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Major Bill Targeting Enhanced Protection for Minors and Adults in USVI Advances

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Sen. Novelle Francis sponsors the sweeping guardianship and conservatorship reform in the USVI. By V.I. LEGISLATURE.

A comprehensive reform of the legal framework governing guardianships and conservatorships in the USVI is progressing with the committee passage of Bill 35-0174.

“When I first filed this bill draft, my intention was only to address the concerns brought forward by the Virgin Islands AARP specific to our elderly community,” said the bill’s primary sponsor, Senator Novelle Francis, during the Committee on Rules & Judiciary session. “However, upon a closer review of the statute enacted in 2016, and the recommendations of the legislature’s legal counsel, it became apparent that the best approach for this bill was to update the existing Guardianship and Protective Proceedings Act.”

This overhaul ensures compliance with federal guidelines and provides “the least restrictive means necessary for protecting both minors and adults who cannot care for themselves,” Francis noted. Over a fifth of the territory’s population is over the age of 65.

Francis urged his colleagues to not be intimidated by the draft legislation’s size, explaining that a piecemeal revision could leave critical gaps and omissions.

Invited testifiers largely supported the legislation, though some recommended adjustments to ensure its effectiveness. Chief Territorial Public Defender Julie Todman expects the measure to “reduce expenses, increase accountability, reduce crime, clarify rights, and reduce court backlogs.”

Todman emphasized the importance of the bill’s clear rules for non-lawyers and its provisions for registering guardianships issued in other jurisdictions and notifying non-parties of guardianship proceedings.

Troy De Chabert-Houston, state director for the Virgin Islands AARP, supported the measure, calling it an “upgrade” to the 2016 legislation. He highlighted its efficiency and fairness for older Virgin Islanders and the protection of civil rights for the AARP’s 21,000 members in the territory.

Ben Orzeske, Chief Counsel for the Uniform Law Commission (ULC), noted that the last Uniform Act on Guardianship dates back to 1997. The new Uniform Act, adopted in only two states thus far, aims to grant more rights to adults under guardianship. “The average adult who is subject to guardianship has fewer rights than a convicted felon. That’s not right,” Orzeske said, advocating for significant reform.

Orzeske highlighted the bill’s provision for more flexible court arrangements and less restrictive solutions, which could divert many cases from the guardianship system.

In response to Senator Milton Potter’s inquiry, Orzeske asserted that under the new law, controversial conservatorships like those of Britney Spears and Michael Oher would not be allowed. “There’s greater protection in this law than there would be under your current law,” he said.

Tom Bolt, chair of the Bar Association’s Probate Law Committee, called the draft bill a necessary intervention to modernize probate, guardianship, and estate planning laws.

Despite recognizing the need for updated measures, Bolt suggested delaying the new provisions until the new year to allow for legal education and preparation.

The Department of Human Services supported the measure, with Assistant Commissioner Carla Benjamin suggesting revisions, including the automatic provision of legal counsel to parents and minors and removing language that could imply court-sanctioned child marriage. She also recommended that courts assume the same responsibilities as DHS when placing a child under guardianship.

Regina Petersen, Administrator of Courts, expressed concerns about the bill’s operational impact, predicting substantial increases in costs associated with court-appointed counsel and mandatory hearings. Petersen advised a thorough evaluation and informed decision-making before adoption.

Jessica McKinney, chair of the VI Bar Association Legislation and Law Reform Committee, recommended careful attention to the bill’s terminology to avoid unintended consequences and ensure that individuals can exit protective arrangements freely once able to make their own decisions.

Lawmakers generally supported the measure, commending Sen. Francis and the bill’s cosponsors. However, some, like Senator Potter, voiced concerns about the magnitude of the overhaul and suggested more work before enactment.

Senator Franklin Johnson raised the issue of elderly people being abandoned at hospitals by their next of kin. Orzeske and Bolt believed the new measures could address this issue, but Benjamin was skeptical without explicit language in the bill. Orzeske noted that as fiduciaries, guardians are legally required to act in the best interest of the individuals they represent.

De Chabert-Schuster mentioned that the AARP is working on comprehensive anti-elder abuse legislation, aiming to make abandonment and neglect a felony.

Despite calls for amendments and further consultation, Sen. Francis urged immediate advancement of the measure, promising to incorporate necessary tweaks later. “Every time we delay moving critical legislation forward, is justice delayed, is justice denied,” he said.

Ultimately, all six committee members present approved the measure for consideration by the full legislative body.

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USVI Community Pulse

How Fiction Shapes Politics in Tight-Knit Island Communities

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In small communities, politics often intertwines with personal relationships and familiar faces, making the landscape ripe for fiction to flourish over fact. The potency of fiction in such settings stems from several key factors: the close-knit nature of relationships, the impact of narratives on identity, and the rapid spread of information through informal networks.

In these communities, everyone knows everyone else, or at least knows someone who knows someone else. This interconnectedness means that personal relationships heavily influence political opinions and decisions. A compelling story, even if not entirely true, can resonate deeply because it often involves people within the community. The emotional weight of a narrative involving a neighbor or local figure can overshadow cold, hard facts. Fiction, by appealing to emotions, can quickly gain traction and influence opinions more effectively than dry statistics or factual reports.

Collective identity and belonging are paramount in small communities. Stories and narratives that align with the community’s sense of self can be incredibly persuasive. Fictional accounts that reinforce shared values, fears, or hopes can become powerful tools for shaping public opinion. These stories often become part of the community’s lore, repeated and embellished over time, further entrenching their influence. When a narrative resonates with the community’s identity, it becomes more believable and impactful, even if it diverges from the truth.

Information in small communities spreads quickly through informal networks. Gossip, word of mouth, and social gatherings are primary channels of communication. In these settings, sensational stories, even if fictional, are more likely to be shared and remembered than mundane facts. The more dramatic or emotionally charged a story, the faster it travels. This rapid dissemination can amplify the influence of fiction, making it a powerful force in shaping public perception and political discourse.

People naturally seek out information that confirms their preexisting beliefs, a phenomenon known as confirmation bias. In small communities, where people often share similar backgrounds and viewpoints, this bias can be particularly strong. Fictional stories that align with the community’s collective beliefs and experiences are readily accepted and propagated. Facts that contradict these narratives are often dismissed or ignored, allowing fiction to maintain its hold on the community’s political landscape.

Fiction often simplifies complex issues, making them more accessible and emotionally engaging. In contrast, factual information can be complicated and nuanced, requiring more cognitive effort to understand. In a busy community where people have limited time and resources to delve into detailed analyses, a straightforward, emotionally charged story is more likely to capture attention and influence opinions. The simplicity of fiction allows it to be easily remembered and repeated, reinforcing its impact over time.

In small communities, the power of fiction in politics cannot be underestimated. The close-knit nature of relationships, the importance of identity, the rapid spread of information through informal networks, confirmation bias, and the emotional appeal of simplicity all contribute to the potency of fictional narratives. Understanding these dynamics is crucial for navigating and engaging with the political landscape in small communities, where the line between fact and fiction often blurs, and stories shape the reality of political life.

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USVI Community Pulse

Kelly Pugh Named Local Realtor of the Year, Recognized for Community Engagement and Leadership

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ST. CROIX — Kelly Pugh, a dedicated realtor with REMAX USVI for the past five years, has been honored with the prestigious title of local Realtor of the Year. This recognition, awarded at the recent Virgin Islands Realtors general meeting, highlights Pugh’s significant contributions to her community and her active involvement with the Board of Realtors.

Pugh’s commitment to community service is also reflected in her membership with Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., known for its emphasis on public service. She has been a board member since 2021, serving as vice president in 2023 and president-elect the following year. As she prepares to assume the role of president next year, Pugh plans to focus on leadership, training, and increasing realtor and community engagement on St. Croix.

In collaboration with Christopher Jones, Pugh co-founded the Ay & Ay Realtor Team, under the guidance of broker Ava Gail Bourdon. The team’s name pays homage to St. Croix’s indigenous Tainos, who referred to the island as “Ay-Ay,” and incorporates the Rastafarian phrase “I and I.”

Pugh notes the dual aspects of her profession, from the joy of handing keys to first-time homebuyers to the challenges of limited housing inventory on the islands. The current high-interest rates further complicate matters, reducing buyers’ purchasing power. “It’s difficult when potential buyers qualify for a $250,000 home, but there aren’t any available in that price range,” she explained, adding that cash buyers often outbid those seeking financing.

Looking to the future, Pugh intends to expand her operations to St. Thomas and St. John, aiming to recruit new team members to tap into a broader market. Her recognition as Realtor of the Year will take her to Boston in November to attend the National Association of Realtors meeting, where international realtors will gather to celebrate the 2024 awardees.

Pugh remains accessible to new clients and colleagues via text, email, or phone at 340-725-5066. More information can be found on her website, [email protected].

For those considering a career in real estate, Pugh advises seeking mentorship from experienced professionals and underscores the need for patience. “The real estate community is full of helpful professionals willing to share their knowledge,” she said. “But it’s important to be patient, as returns on investment in this field are not immediate.”

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USVI Community Pulse

Bill Reforming V.I. Real Estate Commission Advances with Strong Support

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In a significant move to enhance regulations in the Virgin Islands’ real estate sector, Senator Novelle Francis Jr. has introduced Bill 35-0117, aimed at reforming the territory’s Real Estate Commission. This follows closely on the heels of his earlier successful introduction of Bill 35-0193, which sought to regulate the local real estate industry further.

Bill 35-0117 proposes amendments to Title 27, Virgin Islands Code, Chapter 15, Sections 421a and 422. These amendments address the qualifications, term limits, and duties of the Real Estate Commission members. Key among the proposed changes is the addition of a licensed property manager to the Commission, a move Senator Francis highlighted while seeking support from the Committee on Rules and Judiciary.

If passed, the bill will mandate geographic representation on the Commission, with three members residing on St. Croix, three on St. Thomas, and one on St. John. Additionally, it sets term limits, restricting members to no more than two consecutive four-year terms. The bill also allows for members to receive per diem expenses and empowers the Commission to appoint a secretary and a treasurer.

The proposed legislation quickly garnered support during its initial committee review on Thursday. Laurent Alfred, the current chair of the Real Estate Commission, and the Department of Licensing and Consumer Affairs (DLCA) both endorsed the bill. Horace Graham, DLCA assistant commissioner, praised the bill as a “progressive step forward for this industry and our community.”

A noteworthy provision in the bill requires that no more than four of the seven Commission members hold a Virgin Islands real estate broker, sales associate, or property management license. According to Mr. Graham, this ensures that decisions are informed by substantial industry expertise while allowing the Commission to effectively represent various stakeholder interests, including real estate personnel, property owners, and prospective buyers.

Mr. Graham emphasized the bill’s aim for “equitable geographic representation,” which he believes will address unique real estate issues across the Virgin Islands. He also noted that term limits would promote fresh ideas and prevent stagnation, fostering an environment of transparency, accountability, and responsiveness.

The Real Estate Commission fully supports the proposed changes, with Mr. Alfred testifying that term limits would ensure a healthy turnover in Commission membership.

Committee members echoed the support from invited testifiers. Senator Milton Potter described the bill’s provisions as “prudent upgrades” for the real estate industry. Senator Marise James, experienced in real estate law, saw no drawbacks and encouraged Senator Francis to address real estate fraud in future legislation. Senator Diane Capehart agreed, stating that the legislation offers transparency and parity.

The bill will now proceed to an upcoming legislative session, where it will be voted on by all fifteen senators.

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