President Tommy Remengesau Jr. yesterday struck a more conciliatory tone on the airport expansion project lawsuit saying he was “heartened” that the senators who filed the lawsuit are not opposing the project per se.

In a leadership meeting yesterday with members of the Olbiil Era Kelulau (OEK) and cabinet officials, Remengesau shifted tone from his letter last week blasting the senators for backpedaling on their support on the project.   [restrict]

Remenegsau said that he was reassured when he heard the five minority senators on the radio saying they have nothing against the project itself and that it’s the local legal process that they are questioning.

The president also reached out to the senator by admitting that he made a poor choice of word when he called the continued refusal of the senators to get the documents copies from the Senate as “humorous.”

The president also reiterated that the documents are available for the senators to see.

Last week, Remengesau criticized Sens. Regis Akitaya, Camsek Chin, Rukebai Inabo, J. Uduch Senior and Mason Whipps for trying to dismantle a project they initially supported.

Remengesau also said there the government has been transparent about the airport project but there is information in the negotiations that can’t be made public.

Sen. Senior however disagrees; she said Remenegsau’s letter contains inaccuracies while Inabo said: “we are not necessarily opposed to the project, but we are not well informed enough to make a decision.”

The airport expansion project is the first Public, Private Partnership venture among the Palau government, Japan Airport Terminal and Sojitz Corporation.

Under the joint venture, renovation work of the Palau International will begin around May to expand the existing airport. The total cost of the project is estimated at around USD$31 million.

The agreement stated that the Japanese firms are entrusted with airport operations for a 20-year period.

The senators filed the lawsuit in January claiming that the Minister of Public Infrastructure, Industries, and Commerce (MPIIC) Charles Obichang refused to provide copies of the documents since last year.

The lawsuit alleged that Obichang violated the Open Government Act by failure to provide the requested airport documents.

In the same leadership meeting, Obichang said he has appeased possible foreign donors and partners on the project that the lawsuit is not aimed at the project.

Obichang said the concerns were that the lawsuit could tarnish the image of the partners.

High Chief Ibedul Gibbons meanwhile, in his closing remarks at the leadership meeting, urged the “feud” to be addressed without going to the court.

Ibedul urged the senators to consider withdrawing the lawsuit to avoid a negative image for Palau.

However, Sen. Whipps said the lawsuit will not be withdrawn and will let the court decide on the matter.

“This is not about politics, this is about the fundamental rights in the Constitution,” Whipps said.

He added that they are not the only one with concerns; Belau Tourism Association and Palau Chamber of Commerce are filing an amicus brief in support of the lawsuit.

Whipps who did not attend the leadership meeting said because it has been used a “tool to basically intimidate people.”

Sen. Akitaya also did not attend the leadership meeting; he said the meeting is an “orchestrated shibai play.”

Senior, who attended the leadership with Inabo said that she regretted attending the meeting.

She said she felt like the senators were publicly shamed when Remengesau and other officials brought up the issue of the lawsuit during the meeting.

Senior and Inabo remained quiet during leadership meeting when the airport lawsuit was brought up.

Sen. Chin was in the leadership meeting during the first few hours. (Bernadette H. Carreon/Contributor)