Passions ran high as some 200 people attended a town hall meeting Wednesday night sponsored by St. Croix’s American Federation of Teachers. The audience peppered four members of the V.I. Senate with questions, including asking the procedure for recalling the governor.
The senators, in turn, expressed skepticism of the executive branch’s honesty, called the government corrupt, and said they haven’t seen evidence that the territory is so cash-strapped to justify the eight-percent salary cuts. One senator vowed to vote against the nominees for Public Safety commissioner and Heath commissioner on principle.
The event was held at the auditorium of Alfredo Andrews Elementary School. The four senators in attendance were Sammuel Sanes, Terrence "Positive" Nelson," Nereida "Nellie" Rivera-O’Reilly, and Neville James. Sanes was the only member of the Senate majority to accept the teacher union’s invitation. The latter three are the self-styled "Next Generation Leadership Team."
All 15 senators were invited.
It was James who, in response to a question about Gov. John deJongh’s executive order to raise the salary of executives when he nominated Dr. Mercedes Dullum as Health commissioner and Henry White Jr. as V.I. Police commissioner, said that the governor had left him no choice but to vote against the nominations.
It’s wrong, he said, to seek higher salaries for all other government employees and to vote for a big pay boost for the two positions.
"That’s an easy vote for me," James said. "More important, it’s a principled vote."
During the course of the back and forth between the lawmakers and the teachers, the senators made the following points:
• Sanes: the territory should abandon the use of oil for generating power and switch to natural gas, a much lower cost alternative. Sanes said WAPA is one of the remaining companies in the two percent of U.S. power companies that still use oil. He said he voted for the eight-percent across the board salary reduction for government workers, but regrets it. In doing his research, after the fact, he said he now doubts the reduction was necessary, and said he was "naive" to have believed the executive branch’s claims to the contrary.
• Nelson: the territory does not have a money problem, "It has a management problem." He said the government suffers from gross mismanagement with many layers of management that should be stripped away and redistributed to the service delivery level, making government both more effective and less expensive. He also pointed to the majority of the legislature, which goes along with the governor, and said people allow it by re-electing them. "People drive policy.”
• O’Reilly: responding to a suggestion that more government departments be audited, O’Reilly said, "Audits are a feel-good document." Recent audits have show problems in different departments, including a legislative employee who never documented five year’s worth of travel expenses, but there are never repercussions. "Until people get locked up, what’s the purpose of an audit?" she asked. She also corrected a person who asked for the procedure for impeaching the governor: there is no such procedure. There is a method for citizens to recall the governor, but the requirement – 51 percent of the vote total of the previous election – is unrealistic.
• James: besides announcing his intent to vote against White and Dullum, James refrained from calling Gov. deJongh and his staff liars, but said, "Let’s say they misrepresent the truth" when discussing financial affairs. He warned that the Government Employee Retirement System is hurtling toward insolvency, and the only solutions were to allow higher-risk, but potentially more lucrative investments, or require higher payments into the system by the government and employees. In the current economy, the latter is not realistic. He added that senators are not trustees of the system, but do have some oversight authority.
Some highlights from the audience during the two hour question and answer portion of the meeting included:
• A student from St. Croix Central High School complained that the odor from Diageo is causing students to become sick and have to leave school on a daily basis.
• One teacher said all the territories other problems pale in comparison to the need to reform the election system and remove most members of the board of elections. He added the administration and its friends in the Senate are pulling delaying tactics to prevent reform from happening before the next election cycle. James countered that he knows what bills are coming and election reform will be enacted before the deadline.
• Another teacher asked if there would be layoffs in December, and another asked if there would be a "payless payday." Nelson said decisions about layoffs are made by the executive, not legislative branch, and James added that arguments about the number of Thursdays in a month are bogus. "You do two weeks of work, you get two weeks of pay," he said to applause.