June 10, 2005 – While responding Thursday to Senate questions on issues of V.I. Waste Management Authority, the reconstruction of wetlands on St. Thomas and St. Croix, and the relative stability on the Department of Public Works, George Suarez, a private engineering consultant, also had to defend his character against charges of criminal activity.
Suarez, who had completed a questionnaire for the governor's nominee for departments, agencies, boards, and commissions, listed only a traffic ticket violation when asked in the document about a previous criminal record. However, after direct questioning from Sen. Usie Richards and Sen. Celestino White, Suarez admitted to two additional arrests, both undocumented in the records of the V.I. Police Department. When asked why these incidents were not also mentioned in the questionnaire, Suarez stated, "I didn't remember at the time they all happened at least 15 to 20 years ago, and they were all taken care of." Suarez additionally noted that government staff neglected to ask for information relevant to these issues in interviews conducted prior to the hearing.
Sen. Ronald Russell, who asked Suarez to be forthright with his answers, also commented on the need for the committee to judge nominees on their characters as well as their skills in the workplace. "I have no problem with my character," Suarez responded, "neither then or now. They are both different circumstances." Russell additionally called for the governor to be more accurate with the interview process, stating that such knowledge should have been acquired and submitted to the committee before Thursday's session took place. While none of the charges against Suarez were felonious, most other committee members did continue to express consternation about his appointment to the board, ultimately leading to the decision to hold the nomination until additional information was gathered.
Suarez was also asked to describe present conditions regarding V.I. Waste Management, in particular the relocation of landfills on St. Thomas and St. Croix. "We have to engage in a survey /analysis of available and ecologically feasible sites," Suarez said, "right now in St. Croix, it is upwind of the airport, and we have to make it downwind."
Broaching the subject of the creation of wetlands for St. Thomas and St. Croix, Suarez explained that this experimental program allows solid, raw sewage to go through a preliminary round of treatment before being released into soil, being treated again, and subsequently being used for the purposes of irrigation to farmlands. "While I can see the benefits of such as system," Suarez stated, "I believe that it is a little too experimental at this time we need more documentation to see if it will work first, and also if we can fund it."
Finally asked to explain taxes by the Waste Management Authority to generate revenues to fund the organization, Suarez talked of the board needing to "revisit the issue," advocating a user fee which on only goods coming in from the mainland, which would end up at the dump site. "Lumber coming in, for example, goes to build houses instead of being dumped the people are still getting taxed on it," Suarez explained, adding through the monitoring of this fee he hopes that the Authority will be able to function as a more self-sufficient organization.
The nomination of Roger Minkoff to the Real Estate Commission was also held until further notice due to testimony by assistant legal counsel Augustin Ayala who stated that, "in accordance with Title 27 VI Chapter Code 15 section 421a, the composition of the board's seven-member structure requires that not more than three members shall be licensed real estate brokers." Already serving on the Real Estate Commission are Jan Henley, Lauritz Schuster, and Peggy Simmonds all real estate brokers. Minkoff, who submitted written testimony to the committee, but did not show up for the hearing, was the subject of much distress for Richards, who claimed that Minkoff's nomination has been before the Committee since Feb. 2 but has never reached a point of approval. "I have a lot of questions to ask him," Richards said, "and this is the second time he wasn't here. Why is the governor holding him? What do they have to hide?" Minkoffas well as Suarezwas nominated by the governor prior to appearing before the Rules Committee for review.
"I've had many calls to my office from people strongly opposing the nomination of Mr. Minkoff," Sen. Liston Davis said, "and the Legislature sent a letter to Government House requesting the nomination of three individuals instead of just one. Our request was ignored, and Mr. Minkoff's name appears before us once more." While senators did vote unanimously for Minkoff's nomination to be held in committee, most also strongly advocated his removal from legislative consideration.
A bill sponsored by Senate President Loraine L. Berry to petition Congress to amend the Revised Organic Act of the Virgin Islands was removed from Thursday's agenda. The bill will make the rounds of public hearings next week.
"The municipal issue has a lot of grassroots interest," Sen. Shawn-Michael Malone said. "It's better to present it in the public hearings so that people really have the opportunity to come in on it."
Dates for the public hearings are St. John on Monday, June 13 at 6 p.m., St. Croix on Tuesday, June 14 at 6 p.m., St. Thomas on Tuesday, June 21 at 6 p.m. The meetings will be held at the Senate chambers on the respective islands.
Richards urged Berry's second piece of legislation, a bill petitioning Congress to amend the Revised Organic Act of the V.I. by lowering the number of voters for an initiative to take effect, also be re-introduced at public hearings next week. Due to a lack of testimony on behalf of the bill, Richards talked to colleagues about the possibility of inviting discussion from members of the Board of Elections, as well as other individuals from various departments.
Berry, who supported this idea with intention of making the "other Senators comfortable, "also justified that this bill was drafted so as to minimize the number of voters needed to pass on various initiatives. "For something like that to go into effect," according to Sen. Shawn-Michael Malone "we need 50 plus 1 percent of registered voters to vote on it. We've never been able to get that percentage, and that just stagnates the process."
The committee, first proposing an amendment to the bill in order to clarify its language and terms, voted unanimously to send it to public hearings next week.
Richards was also responsible for the decision made to delay a sexual harassment bill proposed by Sen. Craig Barshinger, due to lack of testimony from many sectors of governmentmost especially the Department of Labor. While Barshinger did respond favorably to this motion, he did first state this legislation has the opportunity to provide the territory with a great amount of good, as he seeks to "eliminate the oppressive nature of sexual harassment wherein people do not live up to their full potential because they are in a hostile environment."
While Sen. Terrance Nelson sought to confirm that this bill was not a reiteration of any prior piece of legislation, Barshinger further commented that many common ideas regarding the negative nature of sexual harassment have not actually been codified, and as a result, he wants to make sure that "all boundaries are clearly defined, with the playing field clearly delineated."
Testimony was also given on this matter by Dr. Ida White, an employee for FEMA under the Department of Homeland Security.
Senators present for the Committee on Rules were Sens. Berry, Malone, Nelson, Pedro Encarnacion, White, Richards, Russell, and Barshinger.
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