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HomeNewsArchivesCOMMITTEE ACTS WITHOUT, AND AGAINST, TESTIFIERS

COMMITTEE ACTS WITHOUT, AND AGAINST, TESTIFIERS

March 21, 2002 – In what may be a first, the Senate Planning and Environmental Protection Committee held a Coastal Zone Management permit hearing and approved a major CZM permit Thursday with no representatives present from the CZM office or the Planning and Natural Resources Department under which it falls.
PNR Commissioner Dean Plaskett called Sen. Donald "Ducks" Cole, the committee chair, before the hearing Thursday and said Gov. Charles W. Turnbull had forbidden his presence and that of his staff, including CZM members, at the hearing.
The administration and the Legislature clashed head-on last August over the issue of executive branch officials being called to testify at Senate hearings. Turnbull issued an edict then that any appearance by an administration official would have to be approved from his office first.
Turnbull objected to the long hours his top officials often were forced to spend sitting in the Senate chambers waiting to be called to testify, while the senators attended to other matters.
Although the directive caused a flurry at first, it had largely been ignored in the months since — until Attorney General Iver Stridiron wrote to Senate President Almando "Rocky" Liburd on Monday telling him it was in force. Stridiron added that if the Legislature were to subpoena officials to testify, he would direct them to appear and state their name, title and department but say nothing more.
Cole and his committee colleagues took issue Thursday with Turnbull's action and are awaiting a written opinion on the matter from legal counsel Yvonne Tharpes. On a motion by Sen. Celestino A. White Sr., the committee voted to subpoena Plaskett, CZM director Janice Hodge and CZM legal counsel Julita DeLeon to appear at another hearing on April 19. The vote was 3-1, with Sen. Roosevelt David in opposition. Julien Harley, who chairs the St. John CZM Committee, and Austin Monsanto, who chairs the St. Thomas one, also were no-shows, but the committee did not vote to subpoena them.
Thursday situation was a repeat of one on Wednesday with the Government Operations Committee at a hearing on St. Croix where invited administration officials failed to appear.
Stridiron wrote the committee chair, Sen. Emmett Hansen II, that Karen Andrews, administration chief labor negotiator, and Kevin Rodriguez, Personnel Division acting director, "should not appear before your committee absent a directive from Governor Turnbull that they do so." And, Stridiron said, the same will apply to other administration officials and other hearings. (See "Administration gets tough on Senate testimony".)
At Thursday's hearing, senators needed CZM officers to answer pertinent questions. On the agenda were a bill to adopt the Uniform Conservation Easement Act (which the Senate on its calendar and in Thursday's press release called the "Uniform Conversation Easement Act") and a permit for the Water and Power Authority to construct a potable water pipeline to St. John and to St. Thomas's East End.
The committee decided to postpone a vote on the UCE Act until the April 19 hearing because there was nobody to testify. Cole said, "We will go forward with the WAPA permit. We cannot allow WAPA, who has been doing such a good job in public meetings, to be stopped here because government officials aren't here."
John Christian, WAPA director of systems planning, told the senators, "Further delays will push our installation plans back to the hurricane period. We want to install this cable now." Also testifying in favor of the permit were WAPA environmental officers Gregory Rhymer and Noel Hodge. Cole, backed by committee members, agreed on the urgency of improving St. John's water supply.
Christian said the pipe will run "from Foster Plaza to the National Guard Armory in Red Hook, and from Red Hook to Frank Bay on St. John."
Rhymer said the permit would facilitate the installation of a flexible submarine potable water pipeline, extend existing onshore water supply pipelines on the East End of St. Thomas, install an underground utility duct bank, and replace the existing seawater intake system for the vapor compressions desalination unit at Frank Bay.
Also testifying was Colette Monroe, League of Women Voters board member, who spoke against the project, though she agreed that St. John is "dire need of water, especially during the peak tourist season." She said the League "questions whether the most feasible way to meet that need is to produce more water in Krum Bay, St. Thomas, and pipe it all the way to East End, and then through an underwater line to Frank Bay."
Monroe asked, "Why not increase production of one or both St. John plants and provide for storage on St. John?" She noted that a "large portion of the proposal is to get water to the East End" of St. Thomas, a long-term WAPA goal that she said has not been adequately researched.
She said the League thinks the project will "discourage conservation, remove the need for East End residents to maintain their cisterns for emergency supply, and relieve resort hotels from their obligation to meet their own water requirements by reverse osmosis."
Monroe also questioned whether the cost per gallon would be reduced on St. John, as the permit application states. Since no economic feasibility study was presented to compare the cost of the project with the cost of increased storage capacity on St. John, Monroe said the League could not support the project.
The WAPA officials cited the authority's 10-year plan which addresses the concerns Monroe raised. Christian said the utility has extensive plans for creating a new water storage system on St. John.
Under questioning by Sen. Carlton Dowe, Christian said if the permit is approved, the pipes will be in place by August. He said St. Thomas East End and St. John residents would receive potable water within one and a half to two years.
On another issue, Dowe said he and some colleagues had visited a nutrition fair at Joseph Sibilly Elementary School Thursday morning where they were accosted by the school's food service workers who told the senators of the need for more workers. Teachers were being asked to help serve food at lunchtime, he said.
Dowe asked what had happened to $800,000 appropriated by the Senate for food service workers in public schools. "It's unconscionable for this to continue," he said.
The committee approved the WAPA permit on a 5-1 vote. Voting yes were Sens. Cole, David, Dowe, Alicia "Chucky" Hansen and White. Sen. Adelbert Bryan voted no. Sen. Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg was excused from the meeting.

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