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Committee Retains IT Personnel Vetting Bill for Further Amendments



The draft legislation targeting the thorough vetting of personnel within the Bureau of Information Technology and other governmental IT departments, alongside employees handling classified data, requires substantial refinement. This sentiment echoed among the Senate Committee on Homeland Security, Justice, and Public Safety members during a recent assembly, leading to a unanimous decision to retain Bill 35-0086 for additional amendments.

Concerns arose from several testifiers, prompting a collective pause for reassessment. Mark Bough, the Chief Technology Officer at the Bureau of Information Technology, acknowledged the legislation’s objective but advocated for the background check responsibility to reside within the human resources domain— a sector adept in efficiently managing such affairs. Bough also voiced reservations about solely utilizing the National Crime and Investigation Center (NCIC) for these checks due to its criminal activity focus, proposing a broader exploration of specialized databases or alliances with law enforcement agencies to ascertain precise and dependable background checks.

VI Police Department Commissioner, Ray Martinez, highlighted the bill’s overreach concerning classified information, mentioning that existing protocols already mandate background checks for all personnel. He also underscored the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s restriction against employing NCIC criminal record checks for hiring purposes.

VITEMA Director, Daryl Jaschen, critiqued the draft for its vague nature, urging for enhancements to provide more “substance.” His argument pointed out the lack of classified data within the Virgin Islands Government and its Information Technology Bureau, rendering the bill’s reference to classified information irrelevant.

The session revealed that the Water and Power Authority already implements a comprehensive background check process for potential hires, encompassing criminal background scrutiny at local, national, and federal levels, alongside credit, drug, and Department of Homeland Security checks. Similarly, the VI Port Authority undertakes background checks across its aviation, marine, and administrative sectors.

A notable void in the discussion was the absence of representatives from the Division of Personnel, a fact lamented by the senators present. This omission underscored the necessity for further dialogues and amendments to ensure a well-rounded and effective bill.

Senator Ray Fonseca expressed a desire to amend the legislation to accommodate rehabilitated individuals within the justice system, promoting a “second chance” ethos. This sentiment found resonance when Police Commissioner Martinez acknowledged the potential for integrating “second chance” provisions within the legislative framework, provided the Senate endorses such a move.

Senator Dwayne DeGraff, the bill’s sponsor, concurred with the necessity for revisions, emphasizing the original intent for departmental rule formulation. However, he acknowledged the legal stipulation for mandatory criminal background checks during the hiring process.

The journey of Bill 35-0086 has spanned two years, with Senator DeGraff acknowledging the imperative for a more inclusive discussion, particularly with the Division of Personnel, to address the capacity for conducting background checks. Despite the delay, DeGraff’s resolve remains firm on expediting the amendment process to propel the bill forward through the legislative channels without undue prolongation.

His determination underscores a collective objective among the committee members and stakeholders to refine, amend, and advance the legislation to ensure a robust vetting system for IT personnel within the governmental framework.

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Extensive Efforts and Over $1 Million Expenditure in Bovoni Landfill Fire Mitigation Detailed to Lawmakers



In a detailed briefing on Wednesday, lawmakers were informed about the extensive multi-agency response to the prolonged Bovoni Landfill fire that occurred in September. Daryl Jaschen, the V.I. Territorial Management Agency Director, represented various government bodies in his testimony.

Jaschen highlighted the unified command’s rigorous efforts, which met bi-daily until October 4, utilizing over 1.85 million gallons of water amidst challenging dry conditions at the landfill. He emphasized the crucial support from Puerto Rico’s National Guard, facilitated by an Emergency Management Assistance Compact, for which $74,000 will be reimbursed. This amount is additional to the over $1 million expended locally on the response.

Furthermore, Jaschen shed light on the qualitative data collection during the firefighting operations, aimed at providing vital information on health conditions, safety, clean water access, and evacuation procedures. This data was pivotal for the V.I. Department of Health’s educational campaigns on health risks from smoke and pollutants. Plans for a townhall meeting by VIFEMS, VITEMA, and the Department of Health were disclosed, focusing on using this data to identify community priorities and solutions.

Preventative measures were also discussed. Since October 1, approximately 22,500 cubic yards of green waste have been relocated within the landfill. An ongoing effort involves covering this area with over 30,000 cubic yards of material to avert future fires. The landfill has resumed normal operations, albeit with a temporary suspension in accepting green waste.

The Waste Management Authority plans to utilize a recent $6 million grant for developing territory-wide standard operating procedures for waste management. Jaschen also paid homage to the late Daryl George, former VIFEMS director, for his significant role in the emergency response and coordination efforts.

The committee, chaired by Senator Ray Fonseca, delved into the operational challenges faced, such as the distance of the nearest fire hydrant from the landfill. St. John Deputy Fire Chief Magabe Calixte mentioned ongoing discussions with multiple stakeholders to improve firefighting infrastructure. There were also mentions of alternative water sources for firefighting, ensuring safety from contamination.

Concerns were raised by VIFEMS about outstanding payments to local water haulers, despite legislative support for their compensation. This prompted critical remarks from Senators Milton Potter and Donna Frett-Gregory, with Frett-Gregory particularly questioning the Waste Management Authority’s absence and lack of a clear strategy for green waste management.

Sen. Fonseca urged VIFEMS to formulate a comprehensive plan for the committee’s review and funding, highlighting the urgency of addressing these challenges independently of the already burdened WAPA.

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Uncertainty in Budget Preparedness and Vendor Payment Issues Addressed by Finance Commissioner Nominee



Kevin McCurdy, the nominee for Commissioner of the Department of Finance, expressed uncertainty about the readiness of Fiscal Year 2024 budgets for various government departments and agencies during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Committee on Rules and Judiciary.

When Senator Donna Frett-Gregory questioned the status of Fiscal Year 2024 budgets, asking if they were “loaded and available for the departments and agencies to expend, obligate etc.,” Mr. McCurdy initially referred the question to the Office of Management and Budget. However, he later admitted, “I can’t say that with 100 percent certainty. I just don’t want to lie to you and say yes.” Senator Frett-Gregory, not satisfied with his response, emphasized the importance of this knowledge.

The hearing also delved into the Department of Finance’s ongoing challenges, especially concerning vendor payments and cash flow management. Mr. McCurdy, in a conversation with Senator Angel Bolques Jr., acknowledged the critical need to address the delays in vendor payments, saying, “It’s not lost on me…we need to find a way to better manage our cash and reduce that long lag time in getting vendor payments out.”

A significant issue identified by Mr. McCurdy was the mismatch between seasonal collections and consistent bill obligations. This challenge was highlighted in response to Senator Kenneth Gittens’s concerns about reports of undelivered checks to vendors. Mr. McCurdy suggested that these delays could be connected to the procedures for federal funds disbursement.

When Senator Carla Joseph asked about specific strategies for resolving the longstanding issue of delayed vendor payments, Mr. McCurdy mentioned ongoing discussions with banking partners to balance cash inflows and outflows, though no final solution had been confirmed.

Mr. McCurdy emphasized the need for greater adherence to policies and procedures within the Department of Finance, noting the community’s tendency to sometimes overlook established protocols.

The urgency of these budgetary and financial management issues was underscored by recent events, including layoffs at the V.I. Dept. of Tourism, attributed to the unavailability of its fiscal year 2024 budget. This situation is not isolated to the D.O.T., as several departments and agencies are reportedly still awaiting their 2024 budget allocations, three months into the new fiscal year, based on information from government officials.

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Court Rejects Legislative Inquiry into Judge’s Term, Sanctions Threatened for Frivolous Motions



Presiding Judge Renée Gumbs Carty, in a concise ruling, dismissed a motion from defendants in the lawsuit brought by former Senator Steven Payne against the 34th Legislature and its President, Senator Donna Frett-Gregory. The motion, filed on November 22, raised questions about a gap in Judge Gumbs Carty’s appointment—from the end of her official term on November 30, 2022, until her May 15, 2023, appointment as Senior Sitting Judge of the Superior Court.

The defense’s motion sought clarity on the judge’s authority to preside during this interim period. Additionally, a second motion requested a temporary pause in court proceedings for 10 days following the judge’s response.

Judge Gumbs Carty firmly rejected both motions on Thursday. She criticized the defense’s legal strategy, labeling the motions as frivolous and an attempt to undermine the Rules of Civil Procedure by causing unnecessary delays and distractions. The judge sternly warned that any further such motions could lead to a “show cause” hearing, where the attorneys would need to justify their actions to avoid sanctions.

With these motions set aside, the focus shifts back to the upcoming bench trial, scheduled for March 14, 2024. The trial’s timeline remains fixed, barring any new developments or filings that might prompt a reassessment.

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