A regular Source feature, Undercurrents explores issues, ideas and events as they develop beneath the surface in the Virgin Islands community.
This is Part II of a three-part series about government boards and commissions.
Work on ___________ is at a standstill. The board is missing __________ members, and so cannot get a quorum to (Choose one or more):
– a) hold a meeting
– b) act on pending requests
– c) host a public hearing
– d) respond to a court suit
– e) hire a new executive director
– f) sign the controversial contract
– g) vote on the development
– h) other
Fill in the blanks. The story appears every three or four months in one news media or another.
With well more than 100 boards and commissions in the Virgin Islands (no one seems able to agree on an exact count) and several hundred seats on them designed for private citizens, filling vacancies is a perennial challenge.
In fact, even knowing what seats are vacant can be a challenge. That’s partly because some entities exist in name only, so technically all their seats are vacant, even if no one cares anymore about filling any of them.
Then there’s the question of term limits. The legislation or the executive order that establishes an entity spells out not only the number of members, but the term of office – typically something between two and five years – and sometimes includes whether or not a member may be reappointed. But often there is also language that says a member serves until replaced. And sometimes that caveat is simply assumed.
So unless and until an issue is raised, some entities, especially ones that operate out of the public eye, continue to function by depending on the good graces of people who have served on them for years after their terms officially expired.
Still, seats do become vacant. Since the vast majority of positions are gubernatorial appointments requiring approval of the Legislature, it falls to the administration to track them. And to fill them.
With very few exceptions, such as the Casino Control Commission, a private citizen’s service on a government entity is a matter of volunteering time and talent. It is not compensated beyond a stipend and, where applicable, reasonable travel expenses. But payments can vary.
As an example, the stipend for members of the Commission on the Status of Women, which was established in the 1960s, was set at $10 per day, on meeting days. A more typical rate now is $50 or $60 a day, although rates can go higher.
The “stipend” for nongovernmental members of viNGN (the Virgin Islands Next Generation Network) was set in 2011 at a whopping $750 per day, plus travel. Since this group is overseeing the territory’s transition to high tech connectivity, presumably the money was intended to attract persons with a high degree of technical expertise.
Government employees who serve on entities as part of their job do not get per diem. Many entities are comprised of a mix of private citizens and public sector upper management.
With no real money to offer in most cases, the government has to appeal to altruism, a sense of pride in service, and/or an individual’s interest in a given field, in order to attract volunteers.
Hurdles to service
Further complicating the process is the need to meet whatever criteria is spelled out in the enabling legislation that created an entity.
Almost without fail, the legislation provides for an equal number of members from the two districts, St. Croix and St. Thomas-St. John. Sometimes it subdivides St. Thomas-St. John. In a few cases the legislation may address gender balance or specify that one or more members must be in a certain age range. Then there’s the issue of experience and occasionally of expertise. The more members, the greater the overlapping criteria.
Take the Economic Development Authority. The legislation creating it says in part, “Of the seven members appointed to the Board, three shall not be employees of the Government of the United States Virgin Islands or the Government of the United States and shall be appointed by the Governor with the advice and consent of the Legislature. Three shall be appointed by the Governor from among the heads of cabinet-level executive departments or agencies or his executive staff, and one shall be appointed from the Board or executive staff of the Government Employee Retirement System, Virgin Islands Port Authority, or the University of the Virgin Islands. Of the non-governmental members, one must be a resident of St. Thomas, one must be a resident of St. John, and one must be a resident of the District of St. Croix.”
Further, “all members of the Board shall be learned in and shall have education, experience or expertise in one or more of the following areas: finance, law, economics, accounting, business, banking, or marketing; provided that at least five separate disciplines are represented on the Board and that no person who is currently employed by a bank doing business in the Territory may be appointed as a member of the Board.”
Suppose the six people who are sitting members come from the first four areas, i.e. finance, law, economics and accounting. The seventh has to have experience or expertise in business, banking or marketing. Let’s say a candidate spent 10 years as president of a bank and is now retired. Sounds good, but maybe it’s still not a match because he’s from St. Thomas and the empty seat has to go to St. John.
Nagesh Tammara, counsel to the governor, acknowledged that matching a willing citizen with the required criteria can be difficult.
An even more fundamental challenge is locating the willing citizen.
There is an open invitation to all V.I. citizens on the Government House website (www.governordejongh.com) to volunteer for service on any entity with a vacancy, so individuals may apply directly or make recommendations.
Often, however, Tammarra said his office receives recommendations from one or another government department or agency associated with a particular board or commission. The attorney general, for instance, may suggest names to fill the Parole Board or the commissioner of Planning and Natural Resources may recommend members for the CZM (Coastal Zone Management) committees.
Unfortunately, “it can be hard finding people who want to go through the advice and consent process,” Tammara said.
They may simply be private individuals unaccustomed to speaking in public. Or they may still feel the chill left from horror stories of past legislative confirmation hearings that turned nasty when a nominee got caught in the crossfire of a political or ideological conflict or fell outside of an individual senator’s sense of culture.
The executive branch attempts to vet nominees carefully before they ever go to the Legislature, Tammara explained.
Candidates must complete a multi-page questionnaire. It covers education, marital status, residency, government experience, 10-year employment history, memberships in organizations, honors and awards, business and financial interests of 10 percent or more, a criminal background check, and a few pointed questions, such as ‘Do you owe the government any money?’ and ‘Do you know of any individual or group likely to oppose your confirmation?’
(Next: Why they do it – the pros and cons of the system as seen by people who serve in it and those who direct it.)