Aug. 19, 2002 A bill which will dramatically bring the Virgin Islands into the 21st century technologically was adopted in part on Monday by the Senate Economic Development, Agriculture and Consumer Affairs Committee.
The V.I. Technology Enterprise Act of 2001 would establish a Bureau of Information Technology which would develop a comprehensive technology strategy for the V.I. government covering a period of at least five years, to be updated annually. It would consolidate various government entities' acquisition of information technology under one umbrella.
The strategy would include the centralizing of data centers and would afford the public computer access to public records in all three branches of the government, while protecting confidential government information.
Providing testimony on the measure were LaVerne Ragster, University of the Virgin Islands president; Roy McFarlane, the governor's special assistant for information technology; and Kevin Williams, Territorial Court director of computer operations. All were enthusiastic in their endorsement of the bill.
McFarlane said it would "send a message throughout the world that the U.S. Virgin Islands is on board as it relates to technology — and wants their business."
Williams said it would have direct bearing on the future technological operations of Territorial Court. "As we speak," he said, there are "product demonstrations on case management software which will greatly computerize the court's operations." He added, "Neither the court nor individual governmental agencies can expect to create their technology plans in a vacuum."
The only hesitation came from Ragster, who wanted more time to review the bill, which was drafted before the recent establishment of the UVI Research and Technology Park, to be constructed on St. Croix. Ragster said UVI needs more study on certain aspects of the bill, including a section titled "Limitations on electronic self-help" which relates to using electronic means to exercise a licensor's rights. She said vendors could create hardships for users.
'Common-law marriage' controversy
The bill first surfaced in the Legislature in December 2000. It was approved then but subsequently vetoed by Gov. Charles W. Turnbull. The governor took issue with language in the bill which he said would condone common-law marriage, which is illegal in the territory. He cited a passage referring to "immediate family" in a section on cyber-stalking.
At that time, attorney Tom Bolt, who worked on the original legislation, said if anyone was suggesting the language would sanction common-law marriage, "They don't understand law or something up there."
Bolt said then that the impetus for the bill, a 180-page document modeled after similar legislation in other U.S. jurisdictions, came out of the Legislative-Executive Economic Summit of March 1999. Bolt said that he worked with the St. Thomas-St. John Chamber of Commerce in drawing it up and that it was sponsored by six of the majority senators in the 23rd Legislature.
The measure covers a wide range of technology-related issues, including automated office systems for the government, protections against unsolicited materials for Internet users, and procedures for the use of electronic signatures and electronic contracts.
It has since shrunk to 114 pages with more than 400 subsections.
The Bureau of Information Technology coordinator would be charged with developing a comprehensive technology strategy for the government for a period of at least five years.
Sen. Lorraine Berry, one of the original bill's sponsors and prime sponsor of the current version, worked extensively with McFarlane to come up with the current proposal. "This bill has been around since early this year," Berry said. "We need to have this law passed. It is very important, not only in the acquisition of technology; it consolidates all the responsibilities into one office where everybody would have to come up with a plan for their particular department."
McFarlane said, "The time has come for the territory to embrace the technological advantages of the Internet, telecommunications and other global communication." He said the act would "provide a sense of stability to investors and business desiring to relocate a part or all of their operations to the proposed UVI Technology Park, or to the V.I. as a whole."
Online capabilities spelled out
The act provides for online capability to:
– Renew or apply for occupational or professional licenses, or for hunting and fishing licences.
– File property taxes.
– Register trade names, file Uniform Commercial Code documents and apply for renewal of Notary Public commissions.
– Apply for unemployment benefits.
– Apply for social services benefits with the Human Services Department.
– Access official opinions issued by the Attorney General.
– Apply for tax benefits with the Economic Development Commission.
– Submit requests for proposals and bids by V.I. government agencies.
In one section, the measure sets out rules for licensing computer information including software, databases and computerized music.
It contains consumer protection provisions including language designed to cut down on unsolicited advertising and other junk faxes and e-mail. It makes it illegal to stalk or harass anyone electronically, just as it is illegal to do so in person or by telephone. It redefines newspapers to include electronic publications.
Monday's hearing, chaired by Sen. Adelbert Bryan, started on time at 10 a.m. Senators listened for several hours to testimony, then decided in the early afternoon to move forward the first two sections of the bill and reserve the balance for further analysis, both legal and economic, and further study by UVI.
Technological strategy, task force approved
The online services cited above are spelled out in later, detailed sections of the bill. The first two sections cover the mechanics of setting up what's called for in the legislation — including the Bureau of Information Technology, a comprehensive technology strategy covering at least five years, and an interim task force that eventually would be replaced by an advisory committee for the bureau and the governor.
The task force would comprise nine members: a director; a consumer representative from each district; three telecommunications experts representing a local Internet service provider, a local telephone service provider and a long-distance telephone service provider; and the chief technology officers of the Legislature, Territorial Court and UVI, or their designated representatives. All but the last three would be appointed by the governor.
Bryan took issue with the makeup of the task force, saying it should be restructured to reflect the interests of the majority of its stakeholders. He said he was trouble by the absence of criteria for the director, a concern shared by other senators. Sen. Donald "Ducks" Cole drafted an amendment changing the structure of the task force and amending the first two sections of the bill.
Cole's amendment eliminates the two "consumer representatives" in favor of two "matriculated students majoring in computer science or computer information." It also sets qualifications for a director, still to be selected by the governor, but requiring the approval of the Legislature. The director would be selected "exclusively on the basis of merit, as determined by technical training and education, skill and other qualifications," including:
– A master's degree in information technology, computer science or a related field.
– Five years of management experience.
– At least 10 years of experience in information technology, computer science or a related field.
Excised 'whereas' clauses reinstated
Cole also reinstated the "whereas" clauses from the
original legislation which Berry said had been taken out because they were deemed unnecessary by the bill's other sponsors. The clauses include the reasons for the measure, including that its strategy shall provide for optimum utilization of information technology equipment; maximum practical integration of information systems; the establishment of data-processing centers to serve units of the V.I. government; and management controls to ensure the most efficient, effective and economical use of the territory's resources for information technology.
The clauses conclude with a statement that the V.I. government shall participate with private industry, the federal government and independent instrumentalities in developing advanced information technologies "reducing the cost of territorial governmental operations."
Cole's amendment also establishes a board consisting of individuals with information technology experience to advise the governor on advancements in the related fields. This was suggested by Ragster, with the stipulation that it not interfere with the work of the task force.
The amendment also adds a proposal to develop a multi-use Internet portal providing public access to all governmental services, to promote greater efficiency by governmental agencies serving the public.
It also states the task force should sponsor conferences, conduct studies, collect and disseminate information, and issue reports on communications technology. And it should represent the V.I. government in activities of standards organizations and other appropriate activities.
The first two sections of the bill, as amended, passed unanimously. They will now proceed to the Rules Committee.
Approving the measure were Sens. Bryan, Cole, Roosevelt David, Emmett Hansen II and Celestino A. White. Absent were Sens. Norman Jn Baptiste and Vargrave Richards. Non-committee members Berry, Carlton Dowe and Norma Pickard-Samuel also attended the meeting.
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