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Familiar Themes Dominate During Delegate Candidates' Forum

June 9, 2007 — Candidates spoke of changing the tax structure, establishing a more accountable municipal government and giving special privileges to native Virgin Islanders at a sparsely attended forum for at-large delegates to the 5th Constitutional Convention Saturday.
The forum was done via teleconference from the Chase Auditorium, Room B-110 on the St. Thomas campus of the University and the Melvin Evans Center on the St. Croix campus of UVI. Turnout may have been held down because while the at-large candidate forum was going on, another, larger delegate gathering was occurring at Buddhoe Park in Frederiksted. The special election will be held this Tuesday, June 12, and is a holiday.
Of 30 delegates who will sit down and write a constitution for the Virgin Islands over the next year, 26 will be elected by district; half from St. Croix and half from St. Thomas/St. John. Four will be elected at-large. There are 123 people territory-wide vying for the 30 seats and 16 vying for the four at-large slots. This is the 5th attempt to create a working constitution (See "Constitutional Conventions: What’s Gone Before"). Tregenza Roach, head of UVI’s outreach and public education program for the constitutional convention, organized and moderated the forum.
The effects of rising property taxes on native families were a major concern for many of the candidates.
“I decided to become a part of this because people are losing their property through how our tax structure is set up,” candidate Andre Dorsey said. “The tax structure does not favor working people. It favors lower income individuals in terms of welfare, and it favors the highest brackets with generous Economic Development Commission tax breaks.”
Other candidates concurred.
“I asked rank-and-file grassroots people what they would like the constitution to include,” candidate Fred A. Esannason said. “Most were not aware what it was about. But once they were informed, several had concerns about land issues.”
Many, though not all, of the candidates endorsed the idea of a definition of a Virgin Islander, and a smaller number endorsed enshrining privileges and benefits for native Virgin Islanders within the constitution.
“I believe there should be provisions placed in the constitution that protects the heritage of the people indigenous to the Virgin Islands,” Esannason said. “I say so because we have allowed or accepted people from outside to come in, and their numbers are growing larger than us. They are contributing members of our society. I have no problem with that. But we are diminishing and need to be protected as a special people with certain special privileges above and beyond those of others.”
Candidate Adelbert M. Bryan endorsed some specific privileges for natives.
“I believe no native Virgin Islander should pay property taxes,” Bryan said. “There should be an exemption. Hovensa has one and all the EDC companies have one. Also I believe no Virgin Islander should have to pay for college. In Hawaii, native Hawaiians go to a special school and no native Hawaiian pays to go to that school.”
Dorsey also endorsed free education for natives.
Bryan argued that only native Virgin Islanders should have power within the territory.
“We native Virgin Islanders must control the Virgin Islands North, South, East and West,” Bryan said. “When I go to Texas, I have to adjust to their way of doing things and people who come here should adjust to ours.”
While dubious of putting a "native" definition into the constitution, Browne said he thought it worth looking into whether providing free education at UVI to men born in the territory might increase male registration at the predominantly female university.
Candidate Virdin C. Brown took a similar tack.
“I see no reason why a definition of a Virgin Islander or a native Virgin Islander could not be in the document,” Brown said. ”The question is, should we put in the constitution what being a Virgin Islander means? Attaching privileges to it; that would best be left to the Legislature afterward.”
Candidate Craig Barshinger endorsed government action to promote V.I. culture, but did not endorse putting privileges within the constitution.
“If we put things in the constitution that will prevent it from being accepted, that would be a tragedy,” Barshinger said.
For more information on the constitutional convention, there is a website. Also, to the left of this article, click the link under Community that says Constitutional Convention.
The candidates present at the forum were (in order of their ballot number): Jay Wiltshire, Rita A. Brady-Bermudez, Elizabeth Pichardo, Craig W. Barshinger, Edward W. Browne, Andre Dorsey, George W. Phillips, Fred A. Esannason, Nandi Sekou, Adelbert M. Bryan and Virdin C. Brown.
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