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Pay-Raise Protesters Shadow Legislative Swearing-In Ceremony

Jan. 8, 2007 — While swearing-in activities took place at Emancipation Garden on Monday, a group of local residents stood silently in the background, protesting the Senate's recent decision to pass pay raises for themselves, the governor and lieutenant governor.
The raises, which were signed into law late last month by former Gov. Charles W. Turnbull, were part of a 50-page bill that included various other reforms, including changes to the Government Employees Retirement System (GERS). (See "Post-Election Senate Passes Bold Pay Raises for Senators, Governor, Lieutenant Governor.")
In addition to speaking out against the GERS proposals, community members have also started a movement to recall the senators who voted in favor of enacting the raises. While approximately 3000 residents have already signed recall petitions on St. Croix, a petition to recall St. Thomas Sen. Louis P. Hill was circulated after Monday's ceremony.
A steady stream of angry voters signed the petition, along with another document urging Gov. John deJongh to repeal the legislation, which makes the pay raises retroactive to Oct. 1, 2006. The addition of a retroactive clause allows Turnbull, along with former Lt. Gov. Vargrave Richards, to receive a portion of the increase.
Former Sen. Stephanie Scott-Williams, designated spokeswoman for the group, told members of the media that since the increases were passed she had received "a lot" of phone calls from local residents asking for the law's repeal.
"We're not against raises," she said after the ceremony. "But we are against the way that it was done."
Turnbull called the Legislature into special session to consider the bill four days before a new administration was sworn in.
Describing herself as a "notorious facilitator and advocate," Williams also said she wanted to give residents an "outlet for their frustrations."
"I suggested writing letters to the senators, writing letters to the governor," she said. "Because people have a lot more power than they think. Four years ago, we were out here demonstrating against pay raises, and we were able to get them repealed."
Efforts on St. Thomas are being conducted "in solidarity with what's happening on St. Croix," she said.
"I'm looking for leadership for my grandchildren," Scott-Williams added. "Someone has to stand up and say something."
While Scott-Williams also said that community groups such as AARP V.I. should be given an opportunity to review and amend the legislation, other residents said they were outraged by passage of the bill.
"I think this is absolutely an outrage," said former U.S. Attorney Terry Halpern, who signed the petitions Monday. "Any pay raise isn't justified. I'd like to see the highest-paid teachers in the United States, not the highest-paid Senators."
The raises are "disgraceful" and the territory could better use the money by improving care for the mentally ill and for school repairs, Halpern said.
Scott-Williams added that senators deserve a raise when "the community gets a living wage."
Heard on the radio late Monday afternoon, Supervisor of Elections John Abramson outlined all the steps included in the extensive recall process. After recall petitions are first filed with the Elections System, residents have 60 days to collect the signatures necessary to prompt a recall election, he said.
The threshold for the number of signatures needed varies in each district, Abramson added. According to the Revised Organic Act, petitions have to be signed by 50 percent of all individuals who voted in each district during the General Election. "On St. Croix, that was more than 17,000 individuals, and on St. Thomas it was like 18,000-plus individuals," he said.
Once the requisite signatures are collected, the Elections System has 15 days to verify the signatures. After that, Elections or the governor has no more than 60 days to call a special recall election.
"During the election, 50 percent-plus-one vote has to be cast in favor of recalling any particular officer," he said. "On St. Croix, that means that approximately 11,000 people have to show up to vote."
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