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

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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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New Legislative Effort to Address Non-Consensual Sharing of Explicit Images in the Virgin Islands

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The Virgin Islands Senate recently took a significant step toward protecting individuals from the unauthorized dissemination of sexually explicit images, commonly referred to as “revenge porn.” Senator Donna Frett-Gregory spearheaded the initiative, presenting Bill 35-0182 to the Committee on Homeland Security, Justice, and Public Safety. This proposed legislation aims to amend Title 14, Chapter 51 of the Virgin Islands Code, introducing stringent measures against the non-consensual sharing of explicit images.

With the advent of digital technology, the phenomenon of revenge porn has emerged as a disturbing trend, victimizing individuals by exposing their privacy to public scrutiny without consent. The bill proposes to tackle this issue head-on by categorizing the first offense as a misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in prison, and elevating subsequent offenses to felony status. Victims would have two years to file a criminal complaint from the moment they become aware of the incident.

The Virgin Islands joins a concerted effort across 48 states, the District of Columbia, Guam, and Puerto Rico, where similar laws have been established to curb this invasive practice. The bill specifically targets the intentional distribution of non-consensual sexually explicit material aimed at harassment, intimidation, or causing harm to the victim, marking it as the territory’s 15th domestic violence crime.

Timothy Perry, representing the Department of Justice for St. Thomas, St. John, and Water Island, acknowledged the bill’s intent but suggested refinements to its language to eliminate potential legal defenses that could hinder prosecution. He highlighted the need for clarity on the intent to harass and knowledge of the necessity for consent.

The Virgin Islands Police Department (VIPD), through Assistant Commissioner Mario Brooks, expressed support for the bill, underscoring the traumatic impact of non-consensual pornography on victims. Brooks, however, raised concerns about the bill’s age limitations, pointing out the significant incidence of such crimes among minors, especially within educational settings.

The bill has ignited a broader discussion on the resources required for effective enforcement, with both the VIPD and the Department of Justice emphasizing the need for a comprehensive plan to accompany the new legislation. The Office of the Territorial Public Defender and the Women’s Coalition of St. Croix have also contributed to the dialogue, emphasizing the importance of addressing repeat offenders and the challenges faced by victims in reporting these crimes due to societal stigma.

The legislative committee’s overwhelming support for the bill, coupled with a call for public awareness campaigns by Senator Alma Francis-Heyliger, underscores the community’s commitment to combating this issue. Dr. Clema Lewis of the Women’s Coalition of St. Croix voiced her organization’s readiness to lead educational efforts, highlighting the critical role of awareness in prevention.

As the bill moves to the Committee on Rules and Judiciary, the Virgin Islands stands on the cusp of significant legal reform aimed at safeguarding personal dignity and privacy in the digital age, reflecting a collective resolve to address and prevent the harm caused by the non-consensual sharing of sexually explicit images.

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Governor Bryan’s Administration Advances School Upgrades Amid Budget Scrutiny

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In a proactive move towards improving educational infrastructure, the administration under Governor Bryan is making significant strides. Amid a focused dialogue with the Committee on Education and Workforce Development, concerns over financial stewardship within school renovation projects were brought to light by Senator Kenneth Gittens. The senator’s inquiry into fiscal responsibility and project efficiency underscored the administration’s commitment to transparency and accountability.

Senator Gittens, expressing his trust in the Department of Education’s leadership, voiced his apprehensions regarding contractor performance, sparked by student advocacy for better school conditions. His concerns led to a deeper examination of the projects managed by Custom Builders VI, particularly focusing on the air conditioning installation at St. Croix Educational Complex High School and the rehabilitation efforts at Gladys A Abraham Elementary School on St. Thomas.

Dionne Wells-Hedrington, the Education Commissioner, alongside Acting Chief Operations Officer Alan Fleming, provided insights into the project statuses. Fleming assured the committee of the near completion of the St. Croix project, highlighting the meticulous approach to ensuring quality and durability in educational facilities.

Addressing the queries raised by Senator Gittens regarding the costs associated with specific repairs, Fleming elaborated on the complexities and standards involved in commercial-grade installations, differentiating them from residential counterparts. This distinction underscores the administration’s focus on investing in lasting infrastructure that meets the specific needs of educational environments.

The Department of Property and Procurement has disclosed that Custom Builders’ contract for the Gladys Abraham Elementary School renovation is valued at approximately $4.87 million, demonstrating a substantial investment in the territory’s educational future. The air conditioning project at the Complex, with its near $825,000 budget, is pivotal for creating a conducive learning environment.

Despite Senator Gittens’ reservations about certain project costs and timelines, the administration’s dialogue with contractors and ongoing assessments ensure that the projects not only meet but exceed expectations. The acknowledgment of vendor responsiveness challenges by Mrs. Wells-Hedrington is a testament to the administration’s proactive stance on improving project delivery and efficiency.

As the St. Croix Educational Complex awaits the final piece for its air conditioning upgrade, the administration’s revised timeline reflects a commitment to thoroughness and quality. Governor Bryan’s focus on enhancing the educational landscape through such projects is a clear indication of his dedication to the well-being and success of the USVI’s students.

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Navigating Development in USVI Historic Districts: A Balanced Approach

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In the heart of discussions aimed at refining regulations for property development within the USVI’s historic downtown areas, a broader understanding emerged concerning the balance between preservation and progress. During a recent Senate Committee on Disaster Recovery, Infrastructure, and Planning session, key insights were shared on the nature of renovations in these cherished districts.

Acting Deputy Director Sean Krigger of the USVI State Historic Preservation Office, addressing inquiries from Senator Milton Potter, clarified the misconception around the complexity of undertaking development projects in the historic districts. Krigger emphasized that the regulatory framework for renovations in these areas closely mirrors the standards applied across St. Thomas, St. John, or St. Croix, aiming to dispel concerns over excessive bureaucracy or prohibitive costs.

The conversation, sparked by Senator Potter’s questions on what stifles interest in developing the historic districts, veered into a debate on whether financial burdens or bureaucratic hurdles were the primary deterrents. While Krigger and Jean Pierre Oriol, Commissioner of the Department of Planning and Natural Resources, pointed to escalating construction costs as a significant barrier, Senator Kenneth Gittens suggested that the stringency of Historic Preservation Commission’s (HPC) requirements might be the root cause. Gittens advocated for legislation to moderate certain restrictions, aiming to facilitate easier development processes.

Contrary to the perception of inflexibility, Krigger illustrated the HPC’s adaptability, highlighting innovations in construction that have eased the renovation process. Notably, the commission has approved the use of locally manufactured, cement-based bricks that mimic traditional Danish bricks in appearance but offer practical advantages. This approach exemplifies the HPC’s willingness to embrace modern solutions that respect historical aesthetics without compromising on quality or safety.

Krigger further showcased advancements such as cement boards designed to replicate the look of traditional wood siding, once the preferred material of the HPC. These fireproof boards exemplify the office’s effort to integrate safety with historical fidelity. Additionally, Krigger pointed out that many materials historically used in the districts remain readily accessible, indicating that the HPC’s guidelines are not as prohibitive as commonly believed.

The HPC’s guidelines, covering a spectrum from paint colors to architectural additions, are crafted to offer clarity and flexibility to property owners seeking to navigate the preservation requirements. This was underscored by St. Thomas HPC member Enrique Rodriguez, who noted the commission’s high approval rate for applications, challenging the narrative of an overly rigid HPC.

This discussion reflects a concerted effort to balance historic preservation with the realities of modern development, highlighting the USVI’s commitment to maintaining its cultural heritage while fostering economic growth and innovation in its historic districts.

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