Jan. 27, 2006 – Thanks to action Friday by the Rules and Judiciary Committee, Virgin Islanders may get the chance to vote on municipal government at the same time they vote for delegates to the Constitutional Convention — on the second Tuesday in June 2007.
Senate President Lorraine L. Berry sponsored the municipal government bill, which petitions the U.S. Congress to amend the Revised Organic Act of the Virgin Islands, empowering the Legislature, with the approval of the voters, to charter municipal governments on St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix.
Berry, along with other committee members, worked to make the dates coincide. She said the effort for municipal government last year had been halted after the proposed Constitutional Convention was postponed. She added that a vote on municipal government would give delegates an idea about which direction residents wanted to go.
The municipal government bill was just one of three bills reported out of the committee which could change the form of the V.I. government. Sen. Craig Barshinger described the bills as showing that the territory was now mature politically and ready to make its own decisions. Although Barshinger was not a member of the committee and could not vote, he said he was "wildly in favor" of them.
The other bills moved to the full Senate included one to petition the U.S. Congress to amend the Organic Act to allow the U.S. Virgin Islands, through the Legislature, to determine where the capital should be located, and another to petition the Congress to amend the act by lowering the number of voters required for an initiative to take effect.
Among those testifying for the need to change to a municipal form of government was Robert Johnson. He said it was evident that the present system of government was dysfunctional and needed to be changed. He cited the example of being told at the St. Croix Educational Complex to park on the sidewalk because "no one cares." He said that if the youth are being taught that no one cares whether laws are obeyed there is a problem.
Sen. Roosevelt David questioned how municipal government would resolve such problems.
Johnson said that the legislation would enable a commission to come up with specific solutions for each island. He said the main thing was that a municipal form of government would make officials more directly responsible to the voters.
Other testifiers in favor of municipal government were Robert Merwin and George Flores.
Flores said in the present government senators were held responsible for everything. "If someone sees a dead dog in the middle of the road, they call a senator to have it removed," he said.
He added that while they were held responsible for everything they held little power.
Sen. Juan Figueroa-Serville said he was guilty of being one of those people who use to blame the senators for everything, but now that he was in the "hot seat," he wondered what the executive branch was doing. He said, "It is the Legislature's job to pass laws. It is the executive branch's responsibility to see they are enforced."
Merwin testified that the present "consolidated" government was adopted 50 years ago when the population was small and shrinking. He said, "It is time for a change."
Berry sponsored the bill to enable municipal government and also the bill to allow residents to more easily bring initiatives before voters. Presently, to get an initiative passed it takes more than 50 percent of the registered voters. Berry pointed out that since on occasion barely 50 percent of the eligible voters even vote, it is almost impossible to get an initiative passed.
Sen. Ronald Russell, the new chairman of the Rules Committee, sponsored the bill that would enable the Legislature to determine "where the capital and seat of government should be located."
He said that recent reports had indicated the number of cruise ships visiting St. Thomas was dropping. He said the reason could be the congestion problem on St. Thomas. He said, "Visitors might find it a great place to visit, but if they have to spend an hour in traffic they complain."
He said, "I think the biggest deterrent to cruise visits is congestion. Change would benefit both islands."
John Abramson, supervisor of the board of elections, testified on what effect the measures would have on the balloting process. He said no initiative had ever been successful on the Virgin Islands, that the threshold of 50 percent plus one of registered voters was the highest threshold with which he was familiar.
However, he warned the legislators not to make the threshold too low. He pointed to California, which has a low threshold to get an initiative on the ballot. He said California sometimes has hundreds of initiatives on the ballot, and the ballot could be 12 pages long. He said, "In the election world, California is a joke."
A bill to provide that legislative sessions be held on the Island of St. Croix was held in committee on the recommendation of Russell. He said the bill might not be necessary if the other bills were passed.
A bill to enact The Carnival Promotion Accountability Act of 2006 was also held in committee, as its sponsor Sen. Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg could not attend the Friday meeting.
Sen. Neville James said issues such as moving the capital were "touchy issues," and he did not know whether they deserved priority when there were such problems as schools being closed because they were inhabitable.
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