March 12, 2004 – Inspector General Steven van Beverhoudt's years-long quest for peace officer status for investigative agents in his office was finally rewarded on a unanimous vote by the Senate Thursday in the second day of a two-day session that wound up after 11 p.m.
The legislation specifies that the officers are not eligible for early retirement, which had been a stumbling block in past consideration. Van Beverhoudt had said that was not an issue, since the two agents he plans to designate for the status are not contributing the additional 2 per cent required of hazardous work employees planning to retire after 20 years. (See "Panel OKs peace officer status for I.G. agents".)
Van Beverhoudt had argued that his officers need the status for several reasons. For one, they need to be able to serve search warrants. "All the investigative arms of the federal government have agents with peace-officer status," he told a committee meeting last year.
Another reason, he said, is that the status allows his agency access to the FBI's National Crime Information Center, where his officers can check criminal records.
The Office of Inspector General is the oversight agency for all three branches of the V.I. government and its instrumentalities. Its tasks include conducting audits, monitoring departmental operations and investigating suspected fraud, waste and other abuses.
Thursday morning's deliberations started off with a continuation of Wednesday's debate over whether Judge Audrey Thomas, nominated to serve the University of the Virgin Islands board of trustees, can legally do so. Sen. Ronald Russell, a lawyer, tried unsuccessfully to convince his colleagues that her sitting on the board would present a conflict of interest.
Legislative legal counsel Yvonne Tharpes issued an opinion backing Russell. However, Sen. Roosevelt David produced a contrary legal rendering, and the debate got into full gear. About an hour later, the Senate voted to confirm the nomination. The majority of senators said they believed Thomas could recuse herself in the event of a conflict of interest — something that is provided for by law, she had said a Rules Committee hearing on her nomination.
The remainder of Thursday was occupied with routine consideration of legislation, until late at night, when amendments suddenly flew fast and furiously in a heated-up session.
Prior to that, the Senate approved Sen. Lorraine Berry's bill creating a Tourism Board, along with an increase in the hotel tax to 10 percent from the current 8 percent. Berry's bill also nailed down funding for the new board that cannot be raided by the Legislature — eliminating the Tourism Advertising Revolving Fund and replacing it with a Tourism Trust Fund which cannot be tapped without permission of the board. (See "Senate OKS public-dominated tourism board".)
The body also approved a bill that had long been debated in the Health, Hospitals and Human Services Committee. It privatizes the operations of two Health Department clinics — turning the East End Family Health Center on St. Thomas over to St. Thomas East End Medical Center Corp. and the Frederiksted Health Center/Ingeborg Nesbitt Clinic over to Frederiksted Health Care Inc.
Debate had centered on what would become of government employees' benefits when they transferred from the Health Department to the private entities. The bill as passed includes a $220,000 General Fund appropriation to pay the clinics for the cost of giving each employee at least 10 days of annual leave.
The Senate also approved bills to:
– Appropriate $100,000 to renovate the Cruz Bay dinghy docks on St. John.
– Reduce the number of members the governor can appoint to the UVI board of trustees and provide for an alumnus member to be elected by the board's members.
– Establish a territorial Youth Challenge Program, a local chapter of a nationwide National Guard program.
– Clarify legislative intent regarding senators' salaries, specifying that they shall be paid $65,000, and not an amount equal to the lowest-paid commissioner, as the V.I. Code had stated. The governor increased commissioner's salaries to $85,000 two years ago. The bill was one of the few sponsored by Russell that he succeeded in getting passed.
Uproar over 'draft' document
After passing three leases and a number of zoning changes, the senators got down to the nitty gritty. Senate President David Jones had announced earlier in the session that the final bill — a measure appropriating $200,000 from the St. John Capital Improvement Fund to the Lieutenant Governor's Office to upgrade survey maps and set regulations for surveyors — would be the only bill debated under the "open" rule. In other words, it was the only measure open for amendments.
Jones allowed each senator two amendments, and they did not have to be germane to the bill in question.
Senators regularly offer amendments far afield of whatever bill is on the floor. Sometimes they get by with it, and sometimes they don't, depending on the flexibility and the politics of the person chairing the session.
Jones called a recess at about 6:30 p.m. and the majority caucus proceeded to meet outside the Senate chambers, much to the consternation of the minority members. When the session resumed shortly after 8 p.m., it did so noisily. Sen. Celestino A. White Sr. started things off, waving a document about, declaring it was the "majority's omnibus bill."
White proceeded to read from the document, while Jones exhibited what appeared to be a mixture of amazement and horror. What White read was a list of proposals including an appropriation of $1.2 million for potable water lines on St. Thomas, a series of tax exemptions for St. Croix businesses, and the granting of authority to the Licensing and Consumer Affairs commissioner to decide how taxi medallions are sold on St. John. White and Andrew Rutnik, LCA commissioner, have been at loggerheads over taxi medallions issues.
White, not to be held back, continued his tirade, shouting: "Are you crazy around here? What's wrong with you all?"
When White distributed copies of the document to the news media personnel present, Jones had had enough. Banging his gavel, he tried more than once to interrupt, at one point turning off the microphones of White and the minority leader, Sen. Usie Richards.
"This document being passed around is not a true document; it's just a draft," Jones said after finally restoring order. "This is a serious violation of confidentiality. This puts a chilling effect on a senator's ability to exchange ideas and information that is privileged in draft form."
Several items in the draft did make it to the floor. One which was passed appropriates $75,000 to establish a government milk-rating system — something the territory's dairies need if they are to be able to supply the cruise ship industry with milk.
In the face of federal sanctions, the cruise lines discontinued buying milk locally last November because it could not be certified as Grade A. Because the V.I. government does not have a laboratory testing facility, neither St. Thomas Dairies nor St. Croix Dairy Products can get its milk certified. The loss of the cruise industry market is costing St. Thomas Dairies "about $1 million in sales," company president Fred Hintz said. (See "Lack of access to testing costs dairy dearly".)
The Senate approved leases of St. Croix property to Ersdale I. Joseph, Terrance Bryan and the St. Croix Lions Clubs.
The Senate approved the following St. Thomas rezoning requests:
– Arthur E. Harthman for the heirs of S
ammy E. Harthman – Parcel Nos. 9, 9-1 and 24-1 Estate Charlotte Amalie, No. 3 New Quarter, from A-1 (agricultural) to C (commercial); for commercial uses.
– Yellow Bell Inc. – Parcel Nos. 14 and 15 Dronningens Gade, Kings Quarter, from R-4 (residential – medium density) to B-1 (central business district); for offices.
– Caribbean Culture Airlines Inc. – No. C-12-1 Estate Hoffman, No. 2B New Quarter, from R-2 (residential – low density, one and two family) to B-3 (business – scattered); for retail and office space.
Also approved were these St. Croix zoning change requests:
– James A. Gerard, Plot 5B Estate St. Peter, Company Quarter, from R-2 (residential – low density, one and two family) to B-3; to expand Nolan's Tavern.
– Richard and Maria Herbert, Plot No. 5 Estate Pearl, Queens Quarter, from A-1 to I-2 (light industry); to construct a self-storage facility.
– Gayle Washburn, Plot Nos. 9 and 13, Estate Prosperity, West End Quarter, from A-1 to R-1 (residential, low density); to bring the property into conformity.
– Phillip A. Smith and Marshal D. Meze (Bioimpact Inc.), Plot No. 86E Estate Solitude, East End "B" quarter, from R-2 to W-1 (waterfront – pleasure); to construct a dock.
– Michael Clarke and Juslyne Clarke, Plot 1B and 1BA Estate Morning Star, Queens Quarter, from R-1 to B-3; to construct and open a restaurant.
– Debra Petersen, Plot No. 3 Estate Paradise, Prince Quarter, from B-4 (business – residential areas) to B-3; to bring the operation of an existing church into conformity.
– Paul Steven Myrvang, Plot No. 1D, 11G, 1H, 1I, 1J, 1K, 1L, 9A and remainder of No. 1 Estate Whim, West End Quarter, from R-2 to R-3 (residential – low density); to construct 36 housing units.
– Parcel No. 6 Estate Pearl, Queen's Quarter, from A-1 to R-2.
– Parcel No. 98DA Estate La Grande Princesse, Company Quarter, from R-2 to R-3.
– Parcel No. 38L Estate La Grande Princesse, Company Quarter, from R-2 to C.
– Parcel No. 1CA-A Estate Altona, East End "A" Quarter, from W-1 to W-1 (waterfront – industrial).
All legislators attended Thursday's deliberations except Sen. Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg and Emmett Hansen II, who were excused.
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