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Transfer Day Prompts Constitutional Questions

March 31, 2005 – As Transfer Day drew to a close Thursday, a select group of individuals reflected on the history of the territory, reviewed its present state of affairs, and recommended what needs to be done.
At a historic legislative forum at the Earle B. Ottley Legislative Hall, seven panelists discussed the theme, "From Danish Colonial Councils (1853) to the Revised Organic Act of 1954: A Century of Struggle for Constitutional Democracy."
Spearheaded by Senate President Lorraine L. Berry, the discussion was geared toward hearing from "experts" concerning proposed legislation by the senate consensus majority to adopt the Revised Organic Act as the V.I. Constitution.
Contrary to the views of the Senate majority, most of the panelists felt the adoption of the Organic Act as the territory's constitution was a step backward, leading away from the ultimate goal of more self-governance. The proposed legislation received much negative criticism Thursday evening.
Since the U.S. Congress first granted the territory the authority to adopt its own constitution, the fight for a territorial constitution has been a long one, filled with several failed efforts.
V.I. residents have made four fruitless attempts to adopt a constitution – in 1965, 1972, 1978 and 1980.
Gov. Charles W. Turnbull, having served in all the previous constitutional conventions, said in his opening remarks that adopting the Revised Organic Act was not the "ideal method."
"This is like a last resort," Turnbull said. "It is not my preferred way."
Delegate Donna M. Christensen, one of the few individuals speaking positively about the proposed legislation, said in her opening remarks that the "status quo can no longer be good enough for us."
Christensen urged her fellow Virgin Islanders to "get off our duffs" and get involved with the process.
After remarks from Turnbull and Christensen, the panelists gave their views. The group included Gerard Emanuel, University of the Virgin Islands Professor; former senator Arnold "Morty" Golden; Rupert Ross, retired educator; Dr. Paul Leary; Judith Bourne; Joanne Bozzuto, and Basil Ottley Jr.
"Our current focus may just likely be misplaced," Emanuel said, adding that before the territory could adopt a constitution it should first address its current status with the United States. "12 years have passed and Virgin Islanders are still not ready to revisit the status issue."
Emanuel said the territory's status needed to be reviewed, especially now when Puerto Rico will soon vote on its status, which could directly impact the territory.
"A status we do not want may be forced upon us," Emanuel said.
Emanuel said he disagreed with the plan to adopt the Revised Organic Act. He said the territory should form its own constitution, and that the challenge is not getting Congress to approve the constitution, but getting the electorate to do so.
"We should definitely not revert to a 51-year-old document, in which the people did not have any input," Emanuel said.
Emanuel gave a brief history of the political system of the territory. He said in 1856, while under Danish rule, St. Thomas councilmen argued for separate councils. From 1856 to 1859, no council meetings were held, Emanuel said, because St. Thomas councilmen refused to go over to Christiansted, St. Croix – the then capital of the Danish West Indies. They argued that because of "adverse economic concerns" the capital should be moved to St. Thomas.
"History seems to be repeating itself," Emanuel said of St. Croix's current cry of economic woes and its move for self-governance and secession.
Golden said he, too, could not support the move to adopt the Revised Organic Act as the V.I. Constitution.
"I believe that we can adopt our own constitution, one that meets the needs of the people of the territory," Golden said.
Ross listed reasons for the four failed attempts, incliding the diversity of the community, a lack of local understanding of the territory's status with the United States, absence of political leadership, and the transient nature of the society.
He said there is a need for more public events on self-determination and self-government to raise awareness within the community. Ross called for a public education campaign to inform voters of issues during the lead-up to the recently approved 2006 Constitutional Convention.
Leary agreed that the lack of properly educated residents resulted in the failure of the previous constitutions. He then discussed division between the two districts.
"First, we're separated by water," Leary said, referencing Caribbean neighbors, such as St. Kitts and Nevis, where geographic separation led to divisions and calls for secession. Leary said the districts also have different social attitudes, values and economic systems.
"We have seen a lull in the evolution of our self-determination," Bozzuto said.
Bozzuto said adopting the Revised Organic Act as-is would not assist in the territory's quest for more self-governance. But were the act adopted, she believes it must be amended. Additionally, she said the territory would also need its own Internal Revenue Code because current tax laws would create problems in funding and self-sustenance.
"Modernizing tax laws is a very important aspect of having a self-sustaining government," Bozzuto said. "The Revised Organic Act does not necessarily reflect the economic problems we face today."
Bourne said she finds it ironic that on the anniversary of the transfer of the islands from one rule to another "we gather to discuss a constitution without a discussion of status." She referred to the Organic Act as a "colonial law."
"There is a real danger in thinking that when we go through a constitutional convention that we will have gained more self-governance," Bourne said. "Adopting the Revised Organic Act is just a way of maintaining more local control without disrupting the colonial relationship we share with the United States."
Bourne said status should be determined before adopting a constitution because under the present unincorporated territory status, the Virgin Islands laws could still be changed "at the whim of Congress."
"Adopting a Virgin Islands Constitution without determining our status is like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic," Bourne said.
Ottley urged V.I. residents to go even further.
"It appears to me that we first have to have a vision," Ottley said. "There must be some discussion on what it is we want to be; what it is we must become."
Ottley said senators should not expect the proposed legislation to sit well with residents when it does not address the "nitty-gritty issues" they face on a daily basis.
He urged residents to "do the heavy lifting" needed to remove the things that divide the territory, and form a unified vision of where they want to go. Ottley also called for those who avoid politics to "take on the burden" of getting involved.
UVI Professor Malik Sekou was the moderator for the event. Members of the audience also got a chance to ask questions to the panelists.

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