporating the community sector and without a thought out plan for mitigation and adaptation.”

Pierluisi’s designations have not yet been sent to the Senate Appointments Committee, according to a spokesperson for the President of the Senate, José Luis Dalmau. However, Hidalgo has been visiting the offices of lawmakers, including that of María de Lourdes Santiago, as confirmed by the senator from the independence party. In this visit, Hidalgo sought support for when his confirmation process came about.

Although Pierluisi made the nominations on January 28, they have not been announced by La Fortaleza. The PB published a tweet on February 17 in which Hidalgo is identified as president.

The following is the trajectory of the officials selected by the Governor to design part of the economic and environmental future of Puerto Rico:

Manuel A.G. Hidalgo Rivera

He obtained a master’s degree in urban and territorial planning from the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) in Río Piedras.  In addition to his experience in government, he has worked for his consulting services firm, Hidalgo + Partners.

One of his first jobs in government was from 2005 to 2008, in the Office of the General Coordinator for Socioeconomic Financing and Self-Management. There, he pushed forward projects for the development of small businesses in poor communities, among others.

From 2009 to 2018, he led the Office of Land Use and Urban Planning in Aguadilla, where he updated public policy and municipal maps.  He also prepared plans for the rehabilitation of the urban center, the mitigation of emergencies, transport, and economic development.

As alleged in the legal action filed by the Conservation Trust, who is also suing the PB, while he was the director of the Canóvanas Office of Community Planning and Economic Development, they “illegally and unconstitutionally” amended the land classifications under the “false argument” that it was about harmonizing it with the Land Use Plan of the Planning Board. Hidalgo’s plan, for instance, eliminated almost 50 acres that were classified as Specially Protected Rustic Land and changed them to Urban Land, which authorized construction in areas prone to flooding. Canovánas additionally modified some other 63acres of Specially Protected Rustic Land to Urban Land. The complaint also questions the notification and participation process, after a community of Cubuy found out that their Urban Land is now classified as Common Rustic Land, which is not considered for urbanization.

Hidalgo did not respond to CPI’s request for an interview.

He is a member of the Board of Examiners of Professional Planners since 2019, where he has worked on approving regulations, administering exams, granting licenses, and accrediting institutions that offer continuing education.

María Gordillo

The former president of the Planning Board has more than thirty years of experience between the public and private sector. According to the Senate Report from her prior appointment, she obtained a bachelor’s degree in geography from UPR, Río Piedras campus in 1987, as well as a license as a professional planner.

She held several positions within the PB between 1987 and 2000, including associate member, and later worked in the private sector as a partner for the company, CFG Group, where she consulted on engineering, planning and environmental issues, as is stated on the Registry of Corporations. She was an independent consultant until 2011 when she returned to the PB as vice president and assistant executive director. Between 2013 and 2014 she was an associate member of the Review Board of Permits and Land Use. She worked as an independent consultant until 2017 when Ricardo Roselló named her an associate member and president of the agency.

Once she became the president of the PB, she eliminated seven areas originally designated as natural reserves of high ecological value, a decision that the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico revoked in 2019. The agency has yet to update its website on this.

Under Gordillo, the PB tried to approve the 2019 Joint Regulations, which looked to standardize the whole system for the issuance of permits related to development, land use and business operations. This initiative was met with ample opposition by community and planning sectors and was rejected by the Court of Appeals after the agency was found to have breached the Administrative Procedure Act. The PB submitted new Joint Regulations in 2020, which are strongly opposed by a number of sectors such as the Puerto Rican Planning Society (SPP, by its Spanish acronym). This points out a “lack of rigor in the processes” because the problems pointed out by this union in 2019 still remain and because the agency did not consider the recommendations of a committee created by former governor Wanda Vázquez to develop collaborative processes.

Rebecca Rivera Torres

She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in economics from the UPR-Río Piedras campus, in 1997; then with a master’s degree in regional planning at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 2001, and later obtained her license as a Professional Planner, according to the report on her appointment as an associate member in the prior administration.

She worked as an economic analyst at the PB in 1997. Between 1997 and 2002, she became a research and teaching assistant at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and an academic coordinator at Bayamón Central University. She returned to the PB in 2002, where she studied, analyzed, and evaluated the public and private project location consultations. She also examined the economic and environmental impacts of the infrastructures and evaluated land management plans and regulations.

She directed the Planning and Development office in the municipality of Toa Baja from 2005 to 2016, during ex-mayor Anibal Vega Borges’ administration. Some of Rivera’s tasks included approving the Zoning and Land Use Plan, as well as making six partial revisions on it. She was also responsible for planning and developing its public transportation systems.

Gordillo recommended her for associate member of the PB. She is currently the Secretary of the Board of Examiners of Professional Planners.

Mercemar Rodríguez Santiago

She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in biology from the UPR-Cayey campus, in 1999, and with an MS in environmental planning from Ana G. Méndez, Cupey campus, in 2018. She started to work at the Puerto Rico Department of Natural and Environmental Resources (PRDNER) in 2000, where she took on different administrative roles.

The Comptroller’s Office lists Mercemar Rodríguez as one of the officials of the PRDNER who were responsible for failing to implement the Water Use Plan and illegally misusing the funds from water use permit applications, as well as for the deficiencies in granting well permits, among others.

She worked as a special aide at the now defunct Puerto Rico Solid Waste Management Authority from 2017 to 2019, where she coordinated projects associated with rebuilding efforts after hurricanes Irma and María. Some of her work included supporting the former First Lady Beatriz Roselló’s initiative to offer workshops to visual arts teachers that carried out public art activities with their students after the hurricane.

The official was a member of the WhatsApp group called “coffee break,”in which members of the party discussed strategies for Ricardo Roselló’s campaign. Among the chat members was Rafael Ramos Sáenz, the now convicted former President of the Puerto Rico State Elections Commission and former judge.

Rodríguez started working in the Planning Board in 2019, as director of the Physical Planning Program, where she finalized the creation and review of territorial plans in Arecibo, Moca, Orocovis and others.

José Díaz

He completed a bachelor’s and a master’s in engineering in the Polytechnic University of Puerto Rico and has more than 30 years of experience, mainly in the construction business.

He worked in the now defunct Regulation and Permit Administration between 1987 and 1992, where he would guide, evaluate and certify permit applications.

Between 1992 and 1993 he was assistant to the general manager of the corporation AH Development, where he dealt with permits and coordinated the creation of plans for the construction of the high end neighborhood Montehiedra in San Juan, and later worked in different companies in the industry.

He was special assistant to Micheal Pierluisi, ex-secretary of the Department of Consumer Affairs and the son of today’s governor, between 2017 and 2019.

Between 2015 and 2016, after his exit from the Department of Consumer Affairs, he was project manager of Innovattel Services, where according to his resumé, he coordinated more than 25 telecommunication installations.

Julio Lassús Ruiz

He completed a bachelor’s in biology from UPR, Cayey campus in 2008; a juris doctor from the Pontifical Catholic University of Puerto Rico, Ponce campus, in 2017; a masters degree in Law from the Interamerican University in 2019; and another degree in planning from the Metropolitan University in 2018, according to data provided by the Planning Board.

He supervised the region of Guayama on the Environmental Quality Board between 2010 and 2014 but was fired because his hiring occurred during the pre elections period, without any waiver, according to documents pertaining to a lawsuit that he filed against the agency.

Between 2009 and 2010, he was special assistant to the executive director and president of the Environmental Quality Board, Pedro Nieves Miranda, under the administration of the ex-governor Luis Fortuño. Lassús worked on the development of public environmental policy, like the legislation to control light pollution and permit reform, among other things.

On February first in 2018 he became executive director of the Public Safety Commission in the Senate. He assisted in the drafting of measures like the new Guns Law and the Protocol Law for the Determination of the Causes, and the Manner of Death Related to Natural Disasters or Catastrophic Events, which Rosselló vetoed. He advised Senator Newman on issues related to planning, permit and environment management among other things.

Any comments go to emartinez@periodismoinvestigativo.com

Translation by students Laura M. Adorno Monserrate, Kamylle Lamboy Cruz, María del Mar Serrano Irizarry, Marina S. Ramos Falcón, Ericka N. Rivera Figueroa, Jordan F. Grullón Penkova and Miriam E. Staten Cruz from the course Translation and Media: a look at the intersection between race and power by Prof. Jeanette Zaragoza De León, PhD.Graduate Program in Translation, University of Puerto Rico

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