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HomeNewsLocal governmentSenate Scrambles To Prevent Primary Election Pistarkle

Senate Scrambles To Prevent Primary Election Pistarkle

Caroline Fawkes, the supervisor of Elections, urged lawmakers to use detailed language in new legislation after the District Court ruled current laws around primary elections unconstitutionally vague. (Screenshot from V.I. Legislature Facebook live stream)

Legislators, elections officials, and legal experts wrestled Monday with how to answer basic elements of Virgin Islands elections thrown into question by a January court ruling.

The District Court order essentially barred the Board of Elections from deciding how a political party organizes its primary because of overly vague language in the law — but left in place rules mandating a primary election take place in August.

How the primary would be organized, candidates chosen, the number of candidates possible, whether there was time to change the law or circumvent the ruling, and if $250,000 of tax money should go to a primary process in the first place, were all questions debated in the more than three-hour legislative hearing. Clear answers were scarce.

Caroline Fawkes, the supervisor of Elections, was adamant that it was not too late to fix the problem by passing new legislation despite the elected-office nominations process, including potential delegates to the Sixth Constitutional Convention, opening Tuesday at noon and ending May 21 at 6 p.m.

“No primary election can be conducted by the Office of the Supervisor unless the Legislature address the issue and make any necessary changes to the law,” Fawkes said. “This discussion has been talked about for 10 years. There are laws that need to be specific, like I state, other states are doing primaries, so you need to research and see what we can do to reinforce our law to be more stringent.”

Although the hearing had moments of levity when Independent senators pointed out that, having no political party, the change in law did not affect their candidacy. Sen. Alma Francis Heyliger took offense, however, at the notion she or the other three non-Democrats were indifferent to the issue, saying she drafted several amendments to address the court ruling soon after learning of it.

“This is a whole craziness about to kickoff this election,” Francis Heyliger said. “I normally don’t be at a loss of words but I’m very traumatized today.”

Fellow Independent Sen. Kenneth Gittens said he’d long been an opponent of public funds used for party primaries.

“Get public money out of party elections,” Gittens said, adding that he had several proposed law changes in the works.

Fawkes said Elections officials were continuing to prepare for the upcoming primary as they would any other.

Senators asked Fawkes and the Legislature’s legal council what could be done legislatively to resolve the problem. They both said it was up to the law-making body to decide.

“We’re not crying wolf. We’re bringing this up so people can address it,” Fawkes said.

Several senators questioned why the Board of Elections had not called out earlier. Although Fawkes said she had forwarded Chief Judge Robert Molloy’s Jan. 10 ruling to the Senate, Attorney General’s Office, and others as soon as she learned of it, no action was taken.

In March, Elections officials met with the Attorney General’s Office and verbally asked them to appeal the ruling. They were asked to put their request in writing, she said, which they did April 15 — 96 days after the ruling and at least 36 days after an appeals deadline. The Attorney General’s Office had yet to reply to the request, Fawkes said.

Commenting on social media, Government House spokesperson Richard Motta Jr. said there are laws that prevent changes to election law from being enacted closer than six months to an election, meaning any legislative changes made now may not be able to take effect until December.

“Reading is fundamental,” Motta wrote on the U.S. Virgin Islands Legislature’s Facebook page.

Earlier in the hearing, the Committee of the Whole heard testimony on two proposed St. Croix zoning changes. One would bring Sandcastle On The Beach into compliance with existing zoning rules and allow for future expansion, and another would allow Robert Watty to expand his medical practice to include a pharmacy.

Watty, a board certified family practitioner and wound specialist, said his Clifton Hill property could rent space to a psychiatrist and other healthcare specialists, as well as add the pharmacy much needed after Kmart closed in June 2023.

Christopher Richardson, owner of Sandcastle, said he’d like to add 22 rooms as well as a spa, gym, and small restaurant. He also wanted to keep property buildings at three stories or less. The property was built before 1960, well before most zoning laws were put in place in 1972, he said.

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