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Small Crowd Attends Hearing on Government Form

Sept. 15, 2005 – While a handful of civic-minded individuals turned out to give testimony Thursday night on bringing the government closer to the people – the people stayed away in droves.
Fewer than a dozen community members showed up at the Senate chambers on St. Thomas to give or hear testimony on three bills that seek to obtain permission from the U.S. Congress to change completely the way the government of the Virgin Islands is structured.
"If it were the [vehicle] tint law," the chamber would be filled, Sen. Shawn-Michael Malone said.
But despite the seeming lack of interest by the masses, the usual suspects were prepared to discuss in detail the issues of municipal government, voter initiatives and where the seat of government should be located.
The League of Women Voters, the North Side Civic Organization, Virgin Islanders for a Better Community, the north side farmers and fishermen and a grassroots status committee were all represented at a Rules and Judiciary Committee called to receive public comment on three bills – one introduced the night before on St. Croix – being considered by lawmakers.
The empty chamber seemed to reflect some of the concerns expressed about the need for the people to understand the process that was taking place – and buy into it — before any big moves are made toward changing the government structure.
Clovis Emanuel, spokeswoman for the League, suggested the cart was being put before the horse by petitioning Congress to change the Organic Act of 1954 – which dictates the way the V.I. government is run – before holding a constitutional convention to see what people actually want.
A law passed in the 25th Legislature calls for a constitutional convention to be held in early 2006. It will be the fifth such convention. The other four have failed to move the people to adopt a V.I. constitution, though a few of the suggested measures have been adopted by Congress into the Organic Act – such as an elected governor, which came out of the 1965 convention.
Malone said this week's hearings are paving the way for the next pass at a V.I. constitution.
But the always outspoken David Berry, a north side farmer and fisherman, said as it is, the government doesn't function in any way that helps the people it serves – especially farmers – so why add more layers. "We have enough government."
But those supporting the move toward municipal government say it will not add more layers, it will take the layers already in place and redistribute them in a more practical way.
Sen. Craig Barshinger, who is not a member of the committee, but who nevertheless sat in on the meeting, said under municipal government, "If it's a pothole [that needs repair], let your municipal government deal with it." He said a citizen calls the mayor, who will call Public Works and the pothole gets fixed.
Barshinger said under the current top-heavy government, the "loops of control are too long," and therefore, "waste becomes rampant."
Dale Francis, president of VI-ABC, came with an entire plan mapped out for the structure that would involve two counties – each with a mayor. Each county would have two districts represented by one elected council person. Each district would have a city manager and each county a county manger. These managers would be public administration professionals who are hired based on their qualifications – not elected.
"The Virgin Islands has never organized an efficient and effective system of government," Francis said. "In the absence of a real government it has muddled through years of political cronyism and mismanagement." Francis believes the municipal structure would remove politics from the management level of government and create accountability and responsiveness.
And Sen. Lorraine Berry, sponsor of two of the bills, says it wouldn't cost any more. Furthermore, Berry said it would leave more people involved in the decision-making process.
Along with the municipal government bill, Berry also sponsored a bill to make it easier for a ballot initiative to be passed by lowering the number of voters required for an initiative to take effect.
However, Emanuel said the League doesn't feel the bill goes far enough. While it would lower the number of votes required to pass an initiative, it doesn't address the almost impossible task of getting the initiative on the ballot in the first place.
Emanuel said, "The requirements to initiate, title and petition for a place on the ballot for such an activity are not addressed in Bill No. 26-0038 and remain overly burdensome."
Berry didn't disagree, but instead pointed out the importance of initiatives, which she said allow the people to overrule the governor and the Legislature by literally passing their own laws.
Hiram Abiff, who said he was speaking on behalf of "the grassroots," asked if the senators in drafting these bills had considered which layers of the new municipal government would take on the tremendous debt of the Virgin Islands – which stands at $1 billion – and how would revenues be distributed in the absence of a central government.
Abiff pointed out that much of the territory's revenue is encumbered by bond issues. Gross receipts taxes and the rum rebates are two examples of revenues already committed in part to repay the debt. Sen. Ronald Russell commented that Abiff had a good point, adding that there were still a lot of details to be worked out. The details would include the mechanics of moving the capital from St. Thomas to St. Croix, a move Russell said would work for both islands — on St. Thomas because it would substantially reduce traffic in Charlotte Amalie, and on St. Croix by stimulating that island's flagging economy.
Russell, who introduced a bill on St. Croix at the same pubic hearing Wednesday night, said the Virgin Islands should get the Department of the Interior to pay for the move. After all, he pointed out – "We're a colony … they own us," and therefore, Russell said, they should shoulder the financial responsibility.
Though the issue of status got little attention Thursday night, Malone offered some dire scenarios related to the colonial aspects of being an unincorporated territory. "We can be sold to China," he said, after also pointing out that after all is said and done, Congress has the final word on all these issues, including whether it would approve or reject any V.I. constitution that might be written.
Jason Budsan, community activist, quoted from a teaching text written by Ruth Moolenaar on the subject of a constitution versus an organic act: "A constitution is written by delegates elected by the people who will live under the constitution; organic acts were written by a small number of people with little, if any, input from the affected public."
It remains to be seen how much this means to the affected public – many of whom Malone said in defense of the apparent apathy – "are working two or three jobs just to make ends meet." Only a handful of people showed up at St. Croix's hearing, either. The same matters will be taken up at 6:30 p.m. Friday, when the committee meets on St. John.
Barshinger, who is the senator-at-large and lives on St. John, said he expected a much larger turnout for the much smaller island.
Committee members in attendance Thursday were: Sens. Berry, Pedro Encarnacion, Malone and Russell. Sens. Usie Richards and Terrence "Positive" Nelson were excused. Sen. Celestino White was absent.

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