Whatever plan the V.I. Legislature cooks up in its closed meetings to resolve the territory’s financial crisis it apparently will not include a short-term loan from the Government Employees Retirement System to cover operations.
Both the GERS board and the senators met Saturday in separate conference rooms at St. Croix’s Marriott Renaissance Carambola Beach Resort. The GERS board was holding a special meeting which had been announced a day earlier.
On Friday, the Senate had convened a public session, and then almost immediately adjourned it without taking any action or discussing the economic issues facing the territory. Instead, on Saturday they met as a caucus behind closed doors at the resort. A second daylong session was also likely, one senator said.
The hotel conference room the senators met in normally rents for $950 a day, the hotel said, more if food and beverage are provided.
The GERS meeting had been scheduled for 11:30 a.m., but most of the board arrived together just before noon. Chairman Raymond James convened the GERS meeting, then immediately said he was declaring a recess for about 20 minutes to meet with the senators at their request.
Reporters from the Source and the V.I. Daily News attempted to gain admittance to the caucus meeting, but were met with a flurry of demands that they leave. Senate President Ronald Russell met them at the door and forced them to leave, responding to all questions with the phrase "this is a caucus meeting." Sen. Usie Richards said if the reporters did not leave he could call the police and have them removed.
An hour later, James and other GERS trustees emerged from the senate meeting and reconvened their meeting. Without commenting directly on what had been discussed with the lawmakers, James said on the record that he had made it clear to the senators that the GERS Board of Trustees would not make a short-term loan to the government to help resolve the current fiscal crisis.
The government may be faced with another round of layoffs by the end of the month if the current budget shortfall is not addressed next week.
While the GERS officials met with the lawmakers Saturday, Senate Majority Leader Celestino White came out to talk to reporters. According to White, the Senate provided itself an exception to the open meetings law if it met as a caucus and did not take any official action.
White drew a distinction between "constructing legislation" and deliberating toward a decision. Asked repeatedly why the meeting should be closed to the public, he answered over and over that they were constructing legislation and that no vote would be taken. He said a bill would be ready for discussion Tuesday, and then it will be debated and aired fully before the public.
At the same time, he said all 15 senators were present, not just the majority caucus, to give the greatest chance of finding a bill that is likely to win approval.
Asked if the senators did not trust the public to hear the discussion of what will go in the measure, he looked shocked and said, "Of course we trust the public." When asked whether senators could speak more freely and frankly behind closed doors, he dismissed it as "a stupid question."
"Haven’t you ever heard senators?" he said. "We love to be viewed, to be seen, to be heard. It’s not about being able to speak freely."
But pressed again about why the discussion was being held in private, he repeated that the senators were constructing a bill. White offered a hypothetical scenario in which he and two other senators met in his office to discuss how to construct a bill. "Should you be allowed to sit in my office and listen?" he asked.
One member of the GERS board refused to take part in the closed meeting.
Judge Edgar D. Ross said the session might be legal, but it was inappropriate to conduct public business in private.
"If they want to make a request of us, it should be made in open session," Ross said. "I don’t believe the GERS board of trustees should be meeting with them in private."