A land agent for the CHamoru Land Trust Commission told commissioners she was “coerced” by Land Trust Administrative Director Jack Hattig into recommending an action she knows is illegal — allowing a lease applicant to give someone else their place in line.
Land Trust legal counsel Nicolas Toft Thursday told commissioners that Land Trust applicants aren’t allowed to transfer their applications, based on the Land Trust law and a legal opinion by the attorney general. Residential and agricultural leases through the Land Trust are supposed to be issued on a first-come, first-served basis, according to a waiting list that started in December 1995.
A 2018 legal opinion by the attorney general states living applicants aren’t allowed to transfer their application to anyone. If an applicant dies, their spot in line goes to their beneficiary, if they listed one. Otherwise, the commissioners have the authority to name a successor for that application.
The attorney general’s office, in its 2018 legal opinion, declared any Land Trust leases that violated the law are null and void.
The commission has spent much of the past couple of years trying to correct the leases that were declared null and void.
“Our applicants are relying on us to guide them, using the law, and that is what I tried to do,” CLTC land agent Lydia Taleu told the commission during its meeting Thursday.
She said she wanted the application in question to remain with the original applicant, who would be given an opportunity to gather missing information needed to qualify for a lease — specifically, his grandmother’s date of birth.
The case involves a husband, who applied for a lease in December 1995, and who currently does not qualify for a lease, to transfer his application – his place in line – to his wife, who first applied in January 1996. The Land Trust still is working on issuing leases to those who applied in December 1995.
“I did not want to present an option of transferring the application rights … simply because I didn’t see a way to do it under the law,” Taleu said. “My concern was that if we go ahead with this, in 10 years this will come back to bite us,” and result in more null-and-void leases that need to be corrected.
“I understand Mr. Hattig’s point. He is trying to save your applicant. However, I am not comfortable, and he had coerced me into making the change,” Taleu said. “I did not want to do it, but I felt I had no choice because he forced me to add the request to transfer application rights … despite what the law says, despite the opinion of the former attorney general.”
Hattig responded, telling the commission the staff reports are mostly prepared by land agents, but the report recommendations are based on his meetings with the agents. There is no land agent supervisor, he said, so he currently is their direct supervisor. In most cases, his recommendation is consistent with the land agent’s recommendation, he said.
He acknowledged the recommendation in the staff report cited by Taleu was his, and not hers, following a Feb. 4 meeting with Taleu.
“If I had made it seem like I forced her to change it, I did not,” Hattig said. “I took the report that was submitted and I made my recommendations on there.”
Hattig said he wanted to present the commission with the option of transferring application rights.
“If we were not able to do it — and it looks like attorney Toft has already opined that we are not able to do it – as least we know,” Hattig said.
He said the Land Trust will stop working on staff reports related to the transfer of applications or application rights, “because we don’t have any legal footing to do so. But I’m glad that Lydia brought it up.”
‘Only thing they have to give’
Hattig said applicants have been waiting so long for a lease that some no longer are able to meet the lease requirements and instead want to pass on their application to a family member. Those with residential leases must use it as their primary residence, and those with agricultural leases must actively farm the land, among other requirements.
“It’s the only thing they have in some cases, the only thing they have to give to their children or their relatives, is this application,” Hattig said.
“It’s kind of a misrepresentation,” commission Chairman John Reyes, said, because the staff reports don’t make it clear the recommendations aren’t necessarily from the land agent.
All action postponed
As a result of its concerns about the content of CLTC staff reports, the commission on Thursday postponed action on all cases on the agenda, which upset some constituents who have been waiting for the commission to act on their requests.
The commission also held off on a vote that would give Hattig more authority to act without commission approval. The vote on increasing Hattig’s administrative authority was postponed “in light of earlier discussions,” Reyes said.
“I’m fairly disappointed in what transpired today,” Reyes said.
He said he plans to meet with each land agent and Hattig to discuss the staff reports and ensure the commission is receiving complete and accurate information to make its decisions.
“I’m definitely embarrassed of what happened today,” said commissioner Austin Duenas.
Commissioner Angela Santos said she is concerned that the word “coerced” was used.
“The integrity of this program is everything to me,” Santos said.
“Mr. Hattig has done a lot of good for this agency, but on this issue I really did not like it,” land agent Taleu said. “I felt he was asking me to violate the law. That went against my moral code. The whole point of me working for the CHamoru Land Trust is to help the applicants, to guide them, to have them get their leases legally, and we must follow the law. To go against it is what got us in the trouble that we’re in now.”