Governor Wanda Vázquez Garced reconstituted part of the cabinet she inherited from former Governor Ricardo Rosselló Nevares by appointing Senator Zoé Laboy Alvarado as Chief of Staff and the Executive Director of the Aqueducts and Sewers Authority (PRASA) Elí Díaz Atienza as government representative to the Oversight Board.
These appointments - which do not require legislative confirmation - brought new vacancies since Díaz Atienza will have to step down as chairman of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) Governing Board, however, he will remain as PRASA executive director; while Laboy Alvarado will leave her Senate seat.
These vacancies join those in agencies such as the Department of State and the Department of Consumer Affairs (DACO, Spanish acronym), among others.
"I am proud to have them as part of our team. They are proven professionals who, like me, want the best for Puerto Rico," Vázquez Garced said in a press conference at La Fortaleza where she announced the appointments.
Díaz Atienza's resignation as president of the PREPA Governing Board was effective yesterday. Engineer Ralph Kreil will head that governing board until they decide who will chair that body.
Laboy Alvarado, on the other hand, will continue in the Senate until Friday and begins in the cabinet next Monday. While this transition process is completed, the senator will be attending some of the agency chiefs' meetings.
It was not specified how much money Laboy will earn for her position as Chief of Staff. Vázquez Garced said the official accepted the position without discussing her compensation, and issue to be considered soon.
"Believe it or not, we haven't talked about salary yet. She accepted the position out of a sense of duty," the governor said.
Laboy did not specify if she has any political aspirations for the 2020 Elections. The senator was mentioned as a possible candidate for mayor of San Juan. "Right now, I am not going to talk about candidacies. That issue is not important to me now," she said.
This is an important issue since Vázquez Garced has projected herself as a governor who can make decisions by setting aside partisan electoral considerations, in this case, those of the ruling New Progressive Party (PNP).
In fact, according to Laboy Alvarado, this is one of the reasons for her to join the team that Vázquez Garced inherited from former Governor Rosselló Nevares and that she is now shaping.
"She is going to make decisions strictly based on what she thinks is best for Puerto Rico, not because she gets or loses votes because of it. The people decided that things have to be done differently. Saturday night I had a meeting with the governor and I came out convinced of doing things differently and things necessary for the people to enjoy the results they deserve," said Laboy Alvarado, who added she knows most of the agency´s chiefs.
Vázquez Garced did not specify why she had not appointed San Sebastián mayor Javier Jiménez as Chief of Staff, as initially planned. She only indicated that the mayor has a "spirit of collaboration" and that he helped her with recommendations.
On the other hand, Díaz Atienza said he developed a good relationship with the Board while drafting PRASA´s fiscal plans. He indicated he will soon meet with Omar Marrero, the new head of the Fiscal Agency & Financial Advisory Authority (FAFAA), to review pending issues with the fiscal entity.
Díaz Atienza stressed, however, that adjustments to public employees pensions, reconstruction, and debt restructuring are among the priorities.
Vázquez Garced, meanwhile, said that since she has only been governor for 14 days, she has not yet developed a specific strategy to defend pensions. She affirmed, however, that as a basic principle she recognizes that pensions are the product of multiple years of sacrifices by public servants and that pensions should be decent.
"Public policy is to protect public servants. We have to recognize that pensions belong to public officials who gave 30 years to the government and need a dignified retirement," the governor said.
Several members of the Senate delegation welcomed Laboy Alvarado's nomination as Chief of Staff, however, not all PNP legislators are so convinced.
María Milagros Charbonier, for example, insisted that this is an appointment that is up to the governor.
"If she understands that she meets the high requirements for a position that calls to reach consensus, agreements, working in so many different situations that require you to reach consensus, with the ability to open dialogues, to resolve issues where your opinion or your vision may not necessarily prevail... if she understands that she is able to, then I will not question that," Charbonier told El Nuevo Día.
Does she meet the requirements? she was asked.
"I have no doubts about her professional qualifications, but in terms of political consensus and reaching agreements with legislators, something the position requires, I don't know. I wouldn't be entirely sure. I will have to see," she replied.
Charbonier and Laboy Alvarado are on opposite sides on multiple issues, but particularly on issues related to the role of women, family and religion in society. Laboy identifies as a liberal while Charbonier as a conservative. One of their last clashes came during the "religious freedom" bill debates and the ban on conversion therapies.
Senator Carlos Rodríguez Mateo considered Laboy's appointment as "a gain for the island."
"She comes to join the governor's team," he said. "It is a great recognition of the background and professional experience of our colleague Zoé Laboy Alvarado. She has already proved her qualifications and abilities when she was very young and directed the Department of Correction and Rehabilitation (DCR, Spanish acronym). She was successful in that role and then in her private practice."
Rodríguez Mateo described her as an "extraordinary and combative" senator.
"She defends what she believes in, even if she is alone in that. She made a fair balance in the Senate and her positions counterbalanced the legislative debate. The Senate loses with her resignation," he said.
Senate Majority spokesman Carmelo Ríos said that by appointing Laboy Alvarado´s, the governor "strengthens" her team because of her liberal positions.
"It is a conciliatory message that brings Wanda Vázquez to the most important position because the Chief of Staff is like an agencies administrator. Bringing someone who is avant-garde and liberal counteracts her more conservative role," Ríos said, in referring to how Vázquez said she is inclined to a "republican philosophy."
"Zoé Laboy had a clear agenda that only she could fill with her dynamism and criteria. Zoé had an important role in Senate debates. Thomas Rivera Schatz is very conservative and much of the delegation is conservative. We are only a few of us stand in the middle," Ríos said.
Senator Larry Seilhamer also praised Laboy.
"It seems to me that it is necessary to see where Zoé can contribute during these almost 18 months remaining before the end of the term. Whether it´s in the Senate, where she is an independent voice in extremely important issues or within the government structure. In my opinion, it´s as Chief of Staff because she handles two issues: the legislative and the government, as she was DCR Secretary," Seilhamer said.
Reporter Leysa Caro collaborated with this story.