Jan. 23, 2004 – Gov. Charles W. Turnbull made history when he put his pen to paper Thursday night and signed the Waste Management Authority bill into law — even in doing so "reluctantly," as a Government House release stated on Friday.
After some decades of debate that never reached a vote on the Senate floor, Sen. Louis Hill devoted much of his freshman year to nursing the bill just signed to passage.
It was an arduous process, with opponents averse to the very idea of an authority, arguing that it would just create another level of bureaucracy and objecting to the proposed environmental user fee. But Hill persisted, holding public meetings, listening to all sides, and arguing that if the territory's waste disposal problems hadn't been solved over the last 20 years, it was time to try another approach.
With a sigh of relief, he said on Friday: "I don't see any more challenges. I see the solution." And of the governor he said: "I'm extremely happy he signed it into law. I had great confidence that the governor recognized its importance."
Turnbull essentially said the same thing, while at the same time citing "grave flaws" in the measure. An advocate from the start of his first term in office of establishing a waste management authority, he complained that what the Senate passed bore little resemblance to what he had proposed.
The bill "was greatly modified by the Legislature," he wrote in his transmittal letter to Senate President David Jones, and "there will be a need to further amend this measure in order for the legislation to accomplish its intended objectives," the release stated.
Turnbull said he had been advised to veto the bill because it usurps the powers and duties of existing departments and agencies but "reluctantly" decided to sign it because "on balance, due to the serious health and economic perils posed by our waste management problem, it is in the best interest of the public that we create this authority."
Among the objections he cited:
– The bill appropriates $4 million from the General Fund for fiscal year 2004 to fund the authority initially. "Whether this authority will be funded or not hinges on the improved health of our economy and the resulting improved revenue collections for the General Fund," he said.
– There will be no Planning and Natural Resources Department oversight of the authority as there now is of the Public Works Department.
– The legislation "proposes" dissolution of the Anti-Litter and Beautification Commission. Government House has received "many calls" saying that it "will be counterproductive and a disservice to residents to have this fully operational agency absorbed into a new and still to be established Waste Management Authority," Turnbull wrote. "It is felt that monies designated by law for beautification and roadside cleanup will be utilized for purposes other than what was originally intended."
– There is a provision for the Government Employees Retirement System to make semi-annual payments; GERS, he said, says this schedule, rather than biweekly payments, would "in effect" cause a significant loss in its investment income.
– The bill gives him 15 days in which to submit nominees for the WMA board to the Legislature, which must approve them. He wants 60 days.
The governor said he also has concerns with the establishment of use fees, the definition of solid waste, the elimination of a "fail-safe mechanism established for government procurement," the government's financial liability for authority obligations.
Hill — without having seen the governor's objections — said the Legislature may make some minor changes in the new law, but nothing major. He also said he will work closely with the executive branch to make any changes needed to ensure that the environmental use fee "is equitable and not burdensome."
Signing comes amid St. Croix sewage problems
The governor's decision to sign the measure despite major misgivings has come in the midst of ongoing sewage problems on St. Croix and following the cancellation last week of a scheduled visit by the only cruise ship expected to visit the island this season.
Lt. Gov. Vargrave Richards spurred on emergency work last weekend to get the Lagoon Street pump station in Frederiksted back in service, but the entire system needs extensive repair, with recurring reports of untreated sewage fouling the streets and flowing into the waters off both Christiansted and Frederiksted. The V.I. government has been under federal court orders since the 1980s to clean up the mess and has incurred repeated fines for failing to comply with deadlines for doing so, proponents of the WMA bill pointed out.
While Hill's measure "may not be a perfect bill," he sold his Senate colleagues prior to the final vote on its passage, "it can be amended. But let us get started There is raw sewage in the streets of St. Croix, and we are under court order to clean it up." (See "Waste Management Authority clears committee".)
On Friday, he said: "We saw the dilemma of a [Public Works Department] whose limited funding and staff couldn't keep up with an aging wastewater system and increased responsibilities due to changes in federal law in the area of solid waste. The burdens can no longer be deferred to the next generation. The time is now."
The next step toward implementing the WMA is the selection of the seven-member governing board, he said, expressing hope that the governor "moves expeditiously in sending down candidates for the Legislature to confirm."
"There is a tremendous amount of work to be done," Hill continued, "but we have a dedicated group of individuals at Public Works who have struggled to survive, and now we can begin the Herculean task of infrastructure repairs." He commended Public Works Commissioner Wayne Callwood and Sonya Nelthropp, the department's senior waste management director, for their assistance in getting the WMA bill approved. Neither Callwood nor Nelthropp was available for comment Friday afternoon.
Governor's action on other bills
The governor on Thursday signed two other bills into law, one intended to reduce the number of hours of volunteer service required of high school students for graduation, and the other aimed at bringing the territory into compliance with federal law regarding age discrimination. However, Turnbull found flaws in both of those measures, too.
The wording of the volunteer service bill has internal conflicts, he told Jones, in one place setting the minimum hours at 100 and in another citing them as the existing number, 500. Turnbull said the Senate needs to review and clarify the legislation.
In the case of the ageism bill, Turnbull said the law regarding mandatory retirement of judges also should be changed.
He vetoed one bill — calling for the Territorial Court, rather than the governor, to have final review of decisions of the Board of Education. "There has been no indication that any governor has ever abused the powers rendered to him" with respect to the board and its decisions, he told Jones. In fact, "few, if any decisions of the board have ever been appealed to the governor."
Turnbull also acknowledged resolutions adopted by the Senate:
– Honoring Bettye Jean Parrott, Stanley and the Ten Sleepless Knights, Wilford Pedro, Austin F. Callwood and Franklin A. Powell Sr.
– Asking Congress to update the U.S. archives and records relating to V.I. soldiers who died in the Korean War.
– Asking Congress to attain observer status for the territory in the Caribbean Community and asking the president and Congress to allow the territory to seek dialogue with Caribbean states to explore trading links.
– Condemning De
legate Donna M. Christensen for introducing a bill in Congress to create a chief financial officer for the territory without first seeking the approval or sense of the Virgin Islands people. With regard to this resolution, Turnbull told Jones: "Virgin Islanders both at home and abroad, for nearly a century under the American flag, have fought for more self-government … Gradually, after often bitter struggles, they have been able to gain some degree of autonomy over their local affairs …
"It is almost unbelievable that an elected delegate to Congress, whose very position is the result of the struggles of leaders who came before her, would now seek to turn the clock of political progress backwards in a reactionary attempt to limit the rights of the people she was elected to serve. I urge her to withdraw this unfortunate bill, and if she fails to do so, for the Congress to reject it.
"Virgin Islanders are politically mature enough to control their own territorial government, including matters relating to fiscal control and integrity. We do not need a federal chief financial officer in the United States Virgin Islands at the dawn of the 21st century."
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