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Budgetary Concerns and Election Integrity Debated at Senate Committee Hearing; ESVI Accuses OMB of Legal Oversight in Funding Proposal



In what was meant to be a standard budgetary discussion, issues of election integrity dominated the conversation when election officials testified before the Senate Committee on Budget, Appropriations, and Finance last week.

Senator Donna Frett-Gregory, Chair of the Finance Committee, frequently noted that some topics broached were more suited for other committee discussions. Yet, these concerns echoed when Board of Elections Chair, Alecia Wells, and Elections Supervisor, Caroline Fawkes, stepped forward to testify.

Highlighting their faith in the recent election procedures, Ms. Wells read a statement from the board, emphasizing the rigorous measures they’ve implemented, namely the “triple redundancy accuracy protocol”. She pointedly described skeptics of the election process as “candidates grappling with loss”. Furthermore, the board’s dismissal of these doubts was anchored in the Superior Court’s precedents concerning Virgin Islands elections.

Drawing attention to local media, Wells highlighted allegations surrounding a senator-at-large’s qualification. However, she countered this by underlining how other island election bodies, like Tortola’s, have sought guidance from the Elections System of the Virgin Islands (ESVI).

A noteworthy mention was the viral video alleging misconduct by a deputy supervisor in the election process. Ms. Wells categorically denied these claims, referencing investigations by both the Federal Bureau of Investigation and ESVI which exonerated the accused. She empathetically noted the emotional toll this controversy has taken on the individual.

Shifting to broader concerns, Fawkes raised the alarm on the growing mistrust and, sometimes malicious, scrutiny aimed at election officials. Citing a Brennan Center poll, she informed that a significant portion of surveyed officials expressed concerns about their safety due to the rising tide of unfounded allegations. She asserted that this disturbing trend wasn’t isolated to the mainland but was seeping into the Virgin Islands as well. However, proactive measures are in the pipeline to counter this, she assured.

Delving into the crux of the hearing – the budgets – Fawkes laid out the financial requirements. The Board’s request of nearly $430,000, up more than 100% from last year, caught attention. A substantial portion of this would be earmarked for travel, necessitated by training requirements, explained Wells. Meanwhile, ESVI sought a $3 million allocation, which was $500,000 more than the proposal by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). Fawkes stressed the importance of this increased allocation, especially given unforeseen expenses such as approved raises for managerial roles. In her view, the OMB’s proposal did not align with the legal stipulation for biennial salary increments.

Senator Angel Bolques Jr. probed deeper into how underfunding affected ESVI operations. Fawkes painted a picture of the challenges, ranging from ballooning costs to dependency on federal grants. On the topic of acquiring properties to reduce rental overheads, she expressed skepticism given past promises.

Highlighting the urgency with the upcoming 2024 elections, Fawkes stated a separate requirement of $950,000 for smooth conduct. She stressed on timely funding, indicating that delays could hamper the entire election cycle. Another crucial point was the loss of funds, amounting to over $189,000, at the end of the fiscal year, prompting a call for longer-term fund accessibility.

Fawkes shared detailed voter registration statistics, emphasizing the need for increased engagement and interaction with the public. The introduction of a more expansive database was also on the horizon, which would further refine the accuracy of voter lists.

However, as the hearing reached its final phase, a disagreement flared between Senator Alma Francis-Heyliger and Wells over the responsibility for candidate legitimacy checks. With Frett-Gregory’s intervention, clarity was achieved, confirming that the onus lies with the elections supervisor.

Wrapping up, Frett-Gregory expressed her exasperation over the deviations from the primary topic but also voiced appreciation for ESVI’s dedication to upholding democracy in the territory. She concluded, “No system is flawless, but we stand by the work you do.”

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Conn Davis II and Lindel Williams, Nominated to Waste Management Board, Impress Lawmakers



Governor Albert Bryan Jr.’s nominees, Conn Davis II and Lindel Williams, have garnered significant support from lawmakers on the Committee on Rules and Judiciary for their appointments to the Waste Management Authority (WMA) Board of Directors.

Both nominees come with substantial financial management backgrounds and expressed a strong commitment to enhancing waste management systems. During the committee meeting on Thursday, they articulated their vision for a more efficient and effective waste management infrastructure in the Virgin Islands.

Conn Davis II, poised to represent St. Thomas on the board, brings experience as a financial trader and has worked with companies focused on converting waste to clean energy. “I’ll bring a great work ethic, strong financial and operational expertise, and a deep global business network to the V.I. Waste Management Authority,” Davis assured legislators. He emphasized that waste management is “one of the most fundamental and essential functions of government.”

Davis advocated for a thorough assessment of the current waste management scenario, incorporating best practices, and setting clear goals. He stressed the importance of accountability to various stakeholders, including staff, citizens, vendors, contractors, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Additionally, Davis proposed exploring creative funding mechanisms, such as an advanced disposal fee on incoming goods at ports of entry, as an alternative to the existing tipping fees.

Lindel Williams, nominated to represent St. Croix, is a military veteran with international engineering and construction experience. As a former commissioner of the Department of Public Works, he oversaw waste management operations. Williams highlighted the necessity of accountability to the public, compliance, and responsible use of public funds. He also pointed out the need for innovative financing, including public-private partnerships.

Williams outlined several goals, including employee training, rebranding the WMA as a desirable workplace, repairing the sewer system, building new pump stations, and improving landfill management. Lawmakers were particularly impressed with his ability to manage multi-million dollar portfolios.

During the hearing, senators posed various questions regarding the nominees’ strategies for wastewater management, reducing green waste, long-term plans, public education, and waste collection fees. Davis emphasized the importance of changing public perceptions of waste management, linking it to health, beautification, and tourism. Williams agreed, highlighting the need for robust public education to shift mindsets.

Despite awaiting formal confirmation, both nominees offered numerous suggestions to improve waste management. Senator Kenneth Gittens praised their financial expertise, stating, “the Virgin Islands does not have a money problem, but rather a money management problem.” He urged the nominees to leverage their skills to enhance the authority’s operations and proposed new legislation to improve the WMA and ensure a cleaner, healthier environment in the territory.

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Bill Allowing Government Employees to Seek Public Office Without Taking Leave Defeated in Senate



Another attempt by Senator Marise James to pass legislation permitting government employees to seek political office while employed by the Government of the Virgin Islands (GVI) has stalled. The motion to move the bill forward during Thursday’s meeting of the Committee on Rules and Judiciary failed as her colleagues did not second it.

Proponents argue that the defeat of this legislation maintains a significant barrier for government employees wishing to enter politics. Currently, they must take unpaid leave to run for office, leading to financial and professional instability. This requirement discourages many potential candidates, thereby limiting competition and benefiting incumbent lawmakers who face less competition.

Bill 35-0032, introduced last September, would allow employees to seek office while employed unless prohibited by federal or other laws. The bill faced substantial opposition from lawmakers, including Senators Kenneth Gittens and Carla Joseph, over concerns about conflicts of interest, misuse of taxpayer dollars, and potential policy violations.

Amendments were recommended, including changes by Elections Supervisor Caroline Fawkes and Chief Justice Rhys Hodge. The chief justice advised excluding judicial branch employees from the bill, citing strict guidelines on their political activity. Although Senator James complied with this request and considered other amendments, the latest version of the bill was not shared with invited testifiers nor posted on the Legislature’s website as of press time.

Senator James argued that requiring government employees to vacate their posts to run for office is unfair and disrupts government operations, especially during election cycles. She suggested that her proposal would increase the pool of candidates and reduce the financial burden of campaigning.

While invited testifiers generally supported the amended measure, they suggested further refinements. Ms. Fawkes recommended changing the start of mandatory leave for government employees contesting political office to the absentee ballot casting date rather than the first day of early voting, as the latter is flexible and varies each election cycle.

Despite some support, the bill faced overwhelming opposition from lawmakers. Senator Angel Bolques Jr. expressed concerns about potential issues and ambiguities, while Senator Franklin Johnson worried about conflicts of interest between official duties and political ambitions. Senator Kenneth Gittens reiterated his skepticism, fearing that the bill might encourage misuse of government resources.

The motion to advance the proposal out of committee did not receive a second, leaving Senator James “speechless.” Despite this setback, she emphasized the need to avoid the financial hardship associated with campaigning and expressed hope that future efforts might succeed in changing the law.

Bill 35-0032 remains in the Committee on Rules and Judiciary at the chair’s call.

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Jurors, Witnesses to Receive Increased Payments if Proposed Measure Becomes Law



The Senate Committee on Rules & Judiciary has advanced a proposal aimed at increasing compensation for jurors and witnesses in the Virgin Islands. Currently, jurors receive $50 per day under federal law, while witnesses receive $40. Local statutes, dating back to 1957, offer witnesses only $4 to $8 per day, and local courts established in 1976 pay jurors $40 per day, plus $5 for transportation costs.

Bill 35-0121 proposes increasing these rates to $80 per day for jurors, payable in $40 half-day increments. Jurors who participate in selection but are not chosen will receive $20 per day, a point of contention for Senator Marise James, who argues for equal compensation for all jurors. Additionally, the bill includes provisions for reasonable compensation for travel, parking, and a subsistence allowance for meals and lodging.

Government employees are excluded from these payments. Witnesses would also receive $80 per day for court attendance, plus a $100 allowance for subsistence, travel time, and inter-island travel costs if they live outside the district where the court proceedings are held.

Senator Novelle Francis, co-sponsor of the bill, emphasized the financial burden jury service imposes on citizens, which can hinder the ability to form a diverse jury. Chief Territorial Public Defender Julie Todman supported the measure, stating that adequate juror compensation is crucial for maintaining a robust judicial system. She highlighted the American Bar Association’s stance that juror compensation should cover routine expenses such as travel, parking, meals, and childcare. This measure, she noted, would elevate the Virgin Islands from one of the lowest to one of the highest in juror compensation.

Deputy Attorney General Ian Clement voiced support for the bill but pointed out that the proposed legislation lacks clarity on who will fund the increased payments and suggested that local government employees should not receive payments when testifying on behalf of the government. He also questioned the exclusion of federal employees from these payments.

Regina Peterson, Administrator of Courts for the Judiciary of the Virgin Islands, proposed that the new pay rate should be a minimum threshold, allowing adjustments for inflation and cost of living. She also noted the projected doubling of jury service costs to approximately half a million dollars annually, to be included in the judiciary’s upcoming budget submission. Ms. Peterson clarified that while the judiciary handles jury compensation, witness payments are the responsibility of the party calling the witness.

Jessica McKinney, chair of the Legislation and Law Reform Committee of the Virgin Islands Bar Association, recommended aligning the juror payments with the current minimum wage, raising the base to $84 per day to maintain consistency. She suggested further adjustments to enhance the bill’s flexibility.

Despite calls for language amendments, Bill 35-0121 passed unanimously in committee, with further discussions expected to refine and strengthen the legislation.

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