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Undercurrents: Boards and Commissions Create ‘Fifth Estate’

A regular Source feature, Undercurrents explores issues, ideas and events as they develop beneath the surface in the Virgin Islands community.

This is the first in a three-part series about boards and commissions and those who serve on them.

In 1987 the V. I. Legislature passed a law creating a 10-member Commission on Caribbean Cooperation. Few people have heard of the commission, but the law was quite detailed in describing it. One member, the Legislature’s own secretary for inter-governmental relations and territorial affairs, was to serve ex-officio. Four others were to be appointed by the Senate president, and five by the governor. At least one member had to be under 21 years of age.

The commission would be charged with keeping the Legislature and the governor informed about “developments and programs in health, education, conservation, recreation, commerce, tourism, labor, youth development and other social and economic matters” as they played out throughout the region.

Members of the Commission on Caribbean Cooperation were to receive travel expenses and a stipend of up to $50 a day per day of service, not to exceed $1,000 a year.

The next year, the Legislature created the V.I. Arts and Crafts Factory Development Board. This one had nine members, four from St. Croix, three from St. Thomas, and one from St. John. They were to make money available for “the purchase of items necessary in the production of craft” and “to make craft available for display to the public.”

The premise for the creation of the board was that “there exists a pool of talented, but unemployed, residents in the territory …” who could be saved from “lead(ing) lives devoid of gainful activities” and “be(ing) susceptible to the criminal element” by instead creating and selling crafts.

Members of the V.I. Arts and Craft Factory Development Board were to get a stipend of $40 a day ($60 for the chair) but no more than $2,640 ($4,320 for the chair) per year, plus reasonable expenses.

But there’s no government craft factory.

Back in 1971, a law was passed to establish a five-member Governor’s Award Board. Members were charged with making recommendations for awards for distinguished work in the arts and humanities. The award was a gold medal on a ribbon, and ceremonies were to be held every year. If they ever were, they haven’t been in recent memory. An aide at Government House said Monday she’d never heard of the board and no such awards currently are presented.

The Virgin Islands Code is replete with boards, commissions, committees, councils, coalitions, institutes, and task forces. Most every governor has created a few more by executive order.

They cover virtually every aspect of life in the territory, from the mundane to the headline grabbers. Citizens who volunteer to serve on them wind up deciding whether an artist gets a grant, a prisoner gets parole, a utility gets a rate increase, a civil rights complaint gets a hearing.

A number of the entities function in tandem with a government agency, such as the CZM (Coastal Zone Management) boards which rely on support from staff at the Department of Planning and Natural Resources.

Some serve as non-governmental arms of Licensing, with the responsibility for deciding whether an applicant meets specific qualifications for a given profession.

Others address an issue or a trend or a pet project of a lawmaker or were set up to meet a federal mandate that may or may not still exist.

Seldom does the order or the legislation that creates a board or commission contain a “sunset clause” spelling out how and when the entity will cease to exist. Often the person or persons who are supposed to appoint the members never get around to doing so.

The result is that some entities never actually got started. Some operated for a few years, gradually became dysfunctional and then sank into oblivion. But they still exist on paper.

“I think there’s a number of them that are no longer relevant,” said Nagesh V. Tammara, legal counsel to Gov. John de Jongh Jr., and the man who has the unenviable responsibility of tracking vacancies on boards and commissions and helping the administration to fill those vacancies.

However, he added that “more than 50 percent” of them are active.

How many entities are there?

Tammara provided a list with 126 names on it. He said he thinks it includes almost everything, but cautioned that his office is still trying to figure out the status of each entity on the list.

“We update it every day. It’s a work in progress,” he said.

“We have a number of boards that we don’t hear much from,” he said. They operate independently, and generally don’t surface unless there is a problem, or a need to fill a vacancy.

(Next: Vacancies and the process for filling them.)

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