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Thursday, September 29, 2022
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Officials Concerned Over Proposed Bill Aimed at Transparency

Managers and directors of executive branch agencies all expressed support for the idea of transparency in government, but at Monday’s Senate committee meeting they expressed criticism of the details in a bill to do that, frustrating the bill’s author.
Sen. Nereida Rivera-O’Reilly’s bill was the subject of Monday’s meeting of the Committee on Economic Development, Energy and Technology. The bill would require all branches of government to create and maintain searchable online databases that would include detailed information about the receipt, use, appropriation and expenditure of public funds. The bill would require information about public money actions to be posted in a “user-friendly” website within seven days of the action, and mandate that the system be set up in 30 days.
“This bill seeks to bring transparency to the government and the government operations, especially in the financial areas,” O’Reilly said.
Many states have similar web operations to give citizens the chance to monitor government first hand, she said, pointing to Alaska’s site as a trailblazer.
The committee had requested testimony from all 26 heads of the departments, bureaus and agencies of the executive branch, but all agreed to have three – Debra Gottlieb, director of the Office of Management and Budget; Attorney General Vincent Frazer; and Paul Arnold Jr., acting director of the Bureau of Information Technology – present the views of the executives. All said they could not back the bill as it stands.
“It is our understanding that this bill is being proposed to create greater transparency in the government of the Virgin Islands,” Frazer said, an opening that was mirrored by the other testifiers. “We do not disagree with this purpose, but we do not believe the mechanism of this bill is the way to accomplish that goal. We have reviewed this bill and we have significant concerns.”
Frazer said the bill would violate the separation of powers between the executive, legislative and judicial branches; and added that the bill establishes penalties for violations of the law but does not provide any mechanism for its enforcement.
He also noted that “there are many transactions that take place in government where the details are not appropriate for public disclosure.”
“It will take a tremendous effort to filter all of the protected information from the tens of thousands of documents transacted in government daily,” Frazer said.
Gottlieb pointed out that the bill provides no funding for agencies to create and maintain such databases, and called the 30-day timeline insufficient.
Arnold agreed with her point, saying, “From a technical standpoint, this gives me substantial cause for concern for a number of reasons … it would be technically difficult given the time constraints … It is simply unrealistic to expect that this could be accomplished in 30 days.”
Rivera-O’Reilly expressed a sense of futility at the comments. No bill is perfect when it starts, but through negotiation and input from all concerned parties, legislation is shaped into something that will work, she said.
“I was looking for them to come with suggestions on how to make it happen, not to tell me why it can’t happen,” she said. “I was expecting you were going to say you really appreciate the spirit of the legislation … I thought they’d come in with suggestions how to make it happen, because if you really believe in government transparency, that ought to be the main goal.”
Rivera-O’Reilly scoffed at the idea that the bill would threaten the separation of powers and said timelines were certainly negotiable. The more important issue, she said, was agreeing to use the Internet to give citizens more information about government.
“The public ought to have information about the how the government spends its dollars,” she said.
Sen. Craig Barshinger, the committee chairman, suggested making aggregate totals of expenditures and revenues available, because citizens wouldn’t need or want line-by-line details of the hundreds and sometimes thousands of transactions the government executes every day.
He also asked if the reaction of Monday’s witnesses wasn’t in part caused by “a fear of change.”
Attorney General Frazer countered that all that data is available now under the territory’s open records laws. But Rivera-O’Reilly said often it’s difficult to get that information in a timely manner. Even she sometimes has trouble getting information she needs from agencies, and she’s a senator.
“We sit here in hearings and say, ‘Yes, it’s available.’ Then taxpayers go to get routine information and they struggle and they struggle and they struggle.”
At the end of four hours of hearing the committee ended up holding the bill for further work before submitting it to a vote.

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