The Office of the V.I. Inspector General will be reestablished as a semi-autonomous agency, with less potential interference from the executive branch of government and more secure funding, if a bill approved in committee Wednesday is enacted into law.
The bill [Bill 31-0014] sponsored by Sens. Clifford Graham, Nereida "Nellie" Rivera-O’Reilly and Sammuel Sanes moves the agency out of the executive branch of government. It says the budget approved by the Legislature "must be allotted," gives the inspector general authority to hire, fire and set salaries for his or her own staff, and explicitly forbids any government official from interfering with the office’s operations.
The legislation clarifies the powers of the office and says the office must "have direct and prompt access" to government agency heads, including high court officials.
It was debated in committee in April (See Related Links) but held in committee for more review at the time.
Inspector General Stephen van Beverhoudt testified in support, saying that under his two-decade tenure, officials have tried to shut down audits, move staff and cut allocations to reduce the office’s activities.
Funding is a problem right now, and moving the agency out of the executive branch will help, van Beverhoudt said.
While the Fiscal Year 2016 budget includes a lump sum budget of $2 million for the office, van Beverhoudt said that due to budget constraints, Budget Director Nellon Bowry told him the allotment would be cut by 3 percent.
"This cut amounts to $60,000, which is minuscule when compared to the overall government budget, but is very significant to our operations. Sixty-thousand dollars represents an auditor’s position. This cut comes as we are going through the interview process in both districts of potential candidates seeking employment with our agency," van Beverhoudt said.
"This, ladies and gentlemen is an example of exactly why the (Office of the Inspector General) needs to be independent from the control of the executive branch." Van Beverhoudt went on to say that V.I. law already required its budget be allotted "in its entirety.
But he said, "confusion was created by a 2002 attorney general letter of advice, which basically stated that because the (office’s) enabling legislation is included under Title 3 (executive branch) of the Code, the agency is controlled by the directives of the executive branch.”
This, he said, is why the bill is needed, and with its passage, the confusion would be eliminated.
Bowry testified he was not opposed to the bill, but had two concerns: "One, that the Inspector General seems to be immune from checks and balances, beholden to no one"; and also that the funding mechanism "was not needs-based and did not take into account the fiscal circumstances of the government of the Virgin Islands.”
Bowry said amendments to the bill that removed a preset annual appropriation alleviated the funding concern.
"However, it remains my observation and concern that the Office of the Inspector General is not unambiguously located in any of the three branches of government," he said.
Sen. Justin Harrigan said there might be more amendments to the bill as it moves through the Legislature to address Bowry’s concerns.
"I think the time has come for his office to have more independence," and that if the Legislature and OMB will work together they can come up "with a bill that will make everyone happy and comfortable," Harrigan said.
Voting to send the bill on for further consideration in the Rules and Judiciary Committee were Harrigan, Sanes, Sens. Myron Jackson and Neville James. Sens. Tregenza Roach, Terrence "Positive" Nelson and Janette Millin Young were absent. Sen. Clifford Graham, who is not a member of the committee, also attended.
The committee also approved a bill sponsored by Harrigan to require the V.I. Fire Service Director to determine occupancy levels for businesses and to require businesses to post the occupancy limits prominently.
The purpose of the bill "is to address what I consider to be a safety concern of overcrowding," Harrigan said.
"If you may recall several years ago there was an incident in American Yacht Harbor in Red Hook, where the deck of a restaurant in the building buckled under the weight of the crowd of patrons during the St. Patrick’s Day celebration. Thankfully no one got hurt," Harrigan said.
Acting Fire Service Director Clifford Joseph said his office does already give businesses maximum occupancy limits when it inspects. But it "is my professional opinion that mandating the posting of the occupant load factor at the entrance of the building or conspicuous places within the building will greatly enhance the Fire Services ability to enforce the occupancy requirement in places of assembly," Joseph said.
At Joseph’s request, the committee amended the bill to give the Fire Service 270 days to determine occupancy loads for all businesses, instead of the 90 days originally mandated in the bill. The committee sent the measure on without opposition.
It also sent on a bill sponsored by Sanes to forbid displaying license plates on dashboards or elsewhere inside the vehicle, and require all car owners to put one plate in front and one on the rear of their vehicle.
Police officials testified this would help them identify vehicles involved in crimes and accidents, and that the loose metal license can be dangerous in an accident. Senators amended the bill to require auto dealerships to ensure that cars they sell are equipped to carry licenses both front and rear.
The committee held for 30 days a bill sponsored by Jackson to raise fees and increase regulation for roadside billboards.