Just three St. John residents — one a native St. Johnian — took the opportunity to help shape and reconfigure the V.I. Legislature which will serve Virgin Islanders for generations to come.
Larry Best, Paul Devine and Melville Samuel testified at the Fifth Constitutional Convention Committee on the Legislative Branch hearing on Wednesday evening, February 6, at the St. John Legislature. The committee is hosting hearings on all three islands to gather input from the public on what changes they would like to see in the V.I. Legislature.
Testifiers cited a feeling of not being heard at previous public meetings when convention delegates questioned the weak response to the St. John hearing, which was attended by less than 10 residents.
“There are not more people here tonight because these meetings are held on St. John but nothing happens,” said Samuel, a native St. Johnian born on the island in 1931. “So why be bothered?”
Senate Pay Raises
“We’ve just been through the Sirenusa zoning vote,” added Best. “This island was unanimous — there was not one person not on the developer’s payroll who spoke in favor of the rezoning, and it was taken away from us. We’re not too keen on the government at this point.”
Each testifier agreed that senators should not be able to approve pay raises for themselves, although the testifiers disagreed over how best to tackle the issue of senator salaries.
Virgin Islands residents should vote on senators’ pay raises, explained Samuel, who cited a conflict of interest with the current system which allows senators to approve raises for the subsequent Legislature.
“I don’t mind them getting a good salary, but pay the teachers first,” Samuel continued. “You have bills to pay and you give yourself a raise? That’s not right.”
The senators’ ability to give themselves pay raises only serves to worsen the public’s perception of the Legislature, explained Best.
Devine presented his plan to the delegates to form a part-time Legislature, which would meet 90 days per year — 45 days before April and 45 days after July. Senators would be paid a stipend for their work only when they showed up, explained Devine. The retired electrician also proposed limiting senators to two terms, and extending the terms from two years to four.
“Compensation for senators as it is now is very disturbing,” said Devine. “Ninety days is plenty of time to get things done. Eleventh hour transactions that currently take place and the ability of the Senate to hide bills is a power that shouldn’t exist.”
Each testifier supported the idea of forming a municipal government. Best, a land surveyor, suggested the implementation of a zoning board.
“There is absolutely no reason the Legislature should be determining zoning changes,” said Best. “That has to be done by a local group.”
Samuel supported the idea of separating the islands into districts, with each district electing a candidate to represent them. Devine also proposed dividing the islands as a means of establishing municipal government.
“The islands should be split up into towns and cities, and the central government remains to get money to those cities,” he said. “Without both a central government and municipalities, you’re doing a disservice to St. John. The need to create an abundance of laws in the central government is not as necessary with a municipal government.”
The issue of representation for St. John in the V.I. Legislature was also raised by each testifier. Samuel acknowledged the inability to have both St. John representation and a small senate. Federal law requires equal representation, and even one senator for St. John, which has an average population of 5,500, would require 10 senators for each St. Thomas and St. Croix, which have average populations of 55,000.
Public Meetings “Crucial”
Devine, however, proposed a 21-senator Legislature in his presentation.
“I believe that’s a good start,” he said. “It has its roots in clear representation for the island of St. John.”
Best thanked the committee for taking the time to gather public input, and asked them to ensure a V.I. Legislature which genuinely cares about Virgin Islanders is created.
“It’s absolutely crucial for you to get this right and to get public support,” said Best. “Without public meetings, this wouldn’t happen. Part of your challenge is to come up with a constitution so we have senators who are more interested in the welfare of the V.I. than themselves — I think most of the V.I. doesn’t feel we’re getting that now.”
Eight committee members including committee chair Eugene Petersen were present at the hearing. One committee member was absent. The committee will host a hearing on St. Thomas February 20 and on St. Croix March 5.