Dispute Within the Pierluisi Administration Over Climate Change Committee

Gov. Pedro Pierluisi’s administration is seemingly lacking a defined public policy on who should take the reins in handling the current climate crisis. While the University of Puerto Rico and the Secretary of State, Lawrence Seilhamer, favor that the Committee of Experts and Advisors on Climate Change be chaired by a scientist without direct ties to the government, the heads of the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources (DNER) and the Department of Economic Development and Commerce (DDEC, in Spanish) support that the body be directed by an agency head. The discrepancies between members of the government came to light last Wednesday during a public hearing in which the House of Representatives’ Commission on Natural Resources, Environmental and Recycling evaluated House Bill 455, which seeks to amend Act No. 33 of 2019, known as the “Puerto Rico Climate Change Mitigation, Adaptation and Resilience Act.”

When it took effect in 2019, Act No. 33 established that the Committee would be composed of six scientists appointed by the Legislature and approved by the governor.

Puerto Rico’s Chinese community faces pandemic and xenophobia

WeChat, a Chinese mobile app similar to Facebook that she uses to text and call, is open on her phone. Meili Deng, who emigrated in 2010 to work as a visiting professor of Mandarin at Sacred Heart University, connects through WeChat with 1,500 Chinese living in Puerto Rico. In China, the app is even used to pay online. In Puerto Rico, they use it to communicate with each other and with relatives back in China. WeChat allows up to 500 members per group, and on the island there are three groups of 500 at maximum capacity.

Small-scale farmers facing roadblocks to access recovery funds

To access recovery funds, small-scale farmers are expected to drop their pick and hoe to write  business plans and submit documents such as payroll, affidavits and even college diplomas. A coalition of organizations dedicated to farming asked the Puerto Rico Department of Housing (DV) to address their claims to guarantee equitable access to recovery funds from the Puerto Rico Agricultural Re-Grow Program, since the guidelines to request funds do not respond to the needs and realities of the small-scale Puerto Rican farmer. The Re-Grow program has $92.5 million in funding from the Community Development Block Grant for Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) program. Of that amount, $30 million was set aside for the administrative work to be done by the Puerto Rico Science, Technology and Research Trust, an entity the DV hired   to implement the program. The Center for Investigative Journalism (CPI, in Spanish) had access to messages in which, since September 2020, the coalition asked the Trust to amend the Re-Grow program guidelines.

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

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.

Use of funds allocated to the Department of Education to recover from earthquakes and hurricanes Irma and María is unknown

Following several requests for information submitted to the Department of Education, the Center for Investigative Journalism (CPI, in Spanish) today asked the Superior Court to order the agency and its designated Secretary, Elba Aponte Santos, to release it. The special appeal for judicial review that the CPI filed is the remedy offered by the recently approved Transparency and Access to Public Information Act (Act 141 of 2019) when a government agency fails to comply with the term to deliver the public information requested, CPI Executive Director Carla Minet said. The information that the CPI asked for includes the public school enrollment and budget starting in Fiscal Year 2015-2016, the funds assigned to the Department of Education to address the emergencies brought on by Hurricanes Irma and María in 2017, and the earthquakes occurred early in 2020, the list of contracts awarded using those funds, updated information on the use of funds from the federal “Immediate Aid to Restart Operations (Restart)” program, the Memorandum of Understanding between the Infrastructure Financing Authority (known as AFI, in Spanish) and the Department of Education and the plan that the agency presented on Dec. 21, 2020 for recovery projects that would be carried out with the $2 billion that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has already obligated. “The people were told that the Educational Reform approved during the last administration would provide transparency regarding each school budget and the use of funds in the Department of Education.

Lack of Funding Delays the Integration of 18 Years of Seismic Data Into Puerto Rico’s Earthquake Hazard Maps and the Building Code

Machines costing thousands of dollars are operated from a small office on the college campus. Keeping them in good condition costs the government’s coffers several million annually. They are seismic and tide-gauge station devices that are part of the tsunami and earthquake detection system. Monitoring this information not only contributes to the generation of data in Puerto Rico, but also gathers data on the US Virgin Islands and the Dominican Republic. The data generated is analyzed and interpreted by three research professors from the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) in Mayagüez, who, with the support of some students, do their best to document these phenomena, while informing the island’s population about the risks.

CPI Asks Court to Order Government to Make Public Its COVID-19 Plan and Vaccination Registry

The Center for Investigative Journalism (CPI, in Spanish) requested on Thursday, through a mandamus petition against the Department of Health, the itemized distribution list  of COVID-19 vaccines received by the government of Puerto Rico and the Vaccination Registry excluding personal information data, but with demographic information, municipality of residence, center and date of vaccination, and justification for the administration of the vaccine. A few hours after the petition was submitted, the San Juan Superior Court gave the government five days, after being summoned, to respond to the legal claim. The COVID-19 vaccines distribution list, requested through multiple channels since December 15, 2020, has not been delivered to CPI journalists Omaya Sosa Pascual and Jeniffer Wiscovitch, despite being vital information to learn how the COVID-19 crisis is being handled in Puerto Rico and the criteria being used to make decisions and establish priorities. “Department of Health officials are obliged to provide all the public documents requested, not only by a media outlet, but also by any citizen. It’s evident that there is a great anxiety among our population to get access to the vaccine, because it can mean the difference between life and death.

LUMA Attorneys Charge More Than $1,000 an Hour and Consultants Get Paid Nearly $5M to Write Plans

Hiring a law firm that charges up to $1,245 per hour. The outsourcing of foreign companies such as Alumbra, from Colorado, which has billed as much as $1.3 million in a single month for plans to transform the energy system without having gone through a competitive process. This is how the first six invoices that LUMA has already submitted to Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) look. Luma is the firm that will manage the transmission and distribution network in Puerto Rico starting in June,

The public corporation does not have the opportunity of reviewing the invoices in a transparent way, Robert Poe, a member of PREPA’s Governing Board said at a meeting on December 16, 2020. His criticism came up because so far, the Public-Private Partnership Authority (AAPP, in Spanish), which oversees the contract with LUMA, has not allowed PREPA to conduct a full review of all of the documents to make sure the expenses are justified.