March 24, 2004 — Elected officials at the local and federal level are questioning whether the Turnbull Administration is trying to strike a new deal with the U.S. Department of Interior over the Memorandum of Understanding first struck five years ago. The MOU addresses the way the territorial government will account for federal program funds and spells out its commitment to correct some long-standing fiscal problems at the local level.
Lawmakers speaking publicly this week questioned the apparent secrecy surrounding what are being described as ongoing discussions. At least one representative, Delegate to Congress Donna Christensen, says she has known about talks between Interior and Government House for several months but felt it was best to let the governor and his administrators be the ones to make the disclosure.
According to an article appearing in a recent edition of the St. Croix Avis, draft revisions of the MOU have been exchanged between Government House and Interior since late 2002. The article quoted Keith Parsky, assistant to Interior Undersecretary David Cohen, saying the federal government wants to encourage the V.I. government to provide greater transparency regarding its fiscal affairs. He also said Interior wants to promote sounder fiscal practices and greater adherence to recommendations published in federal audits.
To encourage compliance with its recommendations, Interior officials quoted in the newspaper article said the new MOU would tie the receipt of some future federal funds to the conditions described in the agreement.
In her weekly paid political address, Sen. Lorraine Berry said her interest in the matter was piqued after reading the Avis article. She wondered why the Legislature had not been informed by administration officials.
"The silence is deafening from the administration. When will the Legislature and the people of the Virgin Islands know what the administration is agreeing to as a mandate by Interior?" she asked.
The answer came late Tuesday afternoon as the Senate wrapped up a special session called by the governor, who was seeking approval for $180 million in bonds to fund a new round of capital improvement projects. A copy of the new MOU proposal was circulated by Sen. Celestino White.
Earlier in the session, White questioned Office of Management and Budget Director Ira Mills about the talks with Interior. Mills said the administration was approached by Interior Undersecretary David Cohen about the possibility of creating a superseding MOU.
Mills acknowledged that there had been discussions but that they were only preliminary. "Sometime ago, when Deputy Secretary Mr. Cohen visited, he indicated to the governor an interest in a superseding Memorandum of Understanding and asked the governor, for discussion purposes, if he could outline some of the areas that he may be interested in pursuing if such a memorandum were to occur. Some discussion points were presented and that has been it. No further discussions have been pursued," the OMB director said.
A November 2002 audit of the territory's compliance with the 1999 MOU gave the administration mixed reviews. (See "MOU compliance audit: successes, shortcomings".)
Both Christensen and Berry have been agitating for new oversight concerning the government's finances. Berry has been promoting the creation of a financial control board, while Christensen advocates the establishment of a Chief Financial Officer. Both proposals have drawn strong objections by Gov. Charles W. Turnbull who calls the imposition of financial oversight the result of a colonial mentality towards the Virgin Islands.
Christensen, speaking earlier this week, pointed to what she saw as an apparent contradiction between the words of the governor and the actions of his administration in seeking a revised MOU. "It really makes one wonder about the cries of colonialism when another MOU is being negotiated and the other territorial leaders don't know about it," she said.
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