If a bill heard Wednesday in the Legislature’s Government Services and Housing Committee passes muster with the Rules Committee, the full Senate and the governor, consumers in the territory will be better protected.
“It will deter deceptive business practices,” said Sen. Nereida Rivera-O’Reilly, who sponsored the bill with Sen. Shawn-Michael Malone.
The bill will allow the territory to join class action suits initiated on the mainland. St. Thomas attorney Russell Pate said he was told several times by judges officiating in class action cases that territorial law has three shortcomings that are not in line with the laws in most states.
Pate said the territory does not have an objective consumer standard, does not allow for triple damages and doesn’t have standards allowing for private attorneys to be certified to bring class action suits. As the law currently stands, the attorney general’s office can bring class action suits, but Pate said that agency is overworked.
“And these cases are very expensive,” Pate said, noting that by joining forces with stateside jurisdictions, the expense is shared.
As written the bill also awards costs and expenses to the winning party if a lawsuit is deemed frivolous by the jury or the court, provides for a six-year statute of limitations instead of the current two, and allows a judge to distribute the proceeds of a class action suits to nonprofit agencies.
Pate’s testimony, which began with a discourse on how consumers are being lured into buying food that is bad for them because it says healthy on the front of the box, prompted Sen. Judi Buckley to opine about personal responsibility when it comes to making healthy food choices.
Her remarks prompted Rivera-O’Reilly to point out that people pick unhealthy food because that’s what they can afford.
The senators also moved along a bill that changes the way the time for retired government employees collecting their pensions is calculated when they return to government jobs after retirement. Currently they are allowed to work 75 days, but the bill changes that to 600 hours, which equals eight hours a day times 75 days, to give departments and the retirees greater flexibility.
Personnel Director Kenneth L. Hermon Jr. said, in the majority of cases, retirees go back to work to train workers. Throughout the discussion, several senators questioned why no succession plans were developed throughout government to prevent rehiring of retirees.
“There is no time to train anyone,” Sen. Alicia “Chucky” Hansen said, adding that with the cut in the government workforce, some employees are now doing two and three jobs.
Hermon said the government now employees just under 7,000 people, down by 2,100 since 2007.
A bill sponsored by Sen. Craig Barshinger to end probation for the Legislature’s Central Staff employees after six months instead of the current four years was held in committee to await testimony by the Legislature’s director, Iver Stridiron, and more discussion among his colleagues.
“The Central Staff is the salt of the Legislature,” Barshinger said.
He said employees are sometimes let go just short of the four-year cut off, only to be replaced by “somebody who fried fish for a senator.”
Those employees who work directly for senators do come and go according to who wins elections.
The committee also heard from V.I. Housing Finance Authority Director Adrienne Williams on the agency’s 2013 to 2015 affordable housing plan. While the agency’s efforts to remove tenants at LBJ Housing on St. Croix by Dec. 31 because the complex is beyond repair are not in the affordable housing plan, several senators’ grilled Williams on the matter.
“My concern is how people are being treated,” Hansen said.
Williams said the agency is exploring all avenues for placing the tenants in home ownership programs if feasible or in other public housing if necessary. She also said if the tenants are making an effort to locate other housing by the Dec. 31 deadline, they won’t be thrown out onto the street.
Williams also said that all but two of the Calabash Boom affordable housing units on St. John are sold or in the process of being sold, and those two have “prospects.” The units have been on the market for several years because there wasn’t a lot of interest in owning them.
She said another Housing Finance Authority project on St. John is on hold to make sure the demand is there. Williams said it will cost $400,000 per unit to build affordable housing on St. John.
The committee held its approval of the Affordable Housing Plan until the next meeting because Chairwoman Diane Capehart asked for some technical changes.
All measures voted on at the meeting received approval by all the senators on the floor at the time the vote was taken.
In addition to Barshinger, Buckley, Capehart and Hansen, committee member Sen. Clifford Graham also attended the meeting. Sens. Donald Cole and Terrence “Positive” Nelson were absent. O’Reilly is not a member of the committee. Noncommittee member Sen. Tregenza Roach also attended the meeting.