The latest chapter in the legal battle between a Virgin Islands newspaper and government agencies over closed meetings was transacted Tuesday – in a closed meeting.
The V.I. Daily News Sunday obtained a preliminary injunction against the Senate and the board of trustees of the Government Employees Retirement System (GERS) over a meeting the Senate held Saturday. A hearing was scheduled Tuesday for the paper’s request for a temporary restraining order, but that became moot.
The Senate met in caucus Saturday and for an hour invited members of the GERS board to talk with them to discuss the territory’s fiscal crisis. After leaving the meeting, board chairman Raymond James said the board would not approve a short-term loan to tide the government over.
While the open meetings law, known as the Sunshine Act, rules out most closed meetings, it does include exceptions. One of those exceptions allows the legislators to meet "in caucus" behind closed doors, as long as they do not discuss or deliberate on pending bills. On Saturday lawmakers said they were "constructing legislation," but would not take any votes.
Monday, the Senate and the newspaper reached a joint settlement in which the lawmakers repeated their assertion that Saturday’s session was a caucus and that no vote was taken.
Daily News attorney Kevin Rames conceded Tuesday that the exception the Senators wrote for themselves in 1999 allows them to meet in caucus regardless of how many members attend, regardless of party affiliation, and regardless of what other people are invited to attend.
While the Senate was released from the legal action by the settlement, the GERS board was still involved. While the trustees said they did not conduct the meeting, they were simply invited to speak at the Senate’s gathering. The newspaper contends that because a quorum was at the meeting it constitutes a proscribed public meeting.
Tuesday, parties from both sides gathered in the courtroom of Superior Court Presiding Judge Darryl Donohue for a hearing on the paper’s request for a temporary restraining order. The hearing was scheduled for 10 a.m., but on arriving in court spectators were told the attorneys were closeted, trying to work things out. Judge Donohue dispatched his morning criminal calendar, taking pleas and hearing sentencing arguments while 10:30 passed, then 10:45.
At about 10:50 Rames came in and told the judge they’d be ready "in just a few minutes."
"Then I can take a few more pleas. Back to the criminal calendar," the judge said.
It was 11:40 before Rames and attorneys for GERS came in and told the judge they were ready.
Rames informed the judge the newspaper was dropping its request for a temporary restraining order and would seek instead a declaratory judgment that the GERS board cannot hold closed meetings. Based on that, Donohue dropped the preliminary injunction and adjourned the hearing.
GERS Board Chairman James, along with trustees Edgar Ross and Vincent Liger, who had been there all morning, said afterwards they still didn’t understand why GERS was part of the legal action.
"It wasn’t our meeting," James said again. "We were invited in to hear what the Senate had to say. We didn’t hold the meeting, the Senate did."
The GERS board held its own scheduled meeting immediately after visiting the Senate caucus, and that meeting was open.
In retrospect, James conceded, perhaps only three trustees should have responded to the Senate’s request.
"Then we wouldn’t have had a quorum," he said.
Rames, the newspaper’s attorney, said the fact that the lawmakers had agreed that the Sunshine Act applied to it was an important concession.