79.6 F
Cruz Bay
Tuesday, November 28, 2023


With a frown that soon became a smile, Sen. Vargrave Richards, president of the 23rd Legislature, considered for a second or two whether he would ever accept that position again.
"I think not," he says. "I'll leave it at 'been there, done that.'"
Richards led the Senate through some volatile and rocky times highlighted by several major economic proposals that wound up becoming emotional issues as well, notably the Prosser land exchange proposal, the Beal Aerospace deal, allocation of the tobacco settlement funds and, probably the most emotional, the Southern Energy proposal to buy part of the V.I. Water and Power Authority.
All three proposals were voted down, and the tobacco settlement funds went ultimately to health care, with none going to the Union Arbitration Fund.
Richards voted no on the Southern Energy proposal. Why?
"I'm glad you asked me that," he says. "The Legislature employed a consultant, Arthur D. Little Co., to assess the sale. Their analysis suggested we weren't getting the full value for the plant." The analysis said we could have gotten 30 to 50 percent more, Richards says. "They said we were selling at a loss, and, further, the tax concessions for the coming years would pretty much wipe out our profits. The deal was too generous.
"I remain in principal supportive of the sale of WAPA, if sold at a reasonable price," he says.
Richards is a very calm, self-possessed person. His smile is slow, and his gestures are graceful. There's a saying included in a framed "Desiderata" on his crowded desk which might have served him well in the recent past. It reads: "Avoid loud and aggressive persons; they are vexations to the spirit."
Reflecting on his tenure in the president's chair, Richards says, "I believe I brought a sense of decorum, a sense of order, of having a measure of respect during session to be able to act on the matters at hand." For the most part, he says, the bills made it to the committee process to hear pros and cons. "I'm proud of the fact that 80 percent of the agendas were completed in the 23rd Legislature. That's in stark contrast to previous legislatures," he says. "
The most impressive legislation, Richards said, was the bill expanding the responsibilities of the Department of Education and the $300 million bond issue for vendor payments, tax refunds, retirement and other outstanding debts, a measure Richards spearheaded.
Richards is not happy about the current status of the $57,000 high-tech electronic voting system installed in Senate chambers late last year. The system would bring uniformity and balance to recognition of senators.
"When someone is trying to speak, say to the right or left of you, you may miss them," he says. The system has a simple system of accurate voter input, and allows for remote voting via the Internet by senators.
Thus far, the majority has done nothing with it, "They're ignoring it," Richards says, but "sooner or later it absolutely will happen. A growing number of state legislatures are using it."
Like all the minority group senators, Richards is not happy with the individual or committee allotments doled out by the majority. "I came as a minority senator in 1994, seven years ago, and I had a $140,000 budget, and I didn't chair a committee. Now, I have $115,000 including the youth committee budget." Richards says in the 23rd Legislature the minority senators were given as much as $200,000, based on $180,000 for staff, $20,000 for other expenses necessary for them to run their offices. "Ultimately, the slender budgets hurt the people we serve," he says.
So this will never happen again, Richards says he is planning to introduce legislation for a minimum allotment for all senators. "It's the prudent and right thing to do," he says.
How does he see the future of the V.I. Senate? Richards came under fire from his colleagues last fall when he introduced a bill which would provide for a part-time Legislature, reduce the length of time in session on an annual basis, and reduce the salaries of senators from $65,000 to $30,000. It didn't fly.
Richards is in favor of subdistricting. "I believe it will serve to make senators accountable to their constituencies. Each district would be able to monitor the progress of it s representative.
"People can point to the beginning of a senator's term, and say 'You've done nothing for us,' or thank them for what they're accomplished," he says. "Each senator would be responsible for his district, Mon Bijou, Savan, whatever … It would reduce the level of controversy in the Senate and lead to clean politics." Richards points out with the present system, you may be running against a fellow party member, which could develop ill feelings that never really heal.
Sen. Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg, who has sponsored the referendum initiative mandated by November vote to reduce the Senate from 15 to nine, said in a recent interview that although he supports the plan in principle, subdistricting would be too expensive because it would entail the mapping and districting of the territory, and involve detailed maps for the Board of Elections to follow.
Richards says, "I don't necessarily agree. The initial cost may be high, but the long-range benefits would clearly overwhelm the cost."
Richards says he would like to suspend the Legislature for two terms and focus on the laws that are on the books. "There are myriad laws that are not enforced. This may sound radical, but that's why I offered the part-time legislation. Other than budget caucuses and a hearing here and there for immediate issues, we could do it," he says. "We're a small community."
He says he also favors municipal government with a mayor or ombudsman on each island to deal with issues on a day-to-day basis. This would bring up Organic Act issues, he acknowledges.
As far as Donastorg's referendum, he says the legislation should be drawn up and brought to the floor. "It deserves rightful debate, discussion and amendment, if necessary."
Reflecting on his past presidency, he says, "One of the difficulties of being president is not having enough time for day-to-day matters, because of all the administrative duties."
Clearly, Richards is happy with his new committee and the time to run it properly, if not its budget. He chairs the 24th Legislature's Committee on Youth and Human Services. "It's kind of a blessing that I have been given this committee," he says. A St. Croix teacher for 20 years before embarking on a political career, he has solid ideas for improving youth care in the territory.
As he warms to the subject of young people, he leans back and at times underlines his points with sweeping gestures. "Latchkey" kids are a big problem," he says. With no supervision after school and with parents at work the kids have "too big a chance for mischief."
His goal is to create a youth community agency set aside to deal with youth affairs exclusively. It would oversee all youth-related activities and the person at the head would serve as an advocate to all community youth concerns, he says. "Things are scattered now," he says, "I want to put everything under one umbrella." There used to be such an agency, but it was done away with in about 1996, he says.
"One thing that's lacking is a well-organized structure for after school activities. We have the Boy's Club, Beacon schools, and others, but we need to be able to coordinate the programs," he says. "We need to develop councils to spread wings into different communities — for instance, Savan on St. Thomas, and Sion Farm on St. Croix — so there's a council representative to feed into the agency what the area's needs are so it can
assist in developing programs." He explains the agency would be housed under the office of the governor, with a degree of autonomy.
Another project he has initiated, even before he was chairman of the youth committee, is a clergy coalition to deal with troubled students. Called the Interfaith Clergy for Family/Youth Development NOW program, it seeks to resolve conflicts in St. Croix schools. "It's a voluntary program," Richards notes, since there's a "very thin line between church and state. Between 25 and 30 members from different faiths serve as counselors in the different schools lending their spiritual support and experience to any child who wants it."
Richards recently waged a successful campaign with public service announcements declaring "Take Care is Better than Don't Care," which targeted negligent or missing fathers.
"I've been talking about the youth and not mentioning the seniors," he says. There are a lot of problems with senior abandonment, leaving older family members in homes, and then ignoring them, he says. "And there is senior abuse, for instance using their Social Security checks illegally; there are lots of problems to investigate," he says.
Although he stopped short of calling him a mentor, Richards says he enjoys conversations with the 93-year-old former senator Fritz Lawaetz. "I learn so much from him," he says, "He is so rich in history, and he has such a quick mind. He's amazing." Lawaetz served 12 Senate terms starting with the first Legislature in 1955.
Above Richards' crowded desk is a picture of his daughter, Cherise Renee, beaming down over a pile of colorful balloons. "She just graduated last year from Georgia Southern College," he says, beaming himself, "and she's now working in tourism for a subsidiary of American Express. She called me yesterday, and they're sending her on a trip out of state."
As testimony to a more casual self, a spiffy straw hat adorns a hat tree in the corner of Richards' small but cheery office at the back of the Legislature building. His assistant, Sandra Brunet, peers in as the loudspeaker starts the roll call beginning upstairs for a Labor and Veterans Affairs Committee. With a gracious smile, but no tip of the hat, he is off.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Keeping our community informed is our top priority.
If you have a news tip to share, please call or text us at 340-228-8784.

Support local + independent journalism in the U.S. Virgin Islands

Unlike many news organizations, we haven't put up a paywall – we want to keep our journalism as accessible as we can. Our independent journalism costs time, money and hard work to keep you informed, but we do it because we believe that it matters. We know that informed communities are empowered ones. If you appreciate our reporting and want to help make our future more secure, please consider donating.