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Candidates Spar a Bit at First UVI Forum

Oct. 12, 2004 – The candidates' forum at the University of Virgin Islands on Tuesday night was cordial with senatorial candidates even agreeing with each other occasionally. But then, at the end, it got ugly.
In his closing remarks senatorial candidate-at-large Craig Barshinger said he was a candidate of integrity and this was a claim his opponent could not make. When it came to the other senator-at-large candidate's turn for closing remarks, Sen. Almando "Rocky" Liburd said he was a candidate of integrity and you wouldn't find him "breaking into restaurants."
His remarks were in reference to a recent incident at Gertrude's Restaurant on St. Croix. Barshinger said he returned to the restaurant a day after a political event to pick up a folder he left. The restaurant was closed and he entered the restaurant, after, he said, he saw workers inside who acknowledged his presence. A police report was later filed alleging illegal entry. Barshinger has maintained that the report was political skullduggery.
Integrity came up again and again during the evening.
When candidates were asked what the most important trait for a senator to have, most answered it was integrity or character.
Sen. Ronald Russell said, "It takes a person of character to put the wishes of voters above his own wishes." He said a person of character recognizes his mistakes and learns from them. He added a person of character doesn't fake knowledge when he doesn't know something, he learns it.
Sen. Douglas Canton, who is a law school graduate and has expertise in logistical management, said the best senators were those "who put service above self." He added that some present politicians seemed to think it is "their way or no way."
Lilliana Belardo de O'Neal, along with Barshinger, were the only candidates at Tuesday's forum not presently in the Senate. She said honesty, commitment and caring were key traits. She added that education was a key standard also. She asked, "How do we tell our children that education is important if our leaders are not educated?"
Liburd, who is seeking his eighth term, said, "A senator must be able to listen and be competent in his field. Character is also very important." He also emphasized a person's ability to work with other people.
Barshinger, who is a marine biologist, said a senator should be well versed in many fields. He said a senator's focus ought to be on helping others.
Sen. Usie Richards, who worked 18 years in the Health Department before being elected in 2002 to the Senate, was the only one who did not use the word "integrity." He said a good senator "understands the structure and purpose of government" and his or her role in setting public policy.
Tuesday night's forum was the first of three at the campus. Forums Wednesday and Thursday also start at 7 p.m. and feature other candidates. (See "UVI to Host Political Candidates at Open Forums"). This forum will be broadcast on Channel 12 at 1 p.m. Saturday. Wednesday and Thursday's forums will be broadcast Sunday beginning at noon.
The format of the forum allowed candidates to start with a three-minute introduction. Then panelists asked questions chosen from those submitted earlier by the public. Tuesday's panelists were Michelle Albany, assistant director of Upward Bound; Reginald Perry, housing supervisor; and Naita Salmon, health services supervisor.
After the panelists' questions, and before the candidates gave one-minute summations, questions were taken from the audience.
One audience member said all the talk about integrity sounded nice, but that action speaks louder then words. He said it did not show character to allow the corruption and mismanagement of public funds to continue as it has in the Virgin Islands.
O'Neal appears to have taken fiscal responsibility as a theme for her candidacy. She responded, "I will demand accountability and fiscal responsibility and transparency."
Russell said that the problem was "an outdated and antiquated fiscal management system." Russell also said for corruption in government to be brought under control the attorney general's office should be independent of the governor. He said senators needed to have the courage to appoint special counsels when necessary.
Canton agreed the fiscal system of the government was outdated. He said its awkwardness contributes to the misuse of funds. He said he could not believe that, at a given time, in a given department, no one in government could pinpoint what the cash balance was. He said he would push the government to move toward "e-government."
After the forum, he told a reporter there are two reasons why many in the present government are resistant to moving forward to a more efficient and transparent government. He said some members are embarrassed by their lack of knowledge of technology and others really don't want the government's financial system to be transparent.
Liburd was asked which government departments needed more funds and which needed less. He said the department of Human Services needed more, the education department did not need more, but needed to better allocate how its funds were spent, and the public safety department needed more to hire more officers.
Richards was asked why he did not support a Constitutional Convention. He said, "You should not get into a vehicle and drive off without knowing where you are going."
All candidates were asked what Economic Development Companies have contributed to the Virgin Islands, and what they would be able to contribute in the future, in light of new U.S. legislation.
Barshinger said, "The EDC is a tool that we can use to mold society." He said people need jobs and through the EDC the government can invite companies who can supply those jobs. He said, in the present system, it often appeared as though the Virgin Islands just wanted those companies because of their money. "We should want them to become part of the Virgin Islands."
Russell said the budget recently passed relies on income from the EDC companies. He said a panel of experts needed to be assembled and ways figured out to replace that lost income.
Richards said the lost income for the government would be between $100 and $150 million. He said the focus should be on bringing permanent jobs to the Virgin Islands.
Canton said he saw the EDC companies making up two distinct groups – some were financial companies that "placed a shell here." And others became a part of the community. He said the focus should be on those companies that "became an integral part of the community" and were not dependent on income generated off-island.
O'Neal, who served in the Senate previously, took a different direction in her answer. She said the Virgin Islands need to quit returning to Washington D.C. and asking for favors. She said the government needed to resolve its own financial problems.
Liburd said innovative ways of generating income for the government needed to be looked at and that economic reform is the answer.
Each candidate was also asked if they would support a new initiative by Farmers in Action to rejuvenate agriculture on St. Croix. (See "Farmers Want to Wake Island's Sleeping Giant"). All the candidates who responded said they supported agriculture but did not know enough about the specific initiative to give it a yes or no.
Sen. Emmett Hansen II appeared on the program but did not appear in the forum.
Claude Steele, associate chancellor, said that Hansen's representative had called to cancel saying that Hansen had laryngitis.
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