It’s up to the members of the 5th Constitutional Convention to finish what it started, the six people who testified at the Monday meeting of the Legislature’s Committee of the Whole on St. John said. A bill sponsored by Senate President Ronald Russell would give the territory’s 15 senators the power to make changes to the constitution as the Constitutional Revision Commission.
“The Convention needs to be afforded the opportunity to work on it,” Wilma Marsh Monsanto said, later adding that it was “grossly unfair” to have the Legislature involved in the process.
The 5th Constitutuional Convention already spent several years working on it. However, it was returned to the territory in 2010 by President Obama and the U.S. Congress because nine provisions failed to meet constitutional standards.
At issue Monday was the provision that gives rights to native-born residents that others living in the territory wouldn’t have. Senate President Ronald Russell tried to grill Monsanto and another Constitutional Convention delegate, Alecia M. Wells, about their views on that subject, but neither would answer.
“I will not discuss any provisions,” Monsanto said.
Russell pointed out that it was useless to put the constitution back in the hands of the 5th Constitutional Convention members if they weren’t willing to address the sticking points including the native issue.
“I will not allow unequal treatment,” Russell said.
Both Monsanto and Wells said that they thought the delegates could finish the job. Wells put a time frame of about two months on it.
Funding is another issue. A promise of $500,000 from the Interior Department to do the job was bandied about throughout the meeting, but Russell read a letter from Anthony M. Babuta, the Interior Department’s assistant secretary for insular affairs, to 5th Constitutional Convention President Gerald Luz A. James II. It indicated that Interior would only come up with $150,000, and that the Legislature must take the appropriate steps to reconvene the convention.
Sen. Terrence “Positive” Nelson said money wasn’t the issue. Rather, it would take “will” to get the job done. He also said it wasn’t the Legislature’s will to take over the constitutional convention’s work, but rather that of one or two people.
“I don’t think we have any business in this,” he said.
Sen. Nereida Rivera O’Reilly said the question should be why after five tries, the territory can’t write a constitution that’s acceptable to the voters.
While most of the testimony focused on the constitution, St. John resident Yvonne Wells suggested that Russell start meetings on the half hour instead of scheduling them for the hour. Most of the senators made the 20-minute trip on the 6 p.m. ferry from Red Hook, St. Thomas to Cruz Bay, St. John for a meeting scheduled for 6 p.m.
“Those who live on St. John waste time. We always have to wait,” she said.
In addition to Russell, Nelson and O’Reilly, Sens. Craig Barshinger, Carlton Dowe,. Shawn Michael-Malone, Patrick Simeon Sprauve and Janette Millin-Young were present when the roll call was taken.
The Committee of the Whole will hold meetings on the same issue Wednesday at the Ottley Legislative Hall on St. Thomas and Friday at the Fritz Lawaetz Conference Room on St. Croix. Both begin at 6 p.m.