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Delegates, Citizens Confer on Constitutional Convention

Oct. 19, 2007 — St. Croix’s delegates to the upcoming Constitutional Convention met and mingled with civic-minded citizens at H2O restaurant in the Hibiscus Hotel Thursday, talking of colonialism, municipal government, property taxes and promoting native Virgin Islands culture and traditions.
The delegates were elected at a special election in June and have the next year to create a constitution for the territory. (See "Native-Rights Advocate Bryan Biggest Winner in Constitutional Convention Delegate Vote.")
Elections Superintendent John Abramson, well-known St. Croix psychiatrist Dr. Olaf Hendricks and St. Croix attorney Joel Holt each spoke briefly, offering their views on how to go forward. The nonprofit organization Cruzans in Focus put on the event, and its director Michael J. Springer moderated, saying a few words himself. Abramson said he was speaking only as an interested citizen, not in an official capacity.
Abramson told the crowd a little of the history of constitutional conventions in the Virgin Islands, pointing out that this is the fifth, following conventions in ’64, ’71, ’77 and ’80. (See V.I. CONSTITUTIONAL CONVENTIONS: BACKGROUND.)
“The first thing to note is no constitution has failed,” Abramson said. "They got a majority of the vote. But that is not the threshold. The past conventions were approved by both Congress and the president and then were defeated here. They were defeated for lack of participation.”
Abramson explained that after the Constitutional Convention produces a document and after Congress and the president sign off on it, there are still two thresholds that must be reached to enact the constitution. First, a majority of registered voters must come out and vote in a referendum. Out of that majority a majority must vote in the affirmative.
Abramson said the Constitutional Convention had a new opening date of Oct. 29 and the referendum on the constitution is slated for November 2008.
“I cannot stress enough the need for participation,” he said. “The controversies so far, I am hoping may bring some good if they stir up engagement.”
Beyond the technical and legal ramifications, Abramson spoke with emotion of the importance of a constitution for the territory.
“An 'organic act' is a colonial device,” he said, referring to the 1954 federal statute that defines the institutions of government in the territory. “The vestiges of mental and physical slavery can be addressed now by us, making a stand here. Or in ten years, in 2017 it will be a hundred years that we have had no constitution.”
Holt enumerated the characteristics federal law expected in a constitution, noting that most were already done. It must recognize the sovereignty of the United States, it must be a republican form of government, and it must set up a judicial system. And it must have a bill of rights.
“And no one tells us what goes into it,” he said. “This convention gets to write it.”
Holt told the delegates they had an existing document; the 1980 constitution, to start from, but that they could change it in any way or start afresh if they preferred.
Holt said the 1980 document, approved by Congress and the president, had a definition of a native Virgin Islander. There were no rights associated with that definition, he said, other than the right to vote in any Virgin Islands election.
Hendricks spoke passionately about the need for a successful constitution.
“Our relationship with the U.S. is basically a patriarchal one,” Hendricks said. “Washington politicians, they are the ones who run this territory. We must always remember that. The descendents of old plutocracies, families of power of yesteryear, they run things. We are beggars at the great halls of Washington D.C. We are fourth-class citizens, with implications that are racial, economic and sociological.”
Hendricks said people who move to the Virgin Islands should become part of the local culture, not remain aloof.
“We have individuals who came out of Puerto Rico to live here 50 years ago and barely speak three words of English,” Hendricks said. “There are people here who live here for 30 years and violate our basic customs all the time. When someone approaches someone else, we say good morning, good afternoon and good night. People who live here for decades should know that. And I can’t count the times I’ve been talking to a white individual and another white individual comes up and starts talking like I’m not even there.”
A burst of spirited applause greeted this last plaint.
After the formal speakers, some of the delegates spoke a few words about their hopes for the convention, pledging to work together to produce a workable document, pledging to respect the diversity of strong opinion among their colleagues and expressing thanks for the honor of being chosen to help with the task of writing a constitution.
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