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The village Commissioner system in Guam has undergone many changes over the years. But one thing remains clear. No matter what the "Commissioner" has been named in the past, village government has provided the strongest and most significant part of the foundations of self-government in Guam.
The very first indication of the existence of a simple form of representative self-government in Guam goes back to approximately 1500 B.C. from an anthropological study called "Native Culture of the Northern Marianas" by Laura Thompson. We learn that the Chamorros living in Guam in 1500 B.C. had a form of district government. The island was divided into districts composed of one or more neighboring villages. In each district the nobles, both men and women, formed a kind of Council or Assembly. The highest-ranking person, namely the oldest noble, was the leader. He was called the "Maga'lahi".
For over 300 years during the Spanish rule, the Governor exercised almost absolute power. However, we find that historically he may not have been as powerful as it would seem. It was in the municipalities outside Hagatna that the Spaniards permitted the establishment of municipal electorate councils whose power was a lot like representative government. Each municipality, which consisted of one or more villages, was in charge of a native magistrate called the "gobernadorcillo" or "little governor". He had complete executive powers within his district. He was also responsible for the collection of taxes and the assignment of work on public projects. Besides the "little governor", each municipality also had a native police commissioner. The Commissioner was assisted by two judges who looked after all legal matters related to land problems and salaries. Today, we still have the vestiges of that system in that the Commissioner also has police powers.
From the early beginnings we have seen numerous changes in representative self-government in Guam. When the Americans occupied Guam in 1898, the Commissioner system expanded, but still the navy governor held power. On February 3, 1917, the First Guam Congress was convened. For almost thirty years after that, through the Second Guam Congress of 1931 and the Second World War, many experiments were conducted. They all led to greater self-government for the people of Guam.
In June 1946, by popular referendum, the people expressed their desire to hold a general election for members of both Houses of the Guam Congress. Before the election was held, the Governor, Rear Admiral Charles A. Pownall, told the people that he intended to ask the Navy Department to give the Guam Congress limited law-making powers. Throughout all of the experiments in government, including the Organic Act of 1950, the Commissioners maintained the needed local control that was necessary in the villages. They were the best informed as to what the people's real needs were. To this day, Commissioners (now known as Mayors) are traditionally sought out by all other elected officials to get information about what people really want.
With increasing emphasis upon seeking an acceptable political status for Guam, we view the Mayor's role in government as being even more important than in the recent past. Through the enactment of Public Law 14-27 on May 26, 1977, the Mayors were given a more defined authority and responsibilities, created a Municipal Planning Council and Municipal Funds in their respective villages. More and more, the Mayor interprets the specific desires of his or her community. From the ancient past of the Chamorro people over 4000 years ago, we still remain the best alternative for solving problems on a local level. From this we can build a better future for our children and our island communities.
Note: Research and writing performed by Norbert Perez under contract by the Mayors' Council of Guam.