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Delegate Candidates Weigh Various Options for Constitution

June 3, 2007 — More than a dozen candidates to be delegates to this year’s 5th Constitutional Convention gathered behind the St. Croix Avis building in La Grand Princesse Saturday for a chance at a bit of public exposure and to learn more about the project they hope to embark upon.
For a history of prior conventions, see "Constitutional Conventions: What’s Gone Before."
The event was hosted by Avis owner Rena Brodhurst, who is running for convention delegate herself. Superintendent of Elections John Abramson and attorney Joel Holt spoke about some of the issues the convention delegates will be grappling with.
Delegate Donna M. Christensen spoke briefly and then mingled, speaking with the delegate hopefuls. Later each candidate who came to the event got a minute to say a few words about themselves and their qualifications to serve.
In between the formal presentations, the ubiquitous Stanley and the Ten Sleepless Knights played and the candidates and guests chatted while dining on a buffet spread that included kallaloo and roast pork.
“This isn’t about me, or even you. It’s about the future of the Virgin Islands,” Abramson said. “The Constitutional document embodies the fundamental issues of government. What do you want the structure of this government to be? How should the executive be set up, and with what powers? How shall the Legislature be organized and composed? Should we make sub-districts with each legislator representing a district?”
Before giving his opinions, Abramson added a qualifier.
“I am not speaking as superintendent of elections,” Abramson said. “Anything I express today, these are my own opinions as a citizen with one vote.”
Abramson mostly lectured on the basic structural options available to the would-be delegates.
“Do we want a unicameral or bicameral legislature?” Abramson asked rhetorically. “Now we’re unicameral; one house. Only the state of Nebraska has a unicameral legislature. They nearly all have a bicameral legislature with a house and a senate. How you set it up is wide open …You have a large palate of options to choose from as you decide what will be the structure of the legislature, the executive and the judiciary.”
Abramson touched on the history of the issue of native rights.
“The 4th Constitutional Convention’s document, by the way, had a Virgin Islander’s rights clause,” Abramson said. “Both Congress and the President passed it and sent the document back to the Virgin Islands, where it failed.”
Abramson mostly spoke about the basics of what a constitution could do, offering few direct opinions about what it should do, with one notable exception.
“I do want a change in the structure of government,” Abramson said. “For a hundred years we had municipal government. It worked well. It makes more sense.”
At the end of his lecture, Abramson exhorted the listeners to get out and vote.
“I see what you are doing as more important than governance,” Abramson said. “We are building a nation. … On June 12 we shall have an election. It’s a holiday, but the beach is not an option. Come out and vote. The results will affect you the rest of your natural life.”
Attorney Joel Holt spoke about the legal authority to write a constitution and explained restrictions on what the constitution could to. Holt said the constitution must recognize the sovereignty of the U.S. and be consistent with the U.S. Constitution, adding that "it must be a republican form of government, with three branches: executive, legislative and judiciary. That is the framework. Also, Congress said we must come up with a bill of rights for the territory. The U.S. Bill of Rights does not extend entirely to here."
Holt said the legislation creating the constitutional convention required the delegates to start with the document produced by the 4th Constitutional Convention in 1980.
“You don’t have to use any of it, but you at least have that as a drawing board to work from,” Holt said. “Because of the legislation establishing this convention, you have to look at it, which is good. It has a bill of rights. We declare the shorelines are for all people … that is the type of right we can put in and decide is important to us.”
Holt said the 1980 document defined citizens differently from how it defined native virgin islanders: Citizens are either born here or have lived here at least a year. But Holt regards these issues as noisy distractions from the main purpose of the 5th Constitutional Convention.
“The definitions of Virgin Islander and of citizens are controversial and get people talking,” Holt said. “But in the end it is the government’s structure that will be the meat of the matter. You could give the governor a single six year term, change how you choose judges or what have you. In the 1780s, when the U.S. Constitutional Convention was going on, they worked hard, fought hard, but in the end they compromised.”

For more information on the Constitutional Convention, visit the Constitutional Convention website or the Election Systems of the Virgin Islands' website at www.vivote.gov.
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