Rules Committee Approves Three Nominees for Government House Cabinet Posts

Sen Diane Capehart chairs 35th Legislature Committee on Rules and the Judiciary. (Photo courtesy of V.I. Legislature)

Three of Gov. Albert Bryan’s picks to fill cabinet posts appeared before the Senate Committee on Rules and the Judiciary Thursday. All three won approval votes, but not all were unanimous.

Presentation of opening statements and the time taken for each committee member to question the three nominees took about five hours. All nominations are being forwarded to the full Senate for final consideration.

Acting Commissioners Harriette Nathalie Hodge at Licensing and Consumer Affairs, Louis Petersen at Agriculture, and Kevin McCurdy at Finance had been on the job for months since the governor nominated them to fill posts vacated by their predecessors. Each described the state of their departments and the performance of their agency teams. They also described the accomplishments each agency made during the time they served in the top spot.

Hodge made her appearance first, having been on the job for 90 days. Bryan nominated her July 31 after appointing former DLCA Commissioner Richard Evangelista as Government House legal counsel. “Should I be favorably confirmed, I will work side by side with the administration and the internal administration,” she said.

Lawmakers praised her as a rare public servant, one who rose through the ranks of her agency, and had been on the job for decades. “Today is a momentous and an emotional day for me. Dec. 7 marks the 25th anniversary of service with the DLCA,” Hodge said.

Petersen is returning to Agriculture after serving as commissioner in the administration of former Gov. John deJongh. He was encouraged to resume his duties after former Agriculture Commissioner Terrence Nelson vacated the post in early March.

Now, six months back in leadership at Agriculture, Petersen told lawmakers about the need to address staff shortages and increase salaries for existing employees. Committee members heard the acting commissioner predict salary negotiations with unions representing Agriculture workers could begin as soon as January.

The nominee also spoke about initiatives to help V.I. farmers better manage their livelihoods. One of them was the launch of a business-of-agriculture program through the University of the Virgin Islands Small Business Development Center.

Committee members questioned Petersen about the pending loss of the agency’s veterinarian and the administration of the Agriculture Fund, approved by the 35th Legislature.

Sen. Kenneth Gittens asked how long the acting commissioner had been on the job this time around.

“Six months,” Petersen said. Gittens then asked how long had he known the veterinarian was retiring.

“Since June,” the nominee said. He added that talks were taking place with local, private vets about working for Agriculture under contract.

St. Croix Sen. Franklin Johnson appeared skeptical. He questions the use of the fund during the previous tenure to pay for the commissioner’s housing.

The nominee explained that he was the first commissioner at his agency whose management style was to travel back and forth between the two districts.

“Most officials rent hotel rooms. My team found an efficiency for me and saved $1,500 a month.” Petersen said.

But Sen. Milton Potter joined Sen. Donna Frett-Gregory in saying the governor could not have picked a better candidate.

The vote to approve Petersen for a second appointment as Agriculture commissioner was six-to-one, with Johnson voting “No.”

McCurdy’s testimony began around 1 p.m. He began by addressing the huge responsibility attached to heading the Finance Department. “I understand the gravity of the department’s obligation to the people of the territory,” McCurdy said.

Non-Rules Committee member Donna Frett-Gregory cautioned him, saying, “This job you are about to embark on is not an easy job.”

The Finance commissioner-designee was the newest nominee, announced by Bryan in mid-September. He replaced former Commissioner Bosede Bruce, who left the job in February.

Among his top concerns were the need to hire a payroll officer and the need to improve working conditions on St. Croix. “The building on St. Croix remains in disrepair since the 2017 hurricanes,” he said.

Gittens asked about any progress made to improve administrative paperwork. “Eighty percent lack of documentation is no good, absolutely no good. This is not just your agency; this is across the board,” Gittens said.

Committee members also questioned McCurdy about a recent announcement from the Division of Personnel about retroactive payouts and updates on survivor’s claims. Sen. Angel Bolques Jr. said he thought that would be the first topic raised during the question-and-answer session with the acting Finance chief.

In the end, all three cabinet nominees won the approval of the committee.

Committee members attending on Thursday included Chairwoman Diane Capehart, Potter, Gittens, Bolques, Johnson, Sens. Carla Joseph and Marise James.