St. John resident Ronnie Jones urged the audience of less than 10 people to “make history” by participating in the process of establishing a V.I. Constitution at a Monday evening, July 16 forum.
“People don’t correlate this to making history,” Jones said at a forum he hosted with St. John resident Paul Devine, who ran unsuccessfully for a St. Thomas-St. John District delegate seat. “We need to get people to be more involved.”
Devine blamed the lack of interest and low voter turnout during the delegates election on the University of the Virgin Islands, which was charged with conducting an educational campaign to keep the public informed during the process to establish the Constitution.
“Many of the people at the polls said, ‘who are you and what is this all about?’” said Devine. “There’s not enough education. I can’t believe UVI spent a whole half-million dollars to educate the public.”
The public was so uneducated regarding the Constitutional Convention, in fact, that many St. Croix voters believed they were voting to replace Delegate to Congress Donna Christensen, explained at-large delegate Craig Barshinger.
The delegates themselves may need some education as well — Barshinger was the only delegate from the pool of 15 St. Thomas-St. John District delegates who came to the meeting.
“A lot of the delegates thought they weren’t invited,” said Bar-shinger. “This is exactly what’s supposed to be happening. Local groups should come together and meet like this.”
Jones vowed to personally call and invite each delegate prior to the group’s next forum, scheduled for Monday, July 30, at 7 p.m. at the Fish Trap.
Grassroots forums like the one organized by Jones and Devine are important to the success of the Constitution, explained Bar-shinger.
“We want people to want a Constitution so bad they can taste it,” he said. “Grassroots forums are really what’s important.”
Delegates will use the 1981 Constitution — the fourth failed effort to establish such a document in the V.I. — as a basis during the convention. Devine has confidence the fifth attempt to create a V.I. Constitution can succeed, he explained.
“There’s a good chance that if we educate people, this could be the one,” said Devine. “The last Constitution failed in 1981 because people didn’t know what was happening, or what they were voting for.”
Constitution May Require Changes to V.I. Code
The question and answer portion of the forum kicked off with Devine asking Barshinger his thoughts on writing a Constitution that may require the V.I. Legislature to change several laws.
“The whole idea is that we’ve already got a house on a foundation that we found,” said Barshinger. “We’re preparing to make a new, sturdier foundation, after which we’ll have to ease the house back down and redo the house. I would not worry about how much change had to be made to the V.I. Code — we’re here to build the foundation, we’re not here to build a wall.”
The “building of the wall” will be the responsibility of the V.I. Legislature once the Constitution is adopted, Barshinger explained.
Municipal government was a hot topic at the forum, with the possibility of a local zoning board to control St. John’s fast-increasing development raised by St. John resident Larry Best.
“It can be pretty controversial, and it doesn’t always work well, but it can’t be worse than the Senate,” said Best. “I don’t think the Senate is ever responsive to the community.”
Controlling the island’s borders, an issue raised by St. Johnian Alvis Christian, could help improve local education, Christian explained.
“There was a time that so many people came in, the education system got overblown,” said Christian. “What can be done so we don’t face this issue in the future?”
St. John also needs more local representation, Christian continued.
“Ask yourself, in terms of directors and commissioners, how many reside on St. John?” he said. “What you see is no political representation for St. John. Who will look out for our interests?”
“I really would like St. John to have more control over just about every facet of life,” St. John resident Lee Stanciauskas added.
Having true municipal governments may be difficult when some islands earn more through taxes than others, explained Barshinger.
“If we had a local government, we’d have to have some way of tracking the money that came in,” he said. “We don’t really want an affluent area in the V.I. to hold all the money. It will be a tough decision, and I don’t know how to do that yet.”
Don’t Complain If Not Involved
Keeping the public informed throughout the following year is one challenge the delegates hope to face with the help of local media, explained Barshinger.
“We’re going to ask the media to publish the document,” he said. “It would be great to publish the entire fourth Constitution, with a column explaining it in plain English. People could give us input — we don’t see any other way.”
The small group of residents who attended the July 16 forum cited different reasons for attending. For Stanciauskas, the forum was a place to gather information on the upcoming Constitutional Convention, she explained.
“I’m always looking for more information about what’s going on with the Constitution,” said Stanciauskas. “I feel like I need to take part in getting more educated about what’s happening. I don’t think people should complain about the government if they don’t get involved.”
Janice Jones attended the forum to be involved in the history of the Fifth Constitutional Convention, she explained.
“To me, this is history in the remaking,” she said. “It’s important to come and hear the different concerns that people have, and how they are willing to change history this time around. The panel does a good job in explaining what we’re actually doing.”
St. John Most Active
St. Thomas resident Hector Squiabro, who ran unsuccessfully for a St. Thomas-St. John District delegate seat, made the trek to St. John to continue to be involved in the process, he explained.
“I still believe in the process and I’m trying to be as involved as possible,” said Squiabro. “It seems that St. John is the most active, yet St. John is the most disenfranchised.”
The Fifth Constitutional Convention will convene on July 23, and delegates will have one year to come up with a Constitution, which must be approved with a two-thirds vote. The document is then submitted to the governor, who submits it to the President of the United States. The President has 60 days to transmit the document to the U.S. Congress, which has 60 days to review it.
The Constitution is then returned to the V.I., where registered voters will either approve or deny the document.