Jan. 10, 2003 – Gov. Charles W. Turnbull, bowing to widening criticism, including protests throughout the week at events celebrating his second-term inauguration, applied his veto pen Friday afternoon to the controversial pay increases for himself, the lieutenant governor and the territory's senators.
In doing so, he may have expected to avoid another demonstration planned for Monday night before he delivers his State of the Territory address. However, organizers said Friday night that their group, Citizens for a Fiscally Responsible Government, would turn out, nonetheless, but in a silent protest of other problems needing to be addressed.
The pay raises were approved by the 24th Legislature at its final session Dec. 23 as part of a Christmas tree conglomeration bill appropriating $25.1 million for various projects.
A Government House release Friday night said Turnbull had approved the 41-section bill "with the exception of several key sections," among them the language "authorizing salary increases for the governor, lieutenant governor and the senators." The release quoted the governor as saying he took the action "after much consideration," but made no further reference to the matter.
In his letter to Senate President Almando "Rocky" Liburd informing him of the actions, Turnbull said the massive bill "required some serious deliberation." Turnbull said he was making a point of acting on the bill and so informing Liburd before the 24th Legislature legally goes out of existence Monday with the swearing in of the 25th.
The three-page letter deals with numerous items in the bill which are unrelated to the salary increases and which the governor vetoed in whole or in part. There is no mention of the increases per se. The last sentence of the letter reads: "Finally, after much consideration, I have decided to item-veto section 39."
At Turnbull's request, the Senate had voted to increase the governor's salary from $80,000 to $135,00 and the lieutenant governor's from $75,000 to $115,000. The lawmakers separately voted themselves a raise to $85,000 from the current $65,000.
Voting against the increases at the time were Sens. Adelbert Bryan, Carlton Dowe, Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg" and Celestino A. White Sr.
Widespread criticism of the increases, led by union groups on St. Thomas and St. Croix, focused not only on the amount of money involved but on the appropriateness of such raises given the territory's questionable financial state.
Earlier in December, at an orientation for the incoming Legislature, Finance Commissioner Bernice Turnbull had told the lawmakers that the Virgin Islands was facing a fiscal crisis. (On Thursday, testifying in District Court on St. Thomas, she said her comments had been taken out of context and that she could not remember what had prompted her to make the remarks.)
The first member of the 25th Legislature to speak out against the raises was freshman lawmaker Shawn-Michael Malone, who said he would introduce a bill to roll them back. As grassroots opposition to the increases grew this week, other lawmakers said they, too, would seek to reverse the raises if the governor did not veto them.
Meanwhile, further demonstrations were announced for Monday, when the 25th Legislature will be sworn in at 10 a.m. and the governor is to present his State of the Territory address at 7 p.m, both in the Senate chambers on St. Thomas. Those planning protests were to request permits in writing from the police Friday between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m.
St. Thomas Deputy Police Chief Theodore Carty said shortly before 5 p.m. that only one request was received, and the permit was issued — to Citizens for Fiscally Responsible Government. Our Virgin Islands Labor Union on St. Croix decided to join in that demonstration.
Veto action not the end, but the beginning
Leaders in the efforts to mobilize opposition to the raises and persuade the governor to veto them saw the news of Turnbull's action in three lights Friday night:
– It was the right thing for him to do.
– It is a telling example of the power of the people.
– It is just a beginning; more needs to be done.
Malone took the high road in his reaction: "I'd like to thank the governor for exercising good judgment and listening to the will of the people," he said. "More importantly, I want to thank the people across the territory who have voiced strong opposition to something we thought very important to the territory moving forward."
To his colleagues-to-be, he offered this assessment: "It is important that we begin our terms in office without a dark cloud hanging over our heads. Trust between the people and the government is paramount as we try to move forward." He said he hopes the pay raise controversy "has shed light on a bigger problem that we must deal with regarding high salaries in the V.I. We cannot continue to compound our problems with quick fixes. This is the time for tough but necessary decision-making if the V.I. is to remain viable in this new world economy."
Jason Budsan, the leading force behind Citizens for Fiscally Responsible Government, said: "Vetoing the pay raises is just the beginning. We want the government to be fiscally responsible." What he was "very pleased" about, he said, was seeing the whole community working together for the common good.
Some 50 persons, many representing other community organizations, were at Friday's meeting, Budsan said. Among them were two representing St. Croix organizations — Terrence Nelson for St. Croix's OVILU and Tyrone Molyneaux for the St. Croix local of the American Federation of Teachers.
Others included Carl Christopher, United V.I. Action Coalition; members of the Northside Civic Association; Vernelle de Lagarde, St. Thomas-St. John local, AFT; Stephanie Scott-Williams and Carolyn Brown, Women for Positive Change; Carol Lotz-Felix, Friends of St. Thomas Public Libraries; and Margit Kanstrup, St. Thomas Historical Trust.
Among those on hand as concerned individuals were Yvonne Freeman, the teacher charged and then exonerated in Monday's clash with police on St. Thomas; K. Leba Ola-Niyi, black history writer; attorney Edith Bornn; Susan and Terry Rawson; and Patrick Querrard.
"I applaud him," Molyneaux said of the governor, "and I commend and applaud the community for voicing their concerns, which caused him to react." He added: "I think the community action needs to continue to ensure things that are not proper or are unjustifiable are dealt with. We still have work to do."
In the teachers union leader's view, "The community has been in the past very passive and not gotten involved, because of the attitude that things cannot change or are a done deal. The action here involving the community shows that people can change things, and the will of the people can be done."
Nelson said it was "appropriate that the governor decided to do the responsible thing … We are happy that this time, at least, the governor adhered to the will of the people. This shows that democracy, when exercised, works."
But while appreciative of Turnbull's vetoes, the St. Croix union activist said he is disappointed that the salary increases "came at such a time, and that the people had to demonstrate in order get them repealed." He added that OVILU "as a watch-guard group will remain active and will remain proactive until some type of certification that we're moving toward a fiscally responsible government."
Nelson said news of the governor's vetoes reached the citizens group meeting, but those present decided to proceed with the plans to demonstrate Monday. "The group is alive now, and we'll remain alive," he said.
Erva Denham, an activist member of the citizens group, explained that the protest is still on because, in the eyes of many who attended Friday's meeti
ng, the pay raises are just one of myriad complaints against the government.
"There is no reason to cancel a protest we have a permit for," Denham said. "We'll be out there as a reminder of, hey, you need to do right all the time." But, rather than chanting or using loudspeakers, she said, the participants will hold a silent protest, dressed in black and holding placards.
Nelson noted that the group "is still asking the community to come out. We also feel it prudent to show up Monday morning for the Legislature's swearing in, as well as Monday evening for the State of Territory address."
He added: "I think it is evident now that no longer can our politicians or government leaders feed us any type of garbage and we'll swallow." The public will now expect a higher standard of government from politicians, he said. "The old-time politics are going out the door slowly, and new-age leadership is starting to come into play."
Hope Gibson, an unsuccessful candidate for senator on St. Croix in November, said she is glad Turnbull vetoed the raises, but the governor's action "does not fix the problem. It's a positive step, but he just needs to keep on going." Specifically, she said, "he now needs to rescind the pay raises given to the commissioners, assistant commissioners and all those he gave earlier."
Gibson, too, said what happened is indicative of the people's power to change things when they band together toward a common goal. "We still have other problems," she said. "This was one issue that brought the absurdity of the whole situation to the forefront. It will have to be a continuous effort on the part of the people. This is what government is supposed to be about."
Alternative to veto was likely repeal
Earlier Friday, before word of the vetoes had begun to circulate, comments from senators and senators-elect contacted by the Source indicated there would have been enough votes in the incoming 25th Legislature to repeal the raises, had the governor allowed them to become law.
Sen. Lorraine Berry — like Turnbull, a Democrat — said she told the governor Monday that she would vote for repeal, although she had defended the raises earlier saying she was "a team player, a part of the Democratic team." Calling that earlier stand "a political mistake," she said she would second Malone's motion for repeal, or write the legislation herself, should he not bring it. "The people have to come before the party," she said.
Sen. Norman Jn Baptiste, who was absent for the lame duck session on Dec. 23 and who will move from the majority in the current Legislature to the minority in the one to come, said he would not have supported the raises. "If it comes to the floor, I will vote to repeal it," he said.
Sens.-elect Raymond Richards and Ronald Russell voiced opposition earlier in the week to the pay hikes. According to an article in the Thursday Avis newspaper, Richards said he would vote for repeal, and Russell said he was against the raises. Donastorg reiterated his opposition in a strongly worded release Thursday.
Turnbull had until Tuesday to act on the legislation or see it take effect without his signature.
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