Oct. 3, 2001 — The St. Croix Chamber of Commerce announced Tuesday that it will drop its lawsuit to force the V.I. Legislature to reduce its ranks, but members said they will take a different tack to effect political change.
Chamber President Carmelo Rivera, along with attorney Douglas Brady and former senator Holland Redfield, a member of the organizations government affairs committee, said the business group had decided to withdraw its June lawsuit to force the Legislature to comply with a referendum last November on reducing the number of senators from 15 to 11 or nine.
Instead, the Chamber will attempt to implement numbered seating for the Senate via the territorys initiative ballot process.
"This is the first time in the history of the Virgin Islands an initiative has been undertaken as part of the Revised Organic Act," Brady said.
Redfield said that a mandate was issued last November when out of more than 33,000 voters, some 15,000 expressed the desire for a nine-member Senate. However, the Legislature voted in July against a bill to implement the change.
Numbered seating would include seven seats each in the St. Croix and St. Thomas-St. John districts and one at-large seat to be filled by a St. John resident. Incumbents would be assigned a numbered seat and challengers would decide which one they would run against. The proposed system, Redfield said, would instill debate and accountability to a political process that now more resembles a popularity contest.
"There isnt any agenda in this," Redfield said. "The only agenda is accountability. I think the electorate in the Virgin Islands is exasperated."
Brady said he was confident the Chamber would have prevailed in the Senate reduction lawsuit but it would have taken years to run its course. The initiative process is a more expedient way at reform, he said.
"The suit wouldnt have changed the process. It was simply a change in the number of senators. They still would have been elected at-large," he said, adding that would have concentrated power in "the hands of a few senators" and would have only "exacerbated issues."
The initiative process
Before the Chamber can get the numbered seating proposal on the ballot, it must go through a series of petitions, verifications and approvals, which are all spelled out in the Revised Organic Act of 1954.
First, the Chamber has to come up with a simple yes-or-no question for the ballot: Shall senators be elected to numbered seats? Then the group must collect the signatures of at least 1 percent of the registered voters in each district in order to have the V.I. supervisor of elections qualify the question for the ballot.
Each district, Brady said, has about 27,000 registered voters. So the Chamber must have some 275 signatures before it can go to John Abramson Jr., the supervisor of elections, who has 10 days to verify the signatures.
If everything checks out, Abramson passes the preliminary petition on to an initiative titling board, made up of himself, V.I. Attorney General Iver Stridiron and the Senates legislative counsel, Constance Krigger. Within 30 days, the board will hold a public hearing, prepare the official ballot title, the submission question and a summary of the initiative proposal.
At that point, the Chamber will have 180 days to circulate the initiative petition to the voting public. To qualify for the ballot, the petition must be signed by at least 10 percent of the voters in each district. That would be about 2,700 signatures for St. Croix and 2,700 for St. Thomas-St. John.
If that threshold is reached within the time frame, Abramson has 15 days to verify the signatures. If the criteria are met, Abramson then passes the petition on to the Legislature.
Senators must accept or reject the measure within 30 days. If approved, the petition becomes law. If rejected, the question goes to the voters in November 2002.
The Legislature can, however, submit a counter-initiative to the voters. If both are approved, the question that receives the most votes prevails.
For an initiative to pass, at least 50 percent plus one of the voters registered must turn out to vote. If so, then a simple majority will decide the question.
On a mission
One of the major hurdles in the initiative and recall process, as well as past questions regarding the territorys status, has been meeting the 50 percent-plus-one threshold. But recent efforts by the supervisor of elections to trim the dead wood from the voter rolls — those people who havent voted in the last two general elections — should make it easier to meet the percentage requirements.
"There have been thousands of people who have been taken off the rolls" because of inactivity, Redfield said. "I believe now there are people who truly will be voting. I think it is attainable."
Rivera, the St. Croix Chamber president, said the effort to qualify the initiative will begin immediately. The organization will ask for volunteers to circulate petitions on both St. Croix and St. Thomas-St. John. He also said the Chamber will hold public forums about the initiative process and urged voters of all parties and persuasions to join in the effort to "implement meaningful election reform to ensure accountability of elected officials.
"We believe we must continue to develop our government," Rivera said. "Good government is good for all the people as well as business."