Gittens’ Lack of Cooperation Led to Ouster, Says New Senate Leadership

The new Senate majority: Sens. Janelle Sarauw, Allison DeGazon, Marvin Blyden, Myron Jackson, Novelle Francis, Alicia Barnes, Steven Payne and Javan James. Not shown are majority Sens. Kurt Vialet, Donna Frett-Gregory and Athneil “Bobby” Thomas. (Courtesy of the V.I. Legislature)

So the Legislature reorganized itself Wednesday, putting in Sen. Novelle Francis (D-STX) as president in place of Sen. Kenneth Gittens (D-STX) and Sen. Myron Jackson (D-STT) as vice president in place of Sen. Donna Frett-Gregory. (D-STT).

There was lots of drama that day, with some senators reporting Gittens ordered staff off the floor to prevent recording of a vote, as a last ditch effort to stall the action. Gittens has questioned the legality of his ouster and suggested it was due to his requesting an audit of the Legislature. Time will tell if there are audit issues. But even if Gittens were right about the legality of the process, whenever the body convenes again, it can simply vote again.

Sen. Marvin Blyden (D-STT) issued a statement rebutting Gittens’ position, arguing that Senate Secretary Alicia Barnes (D-STX) had the authority to reconvene the session as Gittens and Vice President Donna Frett-Gregory (D-STT) were absent. Blyden also said “the courts have made clear that the rules of the body are separate and distinct from the law, and that when it comes to the internal operations of the Legislature, no act of a majority of members will be scrutinized or interfered with by the courts except if a violation of law, not the rules, has occurred.” He cited several major local court cases, including Brown v. Hansen, Mapp v. Lawaetz, and Bryan v. Liburd.

What has changed other than the top two posts? Much remains the same. Gittens, Sens. Oakland Benta (D-STX) and Stedmann Hodge (D-STT) are now in the minority caucus, along with Dwayne DeGraff (I-STT) who remains in the minority as before.

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Francis, Sens. Kurt Vialet (D-STX) and Janelle Sarauw (I-STT) have moved to the majority caucus. Frett-Gregory remains in the majority but is no longer vice president.

The makeup of the new legislative leadership and its officers is as follows:

— Francis is president, replacing Gittens.
— Sen. Myron Jackson is vice president, replacing Frett-Gregory.
— Barnes is secretary, same as before.
— Blyden is majority leader, same as before.
— Sen. Athneil “Bobby” Thomas is Secretary for Intergovernmental and Territorial Affairs, same as before.
— Sen. Allison DeGazon (D-STX) is liaison to Congress. same as before.
— Jackson is liaison to the Department of Interior, replacing Sen. Oakland Benta (D-STX).
— Vialet is liaison to the White House, replacing Sen. Stedmann Hodge.

The committee chairs are:

Education and Workforce Development: Sarauw, chair (replacing Hodge) and Vialet, vice chair (replacing Benta).
Youth, Sports, Parks and Recreation: James, chair, and Thomas, vice chair, unchanged.
Economic Development and Agriculture: Barnes, chair (replacing DeGazon) and Jackson, vice chair, (replacing Blyden).
Homeland Security, Justice and Public Safety: Payne, chair, and Benta, vice chair, unchanged (This is per the legislation reorganizing the Senate. As Benta is no longer in the majority, this may be subject to change).
Government Operations, Consumers and Veterans Affairs: Thomas, chair, and DeGraff, vice chair, unchanged (This is per the legislation reorganizing the Senate. DeGraff was not previously and still is not in the majority, so this may be subject to change).
Housing, Transportation, Infrastructure, Telecommunications: Blyden, chair, and Barnes, vice chair, unchanged.

Voting for the bill (33-0081 Legislature reorganization) to reorganize were: Barnes, Francis, Jackson, DeGazon, Blyden, James, Payne and Sarauw. Vialet. Gittens, Frett-Gregory, Benta, Hodge and Thomas were absent. DeGraff abstained.

According to a statement from the new majority, the reorganization came as a result of dissatisfaction with the slow pace of the legislative agenda and Gittens’ “lack of openness and collaboration with his colleagues.”

“A legislative body is a group comprised of equals,” Blyden said.

“It is simply unacceptable for a legislative president to make unilateral decisions regarding the legislature’s direction and operations without conferring with his colleagues. In all legislative bodies, the president or chair should be mindful of their responsibilities as a servant of the body and not its master,” he said.
“We were dissatisfied with the direction of the legislature under the former President,” Barnes said. “After the first 100 days we took the opportunity to evaluate our progress, and realized that we could not move forward positively under the present leadership. For this reason, we have realigned our majority to form a group that we feel is best suited to work together for the betterment of all Virgin Islands residents. Sen. Francis has always displayed the qualities of leadership and is certainly qualified to lead this body forward,” she said.

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