Mar. 6, 2004 Sen. Lorraine Berry's bill to create a territorial Homeland Security Office was met with no enthusiasm from the territory's leading emergency officials Friday. They said it was, at best, a duplication of effort.
Testifying before the Public Safety, Judiciary, Homeland Security and Justice Committee, Harold Baker, V.I. Territorial Emergency Management Agency (VITEMA) director; Cleave McBean, V.I. adjutant general and the governor's homeland security advisor; and Law Enforcement Planning Commission Director Eddy Charles told Berry the bill was unnecessary because the concerns it addresses are all covered by other agencies.
According to a story in the Saturday Avis newspaper, McBean said, "The bill itself is something of a duplication of what we're already doing. You would see that all these things that are outlined here, we have been doing."
Baker also objected to the bill. He said the territory would be running ahead of the states with its own Homeland Security Office. "There are only five states that have homeland security offices, apart from their emergency management agencies," he said.
The bill seeks to separate the powers of VITEMA, restricting it from active participation in any terrorist situation, except as designated by the Homeland Security Office. It says that VITEMA will handle all "natural and man-made disasters and emergencies, excluding those that involve acts of terrorism or threats of terrorism and other similar violent acts."
Charles said, "Creating another office something separate would just create an additional agency for VITEMA to notify," according to the Avis report, which also says Berry seemed surprised by the position the governor's top security personnel took on the bill.
Charles said the office that the bill would create was unnecessary. According to the Avis report, Charles said an addendum to VITEMA'S comprehensive emergency response plan regarding an attack involving weapons of mass destruction is sufficient.
Though Gov. Charles W. Turnbull and Berry are both Democrats, they have crossed swords several times, most recently on Berry's proposal for a Tourism Authority, which she later changed to a Tourism Board. Turnbull had said publicly that he would support the authority but later voiced objections to the makeup of the governing board. (See "Senate approves Waste Management Authority".)
Under Berry's bill, the Homeland Security Office would have a director appointed by the governor. The director would appoint an assistant director, a Coordinator of Domestic Preparedness and other professional, technical and clerical personnel.
The office would be funded by the local and federal governments and included in the governor's budget. The director would apply for federal grants and assistance programs, the bill says.
The bill does not say what the Homeland Security Office would do when there is no imminent terrorist threat.
Berry said she must now reconsider the bill's future, according to the Avis report. The bill is co-sponsored by 11 of her colleagues. Sens. Louis Hill, Almando "Rocky" Liburd and Celestino A. White Sr. are not listed as sponsors.
Berry states in the bill, in part, "… the borders and the 175 miles of unprotected coastlines of the territory are dangerously exposed to infiltration by many facets of global and domestic terrorism. Another concern for homeland security consideration is the existence of 'ideal' targets: the Hovensa Oil Refinery and cruise ships. A major hit on these would cause the economic collapse of the Virgin Islands, and these are in our harbors, the very areas assessed to be the most vulnerable to attack!"
The committee held a bill proposed by Sen. Usie Richards, which would establish a uniform set of fees for commercial vehicle inspections. The bill has been hailed as "long overdue" by police officials in a St. Thomas Rules Committee meeting.
Testifying on Friday, Police Commissioner Elton Lewis and Barbara Jackson-McIntosh, administrator of the V.I. Office of Highway Safety, said the inspection bill would fill an important void in V.I. law, according to a report in the Avis.
The legislation would crack down on vehicles weighing more than 10,000 pounds and those designed to carry more than eight passengers, which would be required to hold commercial drivers licenses.
The bill contains a meticulous fee schedule, hailed by police but objected to by some truckers and taxi drivers. Keith O'Neale Jr. of O' Neale's Trucking and Trailer Transport said getting a commercial drivers license was a long process, under the best of circumstances, and would require him to send his drivers to the mainland.
Lewis, according to the report, said, "The Police Department, through the Highway Safety Administration, would be willing to put on the training." He also said he would consider "grandfathering" the current truckers with minimal training.
Taxi drivers turned up at the St. Croix meeting to voice complaints. On his Saturday morning WVWI radio show, Sen. Roosevelt David said no taxi drivers showed up at the St. Thomas hearing. David, not a member of Berry's committee, said he would vote against the measure (when it reaches the Senate floor). He indicated he did not think it was fair to the taxi drivers.
Berry did not say when the bill would next be heard in her committee.
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