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Make the Constitutional Convention Fix Its Draft, St. Thomas Residents Say

St. Thomas resident Lucien Moolenaar testifies about the draft V.I. constitution Wednesday (photo courtesy of V.I. Legislature).The Legislature should return the draft V.I. constitution to the Fifth Virgin Islands Constitutional Convention with time limits and explicit instructions to correct various constitutional problems, several St. Thomas residents told senators at a Committee of the Whole hearing Wednesday.

It was the second of three hearings called by Senate President Ronald Russell – one on each major island – to get public input on what to do about the languishing draft V.I. constitution. Russell has submitted legislation that would effectively empower the Legislature to revise the draft document [29-0236]. He emphasized Wednesday evening, however, that it was a draft proposal and would be amended, based in part upon the feedback gathered in the public hearings.

The Constitutional Convention completed the draft constitution in 2009. Gov. John deJongh Jr. initially declined to forward the document to President Barack Obama, citing constitutional and other problems with several passages, but was directed by court order to forward the draft. The biggest legal and constitutional issues were provisions creating convoluted legal definitions of ancestral and native Virgin Islanders, and treating them differently from the rest of the territory’s residents by exempting ancestral Virgin Islanders from property tax and reserving public office to natives.

Obama forwarded it to Congress, along with a Department of Justice analysis objecting to those tax breaks aimed at native Virgin Islanders and other provisions.

In 2010, the U.S. Senate passed a joint resolution calling for the Fifth Virgin Islands Constitutional Convention to reconvene and change its draft constitution to address concerns raised by the U.S. Department of Justice. The Department of the Interior has promised some funding for the process, but not as much as some on the convention want. The Fifth V.I. Constitutional Convention has declined to act at all over the past two years.

Most, though not all, of the members of the public who spoke Wednesday evening were critical of provisions that created special privileges for some residents. Regardless of where they stood on those issues, all the speakers expressed a desire to see a V.I. constitution in the near future.

Lawrence Sewer, vice president of the Fifth V.I. Constitutional Convention, first suggested sending it back to the convention with strict guidelines, instead of having the Legislature address the document itself.

"I recommend you revisit the bill and focus solely on causing the convention to reconvene," Sewer said. "I also recommend the Legislature put in the bill that the fifth convention will have no more than four working days – in parentheses, that means no weekends – to address those issues."

Sewer also said the Legislature should mandate the convention be given access to government videoconferencing facilities, to eliminate travel costs, mandate that hearings be open to the public and provide four days of funding.

Gwen-Marie Moolenaar of the V.I. League of Women Voters also said she believed the convention should be prodded into action before the Legislature stepped in. She suggested the Legislature ask the convention president, Gerard Luz James II, to reconvene the convention "within a certain timeframe" and amend the draft to eliminate unconstitutional provisions, as well as sections that she and others believe do not belong in a founding document like a constitution but rather in regular legislation.

"If they do not do so in a certain time frame, then and only then should they be considered to have failed," Moolenaar suggested. But even then, she said it would be better for the Legislature to establish a sixth constitutional convention rather than trying to amend the document itself.

Convention delegate Frank Jackson, who voted against the draft document, echoed Moolenaar’s suggestion, saying he endorses causing the convention to reconvene, with a limited time and defined mandate.

"Unfortunately I feel if this were brought back to the Fifth Constitutional Convention and no limits are placed upon it, it will not produce the results that are needed," Jackson said.

He endorsed a greater role for the Legislature than Moolenaar, and predicted that if they present the people of the U.S. Virgin Islands with "a constitution that is in conformity with the U.S. Constitution and is not discriminatory, the people will vote for it."

Fellow delegate Wilma Marsh-Monsanto, who voted for the draft constitution, defended the actions of the convention delegates and the work they did. But she too endorsed the idea of legislation to spur action. "I appreciate you trying to push things along," she said, calling upon the Legislature to also make its conference rooms available to the convention so it would have a place to meet.

"I am praying we will be able to work amicably and make the changes that are recommended without violating their positions or mine," Monsanto said. "We will be moving forward in a positive way, but keep in mind the people of the Virgin Islands have the final say on this document."

Lucien Moolenaar of St. Thomas said he personally preferred some of the controversial provisions, but was more concerned with seeing a constitution enacted. Moolenaar said he "would like,” but is "not committed to a native-only governor."

"It makes sense to me but I won’t fight or die for it," Moolenaar said. He said the Legislature should not amend the constitution, but it needs amending. He said he preferred either a sixth convention or having the Fifth V.I. Constitutional Convention convene solely to determine if it can do so and report back if it cannot.

"The perfect should not be the enemy of the good, but the bad should never be accepted. I say give it to the Fifth Constitutional Convention to make it ‘good,’" Moolenaar said.

Several speakers were highly critical of the provisions making legal distinctions between Virgin Islanders based on ethnicity.

"We as black people should not create a class system we despised under white reign," said Woodrow Greene, a 40-plus year V.I. resident and U.S. citizen born in Antigua.

"My daughter was born here, and if I die, my daughter would have to pay property tax. But Bert Bryan, by some flaw of history, his parents were dropped off here; he does not have to pay. That is unfair," Greene said.

Greene also objected that the draft constitution would prohibit him from voting, even though he is a U.S. citizen who has lived in the territory for 40 years, while someone born in New York who has never set foot in the territory would be able to vote if they can trace their roots to the territory.

Hiram Rasool Abiff was the sole speaker to give a strong endorsement to the discriminatory native-rights provisions. Abiff said the territory – or rather, people like Abiff in the territory – "have the right to write whatever constitution they want," regardless of constitutional or human rights problems.

"We must petition the Congress to lift its administration, so we can write the constitution we want," Abiff said.

The Committee of the Whole will meet Friday at 6 p.m. in the legislative conference room in Frederiksted to hear from St. Croix residents.

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