After hearing nearly five hours of arguments Friday, District Court Judge Thomas K. Moore declined to rule immediately on the latest wrinkle in the Drake's Seat vendors' dispute, and he urged vendors, the V.I. government and their legal representatives to resolve their differences amicably or through mediation rather than turn to the courts.
Vendors filed a lawsuit earlier this month asking that the V.I. government show cause why it should not be held in contempt of court for violating a 1985 preliminary injunction issued by the District Court that prevented the government from barring two vendors with valid permits from the overlook. The suit also asked that the injunction be made permanent.
But Friday's testimony revealed that the location permits issued in 1985 by the V.I. Police Department were superseded in 1993 by month-to-month memoranda of agreement from the Department of Housing, Parks and Recreation that stipulated the agreement could be canceled at any time. The change came about following a series of letters between government officials, including former Housing Commissioner Jennifer Hill and former Police Chief Raymond Hyndman, regarding "longstanding problems" with the vendors, including issues of public safety.
Licensing and Consumer Affairs Commissioner Andrew Rutnik was one of the primary witnesses Friday. He testified that in order for vendors to acquire a valid business permit, they must first have a valid location permit.
Much of the questioning of Rutnik and the other defendants Police Commissioner Franz Christian, Housing Parks and Recreation Commissioner Ira Hobson, the U.S. government, and the absent Gov. Charles W. Turnbull, who had been excused from appearing Friday by plaintiffs' attorneys Clive Rivers and Kenth Rogers sought to establish when they became aware of the 1985 injunction.
The slow pace of the hearing due in part to apparent confusion among government attorneys, repeated objections by plaintiffs' lawyers and wrangling by both sides over minor issues finally exasperated Moore.
"I don't want to argue about this," he said. "Let's get on with it. This is taking way too long."
Assistant attorneys general Wayne Anderson and Denise George-Counts also attempted to show that the vendors' rights of due process were not violated when they were informed on Nov. 30, 2000 months after the estate of Homer Wheaton first asked the government to remove the vendors from their property that as of the following day they would be barred from the site. Meetings with vendors were detailed, in which government officials sought to work out possible relocation sites, including an area at the Long Bay landfill and at Vendors Plaza downtown.
Moore expressed a good deal of interest in those meetings and asked Hobson in particular what the meetings were about and how many vendors attended. He also paid close attention to the testimony of Hobson's secretary, Sylvia Frett, who herself delivered correspondence to the vendors from Hobson. The judge at one point asked Frett whether vendor Evaristo Rios, sitting at plaintiffs' table, was one of the vendors she gave correspondence to.
Frett said yes, he was.
In his closing remarks, Moore noted that Friday's hearing and the lawsuit did not address "the bigger problems" in the Drake's Seat vendors' situation. He said he may well have enough evidence to rule but felt that Turnbull who was frequently alluded to as having directed the government's actions should have an opportunity to present his side of the story.
"It's obvious from today's evidence that the case in 1985 was based on facts materially different than now," he said. "I believe I probably could decide it now, but it's better to have all the parties available."
Moore added, "I very seriously urge the parties to get together on this and work something out. It seems to me that the parties know their own interests better than I, and this sort of thing is not very susceptible to a judge making a decision.
"The two sides need to put aside some of the emotions the strong feelings, the hurt feelings and come to some sort of understanding."
Moore suggested the parties take advantage of a court-appointed mediator as one option. In the meantime, he set Jan. 26 to continue the hearing, at which time the governor is expected to testify.