Sept. 10, 2004 – Democratic candidates Thursday had a last public forum before facing each other in primary elections on Saturday. Candidates voiced opinions at the St. Croix Candidates' Night at the Educational Complex on familiar election issues such as education, public safety and government reform.
Each attempted to separate himself from the usual political rhetoric and give real answers to problems afflicting the territory.
Five Democratic incumbents participated: Douglas Canton Jr., Emmett Hansen II, David S. Jones, Luther F. Renee and Ronald E. Russell.
Challengers attending included Gregory A. Bennerson, Pedro "Pete" Encarnacion, G. Luz A. James Sr., Neville James, Juan Figueroa-Serville and Michael Thurland.
Also participating were candidates Craig Barshinger, William Belardo, Harry A. Daniel and Lorelei C. Monsanto, who are all seeking the Democratic nod for senator at-large.
The forum was organized by WTJX Channel 12. Asking the questions were the station's talk show hosts — Natalie Nelson, Marise James and Sam Topp. Although the event was carried live on the public access channel, an enthusiastic and opinionated crowd filled about 100 seats in the school's auditorium. Questions were not entertained from the audience.
The first question asked candidates to predict their accomplishments after 90 days in office.
Thurland hopes to create a juvenile justice advisory board, step up crime prevention efforts and revenues to the police department. He also would look into getting technical assistance from the federal government for the local police.
Luz James Sr. wants to concentrate on youth training and preventing youth from committing crimes, and Encarnacion said he would create activity centers to keep youth off the streets. Monsanto advocated educational classes in public safety, beginning at the kindergarten level, instituting charter schools and promoting eco tourism for St. Croix.
The forum called for three participants to answer each question. Each participant was given the opportunity to be the first one to answer a question. Candidates were allowed to make a comment on any question at the end of the forum.
Jones and Bennerson were asked what distinguishes Democrats from other party or non-affiliated candidates. Both expounded on Democratic ideals of fair housing, education, public safety, a clean environment, employment and building St. Croix as a tourist destination.
Belardo addressed what he saw as the inadequacies of his opponent, incumbent senator at-large Almando Liburd. "In 14 years he has done very little for the island of St. Croix, the Enighed Pond is a man-made disaster and there is no autonomy for St. John. We need an advocate for St. John, and we need to turn around the economy of St. Croix," said Belardo.
Sen. Russell said commitment is what distinguishes the candidates. "Some believe their own issues supercede the people's issues," he said. "Some believe the rule of law does not count some cater to an elite group."
On education, Serville said the "step system needs to be reinstated for teachers" and the Board of Education should "manage federal education grants."
Canton called for the restructuring of education, better management of federal grants and a tracking system for purchases.
Hansen said test scores are low partly because "children are scared, teachers are scared" of school violence. He said that students should be "tracked" and teachers who are "doing harm" to children should be "rooted out" and "teachers who are doing good should be rewarded." He called for more support and training for teachers.
Renee said, "The revolution must begin in the classroom with effective teachers." He stressed ongoing teacher evaluation and adequate pay. "The home plays an important role," he added, saying parents should be trained to assist teachers.
Neville James tackled privatization. "We need to expand the private sector in order to grow the economy." He clarified his statement saying he is not advocating reducing government jobs, but with private sector growth the "government will be more flexible" to perform its functions.
Hansen cautioned that locals should be given the opportunity to fill private sector jobs.
Calling privatization "the next step in our social evolution," Barshinger said the private sector is the "source of new capital" that "allows the entrepreneurial spirit to flourish."
A hot-button election issue is Delegate Donna M. Christensen's chief financial officer bill. Daniels said, "I welcome it." He said the CFO will only be in place for five years and "we need accountability." Canton had a different opinion. "It's a red herring, a strong smell that detracts from the real issue." He said, "The focus needs to be on management, the CFO can be eliminated by efficient management."
Bennerson said fiscal responsibility "begins with the Legislature" and "economic development is the key." Serville said the CFO bill would effectively "restructure the Organic Act and the powers of the governor and the legislature." He added, "it would create a "totalitarian ruler and a dictator."
On reform of the Government Employees' Retirement System, Renee said what is needed is to "bridge the gap between what is being paid out and what is contributed."
Neville James pointed to "unfair" practices regarding government pensions. He gave the example of an employee working for 20 years at $27,000 per year and moving to a higher pay three years before retirement. "The retirement is based on the last three years," James said. "It should be a flat across-the-board pension payout."
Monsanto advised government workers to look toward entrepreneurship.
V.I. law mandates that government employees who announce their intention to run for political office take leave of absence or annual leave. This law does not apply to sitting senators. "It's a personal hardship," said Belardo, who is on leave from his government job. He suggested the law gives incumbents an "unfair advantage" and it prevents people from declaring their candidacy early. Russell said the law was made because being a senator is a public service and "the job is 24/7."
Neville James pointed out that teachers do not get annual leave because they have summers off. James is on leave from the Education Department but he is not a teacher.
Candidates were asked their opinion on the Economic Development Commission benefits program.
Jones said the Senate is improving on its duties overseeing EDC companies. He said more monitors were recently hired to oversee EDC beneficiaries, "We need to continue to attract companies to the Virgin Islands."
Serville suggested EDC companies "sponsor youth apprenticeship programs."
Renee said more data is needed to determine the benefits. "For every dollar given, we need to benefit more."
Daniels concurred, "Some are not doing their fair share," but "we have not seen the data."
Lump-sum budgets versus line-item appropriations garnered heavy commentary.
Luz James Sr. said the legislature and the executive branch must work more closely to determine what funds are available. He said, "The Legislature did nothing by not overriding the governor's (2004) budget veto."
Canton said a line-item budget is best in some situations but "that is not what we are dealing with." Canton said the lump-sum budget gives "flexibility," but "money needs to be focused not at management" but to front-line workers.
Thurland was strong in his position. "Lump-sum budgets are not working, the money is not going where it is needed. It's crazy. We need to line-item the budget, that
's why we are in the position we are in now."
Primary elections are Saturday, Sept. 11. Polls open at 7 a.m. and close at 7 p.m. Voters must show a photo ID in order to vote. The 100-foot clearance rule for electioneering will be in effect.
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