On Dec. 17, something extraordinary and historic took place. Gov. Charles W. Turnbull brought his cabinet to St. John for a town meeting to discuss the issues that plague our island. In Virgin Islands history, this marked a precedent: a town meeting with the chief and his staff.
We discussed, of course, parking and congestion, the need for the master planning of Cruz Bay, moving the school, having our own senator and more — but most importantly, the need for an island/town council.
It was a terrific first step in bringing the people into the decision-making process. I wish to compliment the governor for his presence and his staff for their helpfulness. It started a dialogue between this government and our island. St. Croix would do well to stop whining, jump on the bandwagon of self-determination, and call for a similar meeting for their concerns.
For me, the meeting's most critical item was the governor's continued commitment to establishing island/town councils on all islands, just as he stated in his State of the Territory address last January. I applaud him for his foresight to propose such a wonderful change for our stagnated, centralized government.
Such councils may be the single most important movement that the territory could take. It would bring accountability to each island, an accountability that does not exist now; but more important, it makes us active participants in the future of our towns and islands. Imagine a day when each island has its own budget, operates within it and has a choice in how that money is spent.
The governor further challenged our assemblage to help him create these island councils. He urged us repeatedly to help him develop a formula to put town councils in the Organic Act to ensure that the councils would have permanence and would be open to all islands. He repeatedly acknowledged that councils are needed and that he is an advocate and a willing participant.
What an unbelievable avenue towards community involvement Governor Turnbull has given us. He has opened the door to a government which will be closer to the people. He is allowing us to build a government that is ours because we are the government. With such councils, we can steer a future for each island, and for our territory, and for our homes.
Well, Governor Turnbull, I join you gladly in this effort. Count me in!
So, what is an island/town council? How does it work?
Town councils are democracy in action. They are you and me and us being part of that action. These councils are the missing ingredient in the V I government. Our present centralized government fails to include the people in the decision-making process. We have become so disenfranchised by our government that we only watch in apathy and disgust at the ineffectiveness.
Sometimes we get inspired to seek change, only to find we have no voice, so we give up and the madness continues. We keep electing with hope, only to be disappointed later because our elected officials can only be for some of the people, some of the time, and usually it's not us they're working for!
With an island/town council on each island, we can steer, manage and advance through active participation. We can empower our community to solve our own problems democratically and develop policies and programs to implement solutions. Such councils provide an incredible mechanism for communities to gather, discuss, debate and reach consensus for their future.
Councils are open to all sides of an issue without bowing to special interests. Unlike the Senate's all-too-often power struggles, the council's strength lies not in which individual can shout the loudest, but who can gather the largest numbers with a united voice.
Our present government survives by the governor and the Senate micromanaging every issue of each island, an impossible task. Instead of focusing on territorial issues, federal issues and budgetary issues, we have a Senate in the middle of every decision with piecemeal legislation. We have a government designed for the power of special interests more than the benefit of the community.
Even if we have numbered seats or geographic districts, the Senate won't be any more accountable. We will still have our senators sitting in their private offices doing only what they wish and working on their re-elections.
With town councils we have accountability and access to address our individual islands' issues. With town councils we won't need a full-time Senate, nor will we need 15 senators, because they won't have to micromanage everything. They should concentrate on territorial issues while the individual islands run themselves.
We need each island to operate within its own budget, which will remove many of the animosities between islands fearing one gets more than another. Each island council will have direct access to the territorial departments and agencies (Police, Education, Health, Public Works, Planning and Natural Resources, Licensing and Consumer Affairs, Tourism, Water and Power Authority, Port Authority, etc.) to assure each island of effective accountability that meets the community's needs. Other than hearing an occasional appeal, the Legislature and the governor will allow the island councils to govern the islands.
How do we go about setting up an island/town council?
Will the council members be elected by the voters? Will the council meetings be open to the public? Will island administrators be replaced by elected mayors? Will this lessen the authority of the governor and the legislature?
First, let's analyze the functions of the territorial government and the island government:
The territorial government will be greatly enhanced by the separation of the territorial and island governments. This separation will free the governor and the Senate to focus on territorial issues such as working with the federal government, developing budgets, soliciting business investment and tourism, and overall governing the territory.
The governor will still select his department heads, administration and cabinet staff. The Legislature will still review appointees, make laws and approve budgets. By not having to deal with the day-to-day micromanaging of each island, the territorial government will be able to function more effectively. The territorial government will affect the island council only through budgetary and appeal issues. Also, the governor and Legislature will be better able to advance the territory as a whole and to attend ceremonial functions.
The island/town council will concentrate on issues related to an individual island. Its purposes are to unite the community into a political process, to provide a mechanism for all residents to participate, to work with the island's budget, to provide elected representation and to assure that territorial government agencies and departments know the voice of the community.
An island government has two parts: the island council and the island administration. The island council may have seven voting members consisting of a mayor, who also chairs the council; a vice chair; and five other members. These are all elective positions, chosen by the individual island voters. The members are elected at-large for four-year staggered terms, with council elections held every other year.
The island council hires the island administration staff — comprising a manager, an attorney, a finance officer and a clerk. The only full-time employee of the council and the administration should be the island manager, who reports directly to the mayor and the council.
The way that the council may operate is to have both regular town meetings or hearings and council study sessions. For instance, the hearings could be held on the first and third Tuesdays at 4 p.m. Voting on issues is held only on hearing days. The council study sessions could be held on the second and fourth Tuesdays for the purpose of soliciting and collecting information for study on issues affecting the island.
The island council would set
and publish the agenda in the papers and on the Internet and alert any territorial department when it is asked to attend a session. And, most importantly, it would keep all meetings open to the public.
Imagine your island having a voice and an opportunity to work with the many department heads on issues directly relating to the island. At present, if there is a need for an island to discuss a public works project or how the police are performing, we have no way to force the centralized government into being responsive. With town councils we will have that opportunity to work together.
Also, town councils can open the door to people being involved. With that involvement and responsibility we will find that people really do want to participate. Across America and in many countries around the world, town meetings are a real happening with a very enthusiastic atmosphere. The same would surely happen here.
I hope this sparks some thought on how we can change the workings of our government to one of greater participation from everyone. I also wish to challenge the media and political pundits to help explore the benefits of island/town councils and help bring this to fruition for our islands. Governor Turnbull has given us his commitment to this change of government, so let's seize the day together.
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