The November meeting of the St. Croix District Board of Elections came to an abrupt and raucous halt when board member Adelbert Bryan objected to being photographed and ignited a heated confrontation in which members of the audience vocally joined.
The board’s regularly scheduled November meeting was drawing to a close at about 11:30 a.m., having dispensed with its one contentious agenda item with little rancor or disturbance. The overflow crowd of more than 30 people who had tried to attend, spilling out into the hall, was beginning to thin out slightly, finally making it possible to move a little in the crowded room.
That’s when Tom Eader, a reporter for the St. Croix Avis, rose and started to take a picture of board members at the head of the table.
Since joining the board this year, following his election in November 2010, Bryan has made it clear he does not want his picture taken. He has admonished several reporters, covering the meeting not to take his picture, even though he is a public official performing the duties of his public office in a public meeting. Wednesday he was seated at the opposite end of the table, but he turned to Eader and snapped, "Don’t take my picture" more than once.
Eader, his face set in a grim mask, continued to shoot what appeared to be a photo of board members seated at the far end.
Bryan jumped to his feet and advanced the two or three steps separating him from the reporter, who turned to face him. Bryan placed his hand over the camera lens and continued to shout that he did not want his picture taken.
Eader responded that he was just doing his job, while board chairman Rupert Ross tried to interject that the photographer had been aiming at him not Bryan, and calling for order.
Several members of the audience also rose to their feet and angrily demanded that Eader stop, one of them loudly proclaiming that Bryan had a First Amendment right not to have his picture taken. Ironically, the First Amendment includes freedom of the press but makes no mention of privacy.
With tempers flaring, Eader holding his ground and Bryan and his supporters continuing to yell at the reporter, Ross quickly called for a motion to adjourn. It was moved, seconded and carried within seconds.
Two police officers, whose presence Bryan had requested before the meeting, came into the room and kept the situation from escalating. Bryan and the audience members left, congregating outside the Elections Office, and the officers asked the reporters present to remain until the crowd calmed down and dispersed.
Ross called the incident "unfortunate."
"It’s a public meeting and the taking of pictures of us in a public setting should be acceptable," the board chairman said. At the same time, he added, "It is well known that member Bryan has an aversion of people taking his picture," and suggested that refraining from taking the former senator’s photo was a matter of courtesy.
Eader said he had not been taking Bryan’s photo and had only turned the camera toward him when the board member advanced on him.
"I wasn’t sticking my camera in his face," Eader told one shouting audience member. "He stuck his face in my camera."
What had been expected to be the most contentious moment of the meeting passed with no acrimony. The citizens group Crucians in Focus had filed a complaint with the board challenging the right of Sen. Alicia "Chucky" Hansen to run for office in 2010 because she was on probation for a conviction on three misdemeanor counts of failure to file taxes.
The Virgin Islands code prohibits people convicted of felonies or crimes of "moral turpitude" from voting until their sentence or probation is completed, and requires that candidates for the senate by eligible voters.
Michael J. Springer, president of Crucians in Focus, said that means Hansen was not eligible to run when she was elected to the Senate. His complaint asks the board of elections determine whether Hansen was qualified to be elected and how she was allowed on the ballot if she was not.
The complaint brought a standing-room-only crowd to the meeting. A sign on the wall of the board’s meeting room says the occupancy, as determined by the fire marshal, is 15 if all the occupants are seated or 32 if standing. With five board members seated, at least 28 people filled the few chairs and lined the walls along with reporters and television cameramen. At least another dozen filled the hallway, peering in through the doorway.
One of those half in-half out observers was Hansen, whose arrival brought a round of cheers from the audience.
Rather than take action on the complaint, the board voted to ask the attorney general for an opinion on whether the complaint had merit.
Board member Lisa Harris-Moorhead – who is an attorney but pointed out that she is not counsel for the board – said the difficulty is in the phrase "moral turpitude." According to the Legal Dictionary, the phrase means "gross violation of standards of moral conduct, vileness, such that an act involving moral turpitude was intentionally evil, making the act a crime."
Its meaning can be difficult to pin down in a specific case, and is open to interpretation by courts, Harris-Moorhead said. For that reason, she recommended also petitioning the V.I. District Court for an opinion on whether Hansen’s offenses amount to moral turpitude.
The board voted unanimously to ask the attorney general’s office for an opinion, setting a three-week timetable for a response so that the issue can be resolved at the December board meeting. The vote was 3-2 to seek a definition from the court, with Ross and Bryan voting no.