Aug. 16, 2002 – The public was invited to see the new look of the conference room in the Legislature Building in Cruz Bay on Friday. And what they saw was quite a change.
Several weeks of work carried out by members of the Senate executive staff included laying carpet and installing wooden desks and railings, video monitors and microphones. As a result, St. John has its own replica of the formal Senate chambers, also known as Earle B. Ottley Hall, on St. Thomas.
In a well contained within two curving handrails are the desk of the Senate president, vice president and secretary at the front; a table with seating for three witnesses facing them; and desks around them for the other lawmakers.
The afternoon dedication ceremony and the open house that followed were attended by senators and their staffs, V.I. National Park Superintendent John King, a contingent of St. John seniors, and Human Services Department personnel.
Senate President Almando "Rocky" Liburd, a St. John resident, said there previously had not been enough room to seat everyone if all of the lawmakers were to attend a hearing. They would crowd around a horseshoe-shaped desk, passing around a single microphone so all could be heard.
"This is the first time we've had a place where all 15 senators can sit, a recorder, legal counsel," Liburd said. "I felt that St. John and St. Croix, which had a mediocre-type setting, hadn't gotten the attention that was needed, that we needed to do something, and do something good for the people."
However, one observer noted that the room now has much less space for the public to sit.
If the issue of a public hearing should hit their civic nerve, residents of St. John have been known to pack the Legislative conference room, as it's been called. But even more modestly attended hearings take place there up to half a dozen times a year. It used to be that the place to hear and be heard was on the second floor of Boulon Center, but lawmakers sought a new venue in the early 1990s. The former Hilltop Restaurant and Nightclub was chosen, and the second-floor dancehall was converted into a public hearing room.
The facility opened in 1995, about the same time that Hurricane Marilyn wrecked the landscape. As a result, the building served as temporary headquarters for relief agencies such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
The first phase of work on the hearing room was completed several months later. It has since been the place for residents to complain about road conditions in Coral Bay and on Bordeaux Mountain, to voice their views on the proposed sale of the Water and Power Authority, to defend the rights of local fishermen, to demand payment for private trash haulers, to confront the Tax Assessor's Office about sky-high property taxes and, most recently, to attend a hearing of a congressional subcommittee looking into operations of the Virgin Islands National Park and the territory's national monuments.
Now, there will no longer be a need to hold committee hearings on St. Thomas when the issues concern St. John, Liburd said. "The only thing we cannot do here and on St. Croix is have formal session, because by law we have to have that in St. Thomas, in the capital," he said.
The facility also has office space where senators or their staff members can meet privately with constituents. And it is now accessible to the physically handicapped.
Liburd said doing the work with an in-house crew saved money and gave staffers a chance to use their skills as craftsmen. He had special praise for Halva Rabsatt, a member of his personal staff, who was given the assignment of coming up with a design for St. John. "This is the vision we had, that we can give these employees an opportunity to maximize their potential … the same employees that have been there for several years," Liburd said.
An appreciation ceremony for the work done on St. John and St. Croix is expected to be held later this year. As far as the cost of creating the St. John chamber, "in terms of materials," Liburd said, "if we spent $5,000, we spent a lot."
The bigger-ticket items included chairs, microphones, new air conditioning and a sound system. Liburd said he didn't have an exact figure for the total cost of the project.
Publisher's note : Like the St. John Source now? Find out how you can love us twice as much — and show your support for the islands' free and independent news voice … click here.