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Constitution Proposals Would Give St. John a Dedicated Senator

Sept. 22, 2008 — So far, whatever Legislature the 5th V.I. Constitutional Convention creates appears likely to be about the same size and shape, but with one representative dedicated for St. John and more at-large representation.
Concluding a string of word-crafting sessions by all the convention committees, the committees handling the Legislature and the executive branch strove to hammer out some final changes Monday before meeting as a whole Tuesday morning.
Some motions were made and amendments offered during the hearing, which was teleconferenced between the St. Croix and St. Thomas campuses of the University of the Virgin Islands. But at the end of the day no proposal was approved, and legislative committee Chairman Eugene "Doc" Petersen said he would strive to gather the members once more in the next few days to wrap matters up.
Up for debate Monday were similar but distinct proposals for the size, makeup and apportionment of the Legislature. Petersen and Delegate Douglas Brady proposed slightly different plans, along with an array of potential amendments bringing the two closer together.
Brady proposed having a 15-person Senate, with three senators elected at large from the entire territory. Three more would be at-large for the island of St. Croix and another three for St. Thomas and St. John as a whole. The remaining six would be elected to specific districts — three on St. Croix, two on St. Thomas and one on St. John.
Petersen proposed an initial 15-member legislature, then tying the number and apportionment of representatives to the U.S. Census, as in U.S. states. Petersen would have six at-large representatives, three residing in each district, who would run territory-wide. The remaining nine would run as residents and representatives of nine districts: four each on St. Thomas and St. Croix, and one on St. John.
While everyone present agreed it is important to give St. John a dedicated seat, Brady said it creates a potential issue with voter representation.
"We have an issue with the principle of one man, one vote," Brady said. If St. John gets a dedicated vote but the size of the Legislature is not increased, "it can be argued that on St. John each voter has more power with each vote than on the other islands if those votes go to that particular sub-district senator. All the other sub districts have much higher populations."
This means only that legal counsel has to vet the issue, not that it cannot be done, Brady said.
"My understanding is … the principle was loosened by the Supreme Court back in the '80s, and that a 16-percent disparity in terms of voter representation by a representative has been found acceptable," he said.
The committee on the executive branch had several members present but no quorum. Members participated in discussion with the committee on the Legislature but did not meet as a committee.
Present from the committee on the Legislature were Brady and Petersen, along with delegates Michael Thurland, Clement Magras, Gerard Luz James II and Frank Jackson. Absent were Lisa Williams, Elsie Thomas-Trotman and Arturo Watlington Jr. The committee on the executive branch had several members present but no quorum. Members participated in discussion with the committee on the Legislature but did not meet as a committee. No roll call was held. Also present were delegates Alecia Wells, Claire Roker, Mary M. Moorhead and Stedman Hodge Jr.
The convention is coming down to the wire, with a revised deadline of Oct. 6 to produce a document. It has asked the Legislature for an extension, but to date has not been granted one.
The convention meets as a whole this week on St. Thomas, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday at the Charlotte Kimelman Cancer Center Auditorium and the same hours Wednesday at the UVI St. Thomas Campus administration and conference center, rooms 142-1B and 146-1A.
The U.S. Congress passed a law in 1976 to allow the people of the Virgin Islands and Guam to adopt territorial constitutions. Any constitution has to be consistent with federal law and with the U.S. constitution. The form of the government must be republican, with executive, legislative and judicial branches, and it must have a bill of rights. But there are few other restrictions. The website itsourfuture.vi has excerpts and links to the full text of the relevant laws, and much more information.
There have been four previous constitutional conventions, but no territorial constitution yet. The most recent convention was in 1980. (For a detailed history of previous conventions and extensive background information on the subject, see "V.I. CONSTITUTIONAL CONVENTIONS: BACKGROUND.")
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