Guest Opinion: A Failure To Inform, An Inability To Engage

This past Friday night, a reporter from the St. John Tradewinds asked if I would be attending the forum on the V.I. Constitution. She explained that she saw a flyer posted regarding the event tomorrow evening at the Westin Resort. The next morning when I called the hotel, the operator was not able to locate any information on the event. Only after purchasing a newspaper around mid-day did I find the pertinent information on page 2. Oddly, no papers of that week carried any notice of the event. So can we, with good reason, accept Attorney Tregenza Roach’s statement at the forum that he “would look into the matter”, as a genuine position that he was indeed unaware of this? One has to wonder what papers does he read regularly, and what exactly are his responsibilities in the promotion of this forum?

Personally, I believe Dr. Laverne Ragsters’ most memorable comment of the evening was: “ The process is long and we are just at the beginning.” Aptly and really quite succinctly put; but given that the Legislatures’ Bill authorizing the effort was passed well over a year and some odd months ago, one cannot help but wonder why. What vast amount of preparation could possibly have been required in the meager presentation of this forum? The evening, to a discerning observer, could only have been noteworthy for what was not said. Among the long list of subject matter not covered, but clearly needed, was a concise overview of the history on state constitutional efforts, perhaps an inspiring review of the principals of good government, and an introduction to the topic of positive rights versus negative rights which would require both an overview of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal Legislation and a discussion of the Due Process Clause. All this, and perhaps more, could have made it not only an invaluable experience, but might have begun that needed process of framing discussions that inevitably should take place among the delegates selected.

Three questions came to mind during the presentations:

1. Are you going to provide an analysis of our current government structure? I asked this question believing that with an entire political science department at the university, there should be an adequate and able staff to provide for a needed comparison of what we have and what other options exist to facilitate needed improvements. The response was that they had decided not to go into such depth or detail.

2. Will you be providing a financial analysis of possible scenarios for establishing municipal government? Enough public sentiment has been expressed on this subject to warrant serious consideration. Over the years all efforts to request a break-down, by island, of government collections and expenditures has been opposed by each successive administration. A lack of such transparency is undoubtedly one source of the distrust so prevalent among the citizens of this territory. The response from the panel was: “No”.

3. Were verbatim minutes kept for any or all of the previous conventions, and if so, could they be posted on the web site? Debates on significant issues are material to any serious consideration of a process that quite often leads to various compromises in reaching acceptable language in a constitution. How else can the public come to an understanding of that process? Dr. Ragster was unsure of the existence of any such documents. Of the 233 state constitutional conventions held, there exist 114 records of the debates. Such narratives can offer many benefits, not only to a public, but to judges in cases that may be tried years later. Without such records, how are they to discern the meaning and intent of clauses that in their very nature might be considered complex even to constitutional scholars?

Well over a year has come and gone since the authorizing legislation was passed. The time for the process was extended, money appropriated, then more money added. To then allow this effort to lie dormant for so long is an injustice that probably cannot now be effectively remedied. This entire past year could have been fruitfully employed by inviting numerous experts and dignitaries to share their views and knowledge; to wait until after the selection of delegates is really bad timing. At the very least, the University could have provided a reading list from the extensive writings that exist on political philosophy. Personally, I would find it of great comfort if any group of potential delegates had taken the time to read such authors as Plato, Aristotle, Alfarabi, Machiavelli, Bacon, Hobbes, Locke, Montesquieu, Hume, Rousseau, Paine, De Tocqueville, Mill, and Dewey, just to mention a few. Will we only assume that they had the initiative and opportunity to read the United States Constitution, the Federalist Papers and the collection: “Major Political & Constitutional Documents of the United States Virgin Islands”. To assume that individuals from various walks of life, no matter how well meaning or inspired they may be by the task at hand, will have the ability to search out the very best of such a vast field of knowledge, is not a reasonable expectation.

Let us also hope that any media expenditures are earmarked solely for the furtherance of the public’s understanding of issues involved in this effort. The last thing needed is some glitzy campaign designed to only solicit public participation, as though this were a one-time event. Good government, after all, is not an event, but a process. That process requires first that the populace has a good educational foundation, and this necessarily must provide those qualities that make good citizens. We are not alone in the shortcomings of our educational institutions; an unfortunate fact that should not serve as an excuse to maintain things as they are now. The merits of good citizenship and good government require instruction; the failures of government are everywhere evident on their own.

When the Virgin Islands Humanities Council had their forum onSt. John last year, it was well advertised, in advance, and the crowd of St. Johnians was overflowing and very receptive to that evenings offerings. It was disingenuous of all those who, at this February 4th forum, offered comments suggesting that they had no idea what might be required to inspire more public participation. Even if the public had been notified well enough in advance, it was an event that, unfortunately, offered precious little by way of needed inspiration.

Hugo Roller,
Concerned Citizen, Farmer, St. John