Joey Duenas remembers the dark days of the local power system, when blackouts were so common they even inspired a popular parody song, “The Load-shedding Blues.” But for the Guam Power Authority and local government leaders who were struggling under tremendous public pressure to fix a broken system, it was hardly a laughing matter.
“Those were very interesting and challenging times,” said Duenas, who in 1985 became the first-ever chairman of the newly established Public Utilities Commission.
“The PUC had to be created because GPA had defaulted on its bond anticipation notes with Bank of America,” Duenas recalled. “These were borrowings that (GPA) was supposed to pay back when the bonds were floated, but they weren’t able to float the bonds.”
GPA needed lots of money to overhaul the system, so the federal government eventually stepped in to help through the Federal Financing bank. But the feds insisted on an independent body to set rates.
“The most important thing that I think people need to understand is that the rates prior to that were set by politicians. You had a board of directors at GPA, but whenever they set a rate, if senators didn’t like it, they could pass a law and make the rates something else…and very often it wasn’t based on sound financial considerations,” Duenas explained.
He continued, “The PUC established rates based on the principle that the cost of service cannot be so high that customers stop using the utility, because then nobody wins. And that the cost of service cannot be so low that the utility starts to fall apart, and the ratepayer loses anyway. So it’s a delicate balance.”
Duenas was chairman of the PUC for the first nine years of its existence, and then was appointed director of the Department of Revenue and Taxation during the administration of Governor Carl Gutierrez. Duenas left government service when tragedy struck in 2000. His only son was killed in a traffic accident, and the grieving father stepped away from public life completely.
When a law was passed in 2002 creating the Consolidated Commission on Utilities to replace the boards of GPA and GWA, Duenas was encouraged by many to again answer the call to public service and guide the new commission. “But I felt I wasn’t ready, my frame of mind was still not good. I was still dealing with the pain I had,“ he explained.
It took six years later before Duenas was ready to come back. In 2008 he ran successfully for a seat on the CCU, and has been re-elected for three consecutive terms. His current term ends in 2020, marking 35 years since his first service. “Right now I’m not planning on running again because I really like the idea that somebody else should come in and try to do this. I think I’ve done a really good job, and I can tell you this, that the commissioners we have now are the best you could possibly want…but to me there’s a time when you should walk away…besides, I’m getting really old,” he laughed.
If and when he walks away, odds are Duenas will spend a lot more time traveling around the U.S. mainland. He is fascinated by American history, and talked excitedly about visits to the Smithsonian in Washington DC, the Hearst Castle in California, and the Arizona Memorial in Hawaii.
“My mother-in-law’s half brother died in the World War Two attack on Pearl Harbor. She pointed out his name to us (on the Arizona memorial) along with five other Chamorro men. There were a lot of Chamorros who served at that time and lost their lives during the bombing.”
He has had many influences in his life, and they include his father’s brother, the late Cristobal C. Duenas, the first Chamorro federal judge on Guam. “I used to joke with him. He used to go through Honolulu and go through the line like everybody else. And I would say to him, ‘You know, you have an ID card that says you’re a District Court Judge, why don’t you just show that to them?’ But he never made a big deal out of it. That really stuck with me,” Duenas reflected.
There were also family members whom he never even met that impacted him. His grandfather’s brother was Father Jesus Baza Duenas, a leader of the local Catholic Church who was beheaded by Japanese soldiers on July 17, 1944, four days before the Marine invasion that would liberate Guam.
The priest became the namesake for the popular boy’s high school in Mangilao that is located near where he was killed. “My grandfather, all he ever wanted was another Father Duenas. So there were several of us who went into the seminary, but no one ever became one,” Duenas said, grinning. “The closest he ever came was through his nephew, the late Archbishop Felixberto Flores.”
He continued, “But I was in the seminary for several years, and I credit that for helping me to understand my faith a little better.”
And while the priesthood was not his calling, Duenas ultimately did find a cause to champion. “Utilities are a crucial part of the island, and I thought if I want to serve my fellow island residents then that would be the best place to be.”
“I think I’ve done a really good job, and I can tell you this, that the commissioners we have now are the best you could possibly want…”