Senators-Elect, Staff Begin First Day of Senate Academy

From left, Senators-elect Kenneth Gittens, Donna Frett Gregory and Alicia Barnes stand up to be introduced at Monday’s conference.
From left, Senators-elect Kenneth Gittens, Donna Frett Gregory and Alicia Barnes stand up to be introduced at Monday’s conference.

The Virgin Islands Legislature hosted a crash course Monday on the workings of the Senate in an effort to help neophyte senators and their staff hit the ground running when the 33rd Legislature gets sworn in on Jan. 14.

“Just the internal workings. As you come in, how you and your staff navigate the business and day-to-day affairs as a senator working with central staff of the V.I. Legislature,” explained Senate President Myron Jackson (D-STT), who was re-elected in November.

Toya Malone, executive director of the Legislature, explains the Senate's staff structure.
Toya Malone, executive director of the Legislature, explains the Senate’s staff structure.

Some 70 participants, including senators-elect and senate staff members, convened in the Small Business Development office on St. Thomas for the two-day Pre-Legislative Conference. The conference is held after every election, serving as orientation for newly elected senators, or a refresher course for senators-elect with prior experience in the position. Various heads of intra-senate divisions gave presentations on topics ranging from the general organizational structure of the Legislature to making travel arrangements to drafting legislation.

The session may be more germane this year than in years past, since the 33rd Legislature is seeing an unprecedented turnover. Nine of the 15 senators – 60 percent – will be new when the Legislature is gaveled into session.

At Monday’s gathering, Jackson welcomed new senators and took the opportunity to draw attention to consequential topics, including the reapportionment initiative that will appear on the ballot in a special election in March and the Virgin Islands’ unincorporated territory status.

Toya Malone, executive director of the Legislature, steered the day’s sessions.

The senators-elect came to the conference with varying degrees of knowledge about the Legislature’s inner mechanisms. It was Senator-elect Javan James’ first time to attend a Pre-Legislative Conference in that capacity, but he worked as a staffer in the 31st and 32nd Legislature prior to getting elected in November.

“With the Pre-Legislative Conference we’re having right now, it just adds more information to what I already know and to my staff,” James said.

James said he was pretty familiar with the information shared on Monday, but added that he appreciated Jackson’s reiteration of the history of the Legislature.

“It builds more pride and confidence in an individual to know where we came from to where we’re at right now, so it gives me that Virgin Islands pride,” James said.

St. Croix Senator-elect Allison Degazon came to the conference with neither senatorial experience nor time spent working inside the Legislature.

“It’s really very enlightening. We’re being brought up to date on a lot of details and information that we need to make us successful,” Degazon said.

According to Degazon, she was particularly interested in the nuances of parliamentary procedures.

“Just knowing when we’re allowed to say what, you know, just the overall protocol,” Degazon said. “So this entire conference allows us to get more of that information so we’re ready to go once we’re sworn in.”

Current Senate President and Senator-elect Myron Jackson welcomes new senators.
Current Senate President and Senator-elect Myron Jackson welcomes new senators.

Jackson agreed, saying, “That’s a big one because that takes some time.”

St. Croix Senator-elect Kenneth Gittens is returning to the Senate after a two-year hiatus, having lost his bid for re-election in 2016 but won in 2018. According to Gittens, who has attended the conference in the past, the first day was informative but the procedures remained the same.

“I’m hoping that, especially the first-term senators take away a lot of what’s being said here today to include the staff who will guide us through the 33rd Legislature,” Gittens said.

Gittens added that here are still some policies in place that may need to be changed or tightened, including internal rules on travel policies and per diem reimbursements. Gittens said that traveling senators, especially in cases of inter-island travel, must be given the option of a more immediate course of action if, say, a meeting went longer than expected and they missed a flight. Currently, the Senate’s Business Division requires that senatorial staff to contact them for recommended travel changes and they will reach out to the airline.

Then there’s St. Thomas Senator-elect Athneil “Bobby” Thomas, who was in charge of Senate Media for many years. While he has not served as a lawmaker, Thomas demonstrated his knowledge of legislative procedures, and the practical consequences of actions like submitting an agenda late to the Division of Journal, and causing confusion on the Senate floor.

Most of the senators-elect are in the middle of selecting members of their staffs, something that the Legislature’s Human Resources Division said they should complete as soon as possible. According to Malone, staff selection should be a careful undertaking.

“Your staff can cost you votes,” Malone said. “So please be mindful, make sure when you choose your staff, you choose people with the same values and character that you need to fulfill your mission.”

Degazon already had this nugget of wisdom in mind.

“I’m very meticulous when it comes my staffing because I’m a very high-energy individual, so I need to pick individuals who can stay up with me and keep pace and can just stay motivated throughout the process because this is really a lot of work,” Degazon said.

Jackson said the transition to the 33rd Legislature is “going wonderful.” According to Jackson, the rules of the Senate call for the senate president to have an oath of office committee, the formation of which began in late November. That committee also will function as a transitional committee, he said.

According to Jackson, all newly elected lawmakers will attend another conference on Jan. 10 and 11, this time focused on leaderships skills and administered by the Government of State Legislatures.

Jackson said he was looking forward to Tuesday’s presentations, including Dr. Marilyn Braithewaite-Hall’s session on mental health, an area Jackson said is normally taken for granted.

“We come in and we think we’re all well, and many times we’re really, over a period of time, very stressed out,” he said. “I want senators to understand how to strike a balance between family and your work. This really does a take a toll, especially on your family.”

Jackson was mum on the breakdown of the Senate majority, saying all the details, including who will take top leadership roles, will be revealed at a press conference Wednesday on St. Croix. During that event, Senate Democrats will also reveal committee assignments – including committee chairpersons, vice-chairpersons and members.

Also present at the Pre-Legislative Conference on Monday were Senators-elect Alicia Barnes, Marvin Blyden, Dwayne DeGraff, Donna Frett Gregory and Stedman Hodge, Jr. Senators Kurt Vialet, Novelle Francis and Janelle Sarauw were absent.