July 3, 2005 – If we were giving out awards for the political coup of the week, this week's award would have go to Sen. Ronald Russell.
Russell, who chaired the Education and Youth Committee in the 25th Legislature, was one of the casualties of the political maneuvering at the beginning of the 26th Legislature. Despite working passionately to address the problems of the education system, Russell was not even re-appointed to that committee in the current Senate.
Now, as the "feds" crack down on the V.I. Education Department, Russell was the one who was able to pull together a meeting between V.I. senators and U.S. Department of Education officials Mark Robinson and Phil Maestri.
Eight senators attended the Tuesday afternoon meeting with Robinson and Maestri, who said the federal government needs to see "a clear and transparent flow of funds" before it can continue to give money to the territory.
This meeting takes the thunder from the July 7 full Senate meeting scheduled on this same issue.
Russell, according to his press release, called the meeting so that senators could find out firsthand what must be done to bring the territory out of receivership with the U.S. Department of Education. The territory was notified in a June 14 letter by Edward McPherson, U.S. Undersecretary of Education, that it will receive no more grant money until it hires a third party to oversee the grants. (See "Feds Order Education Department to Hire Financial Overseer.")
While much finger pointing has gone on after the letter was received, little has been done to hire the third-party fiduciary agent. However, Sen. Juan Figueroa-Serville did say the possibility of the St. Croix Foundation handling that responsibility was discussed at Tuesday's meeting.
In other news this week, the Committee on Government Operations and Consumer Protection was to discuss enacting the Retirement System Reform Act of 2005. However, that meeting was postponed a week.
While meetings were being postponed, the fax machines did not miss a beat.
Sen. Lorraine Berry announced two requests to the Inspector General's office for investigations. She asked that the multimillion-dollar contract the V.I. government signed for a wastewater treatment plant on St. Croix be investigated; and also the contract that Lt. Gov. Vargrave Richards signed with American Eagle. Some people with a cynical turn have said that the latter request is just an opening salvo in the upcoming campaign for governor.
Senators, however, did get in some official action this past week.
Tuesday, June 28
The Committee on Housing, Sports and Veterans Affairs met on St. Thomas, where it approved a bill sponsored by Committee Chair Celestino White Sr. that seeks to transfer Water Island property to the V.I. Housing Finance Authority. Specifically, the authority will receive 60 of the 200 acres of property on Water Island granted to the V.I. government by the U.S. Interior Department.
VIHFA Executive Director Clifford Graham testified the legislation will allow the authority to expand the Moderate-Income Homeownership Program. Graham said the measure would "truly assist to incorporate Water Island with the other three islands by making the dream of homeownership available to clients of the authority."
Responding to questioning by Sen. Usie R. Richards, Graham acknowledged that the authority could not receive the entire 200 acres because acreage is required for infrastructure development such as roads, groceries, and fire and police stations.
In other action, the committee approved a bill, sponsored by Sens. White, Berry and Shawn-Michael Malone, amending the Low and Moderate Income Affordable Housing Act of 1990. White stated that the measure would make the act more flexible.
Both measures were reported out to the Rules Committee for further consideration.
Senators present at Tuesday's Housing meeting were White, Richards, Pedro "Pete" Encarnacion, Ronald Russell and Liston Davis.
Wednesday, June 29
The Committee on Economic Protection, Planning and Environmental Protection, chaired by Sen. Neville James, rejected a Major Coastal Zone Permit for Palace Place Resorts St. Thomas Real Estate to continue the use and occupancy of an existing dock.
Palace attorney Derek Hodge stated that renewal of the permit would be helpful by assisting in the marketing of the property, which is up for sale. However, senators expressed concerns that renewing the permit for the hotel — which closed without warning in August 2004 in direct violation of the Plant Closing Law, leaving nearly 300 employees without work — would only reward the owners by enhancing the attractiveness of the property.
White recommended that the CZM close down the dock immediately because it was operating illegally. (See "Senate Rejects CZM Permit for Palace Place.")
In other action, the committee approved the major CZM permit request for Carib Beach Hotel to bring into compliance the concrete dock, swimming pool and man-made beach located on submerged lands at Estate Lindberg Bay.
Senators also approved the CZM permit request for Compass Point Marina to build a new dock in Benner Bay to house 35 slips and reconfigure the existing dinghy dock. The committee also approved the permit request by ESSO Virgin Islands, Inc. to legalize the existing facilities it has on submerged lands located at the Cyril E. King Airport.
A bill designed to protect and nurture small business was also passed at Wednesday's session of the Committee on Economic Development, Planning and Environmental Protection. (See "Bill to Help Small Businesses Receives Unanimous Approval in Committee.")
After four sessions of extensive discussion on an Economic Development Commission reform bill, that bill also made it out of committee. (See "EDC Reform Bill Clears Committee.")
It now has a chance to go through the Rules Committee and be forwarded to the Committee of the Whole so it can be made law before the U.S. Treasury Department has its hearing on July 21 concerning federal rules over the EDC program.
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