Majority and minority V.I. senators spoke of working together and tackling the problems of the territory and St. Croix, but several nonmajority V.I. senators also angrily denounced reduced office allotments during the final round of legislative inaugural festivities Wednesday in Frederiksted.
Senate leadership responded to the criticism saying allotments were set by V.I. statute and were not politicized.
"We observe today not a victory of party, but a celebration of freedom—symbolizing an end, as well as a beginning; signifying renewal, as well as change," said master of ceremonies, former Sen. Carol M. Burke, quoting from President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address.
After her introductory comments to the crowd gathered in the courtyard of the Lagoon Street Legislature Complex, Burke introduced the senators in attendance, who then each addressed the well-dressed throng for a few minutes, thanking family, friends and supporters.
Some took a moment to talk about the need for working together or about special areas of legislative interest.
"Let us work together," said Sen. Kenneth "Kenny" Gittens, a freshman member of the Democratic majority representing St. Croix. “The people of the Virgin Islands have chosen us to work on their behalf.”
“I am in the majority,” Gittens continued, “but I am also representing St. Croix and though we (the St. Croix members of the majority) are only three strong, all the other majority members have pledged to support St. Croix all the way.”
“A better St. Croix is a better Virgin Islands," Gittens said.
Sen. Clarence Payne, a freshman member of the majority from St. Thomas, urged unity of purpose among the senators and among Virgin Islanders.
"A few years ago, some people in Frederiksted wouldn’t go to Christiansted; I’m not making that up," Payne said, using it as an example of artificial and self-destructive divisions in V.I. society.
Payne said it was a mindset created by colonial people and “200 years later it is still here. Let’s do what we need to do today to start unifying the Virgin Islands," he said to rousing applause.
Sen. Diane Capehart, a Democrat representing St. Croix, said she hoped to be able to serve and work with people with disabilities during her term in office. While a member of a majority dominated by St. Thomians, "St. Croix comes first to me," Capehart also said.
Sen. Nereida "Nellie" Rivera-O’Reilly, an independent, nonmajority member reelected to represent St. Croix, said she would try to remain humble in the upcoming term, saying she had a long, floppy foam rubber "swimming noodle" in her office that she gave her staff in 2009, telling them "when you see my head get too big, hit me over the head with it."
O’Reilly then took a moment to bitterly criticize reduced senatorial office allotments, which she said were announced Tuesday.
"I had a hard time sleeping last night thinking who I have to send home," she said. Because minority members have smaller allotments than majority members, who chair committees, "it dawned on me that the truth is the St. Croix district will be impacted the most, because most of the members in the nonmajority are on St. Croix – meaning there will be more layoffs on St. Croix, after all the layoffs we have already had from Hovensa," she said.
O’Reilly said she has run “a very tight ship in my office” but is “going to have to send somebody home. Somebody who has real skills and who works hard," she said, concluding with a plea. "I am taking this opportunity, on camera, live, to ask the senators of the majority to reconsider the budget allotments so we don’t have to send people home, because St. Croix cannot afford it," O’Reilly said.
Sen. Alicia "Chucky" Hansen, an independent and the most experienced St. Croix senator with nearly 20 non-continuous years in office, decried the reduced allotments even more vociferously.
She asked how it was possible to hire professional people with a budget of $166,000. "But Chucky has many years of experience; trust me, she knows how to get things done even if we have three cents."
Hansen also expressed her opposition to the appointment of former Sen. Iver Stridiron as executive director of the Legislature, saying it was "that old time politics coming back," and that Stridiron would be a "buffer" between the Legislature and the press.
Sen. Terrence "Positive" Nelson thanked friends and family and bemoaned the harshness of the campaign trail. He lent some support to O’Reilly’s and Hansen’s concerns.
"Yes, I wish the majority had been more responsible with budgeting so we won’t have to send home staff, but we are not here for that today,” Nelson said. “I am hopeful that those of us who have been elected can work together."
Senate Majority Leader Donald "Ducks" Cole, who returns to the Legislature as a St. Thomas senator and most recently chaired the V.I. Public Services Commission, praised Hansen but disputed the suggestion that office allotments were divided unfairly.
"I’d like to give a special welcome to my colleague, Alicia "Chucky" Hansen, because her style is her style. She has served 20 years coming up. And it takes a lot to survive 20 years, so yes, give her a round of applause," Cole said.
Cole then said V.I. law enacted in 2005 set the formula for office allotments, not politics, and noted that Nelson was one of the sponsors of the act in question. [Senatorial Office Allotments Act] Cole read the details of the V.I. code passages from a smartphone.
The law calls for each member to receive 2 percent of the total Legislature budget. It allocates an additional 1 percent of the Legislature budget (amounting to 50 percent more than the base allotment) for the office of the senate president. Each committee chair gets an additional 0.5 percent of the budget (amounting to 25 percent more than the base allotment). It calls for an additional 5 percent for the office of the senator at large," which Cole said "must be a typo," and "should be 0.5 percent."
The law further stipulates that if the senator at large is also senate president, that allotment is capped at a total of 3 percent of the Legislature budget, which tends to support the notion that the law contains a typo, that the given weight of law would give the senator at large a much larger budget than any other senator.
"The 29th Legislature passed an operational budget of $17.8 million. Do the math," Cole said. "The law is the law. … When I was (a senator previously) I attempted to pass a law providing everybody with an equal allotment. But the majority sat down and we looked at the law and made allotments. The Legislature is the first branch of government and appropriates. … If we believe the budget needs to be increased, let’s do it," Cole said.
Asked about the allotments after the ceremony, Senate Vice President Sammuel Sanes also said they were divided according to the law. He said it was less than last year because the budget decreased by $2 million. “Everybody took the hit," Sanes said.
Throughout the ceremony Sanes and Senate President Shawn-Michael Malone emphasized reconciliation and working together.
"To the minority, one of you extended an olive branch and I should do the same. We will see what we can do to rectify the relationship," Sanes said.
"As president of the Senate, I don’t represent the majority; I represent the entire 15 senators," Malone said, speaking last. Malone said he had two words for all the senators: "Stay focused."
"In a time of reformation and rededication to our values as leaders and as Virgin Islanders in a very difficult period, I expect every elected official to stay focused on what we need.”
Malone said he doesn’t make many promises but “I will give 110 percent to guide this body to give what you need."
He then emphasized his long and extensive family connections to St. Croix. "I happen to be the son of a Crucian," he said, repeating that he had an obligation to serve each island equally.
After a short benediction and a performance by the St. Croix Heritage Dancers, the senators mingled and spoke with St. Croix residents over a light buffet.