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Undercurrents: Executive Orders Offer View of the Past, Hint at Future

A regular Source feature, Undercurrents explores issues, ideas and events as they develop beneath the surface in the Virgin Islands community.

This is the second in a two-part series about Virgin Islands executive orders.

It’s not exactly "War and Peace," but a close reading of the Index of V.I. Executive Orders conveys a tale of power, politics and priorities for half a century of Virgin Islands history.

Starting in 1954, every chief executive from Archibald A. Alexander to sitting Gov. John de Jongh Jr. has short-circuited the legislative process by issuing executive orders. Now and then a lieutenant governor, serving as acting governor while the governor was out of the territory, also penned an order. An index released by the governor’s legal counsel’s office lists a total of 468 to date.

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Used primarily for administrative tasks, executive orders have the full force of law.

Ralph M. Paiewonsky, who served from January 1961 until July 1969, holds the record for the most orders: 67 as governor plus one accredited to him in 1958. Melvin Evans (1969-1975) is a close second with 66. Juan F. Luis (1978-1987) and Alexander A. Farrelly (1987-1995) are tied next at 64 each.

The numbers drop significantly after that, with Charles Turnbull (1999 to January 2007) next with 49 orders and his immediate successor, de Jongh, with 35 so far. De Jongh’s first term began in 2007 and he has a little more than a year left of his second, so he could still add to his total.

Some themes resound through the years.

Virtually every governor has tweaked the structure of the executive branch – moving agencies and functions from one department to another, consolidating some entities, expanding others. But some executives have initiated wholesale reorganizations.

Alexander issued nine orders in his brief tenure from 1954 to 1955 – all of them restructuring parts of the executive branch.

Walter A. Gordon, governor from 1955 to 1958, issued 23 executive orders and seven of them were aimed at reorganizing the executive branch.

Farrelly opened his administration with an announcement that he was completely overhauling the executive branch; his first 15 orders were the outline; later he issued a couple more dealing with specific departments.

Later, Turnbull issued six executive orders pertaining to restructuring departments.

Given the perennial public criticism of government waste, it is not surprising that there have been a number of gubernatorial attempts to curb the abuse of government vehicles and to trim the cost of government travel.

No fewer than 31 orders have dealt with government travel, most of them altering or replacing earlier orders dealing with the same subject. In fact the first one on the index, issued by Gordon in May 1956, is an “Amendment to Municipal Travel Regulations” which obviously were already established.

A year later, Gordon issued another amendment and later three more orders on the same issue.

Paiewonsky issued eight orders concerning government travel, the last one “To Clarify and Modify the Coverage of the Government Travel Regulations.”

Evans followed with three attempts, and Gov. Cyril E. King (1975-1978) with two.

Luis really kept trying, issuing no fewer than nine executive orders aimed at reigning in government travelers. Farrelly wrote three orders on government travel, including one to implement a travel charge card system and one to limit cash advances for travel to 75 percent of the estimated costs.

In 2008, de Jongh issued an order “To Revise and Update the Procedures and Regulations Pertaining to Travel by Employees of the Executive Branch of the Government of the United States Virgin Islands.”

Government vehicle use is another popular target and has been for a long time.

In 1956, Gordon set perimeters for the reimbursement of government employees for the use of personal automobiles for government business. By 1960, the focus had shifted, and Gov. John D. Merwin (1958-1961) was issuing an order regulating the use of government-owned vehicles by government employees.

As of today the issue has been addressed by at least 19 orders, seven governors (Gordon, Merwin, Paiewonsky, King, Luis, Turnbull and de Jongh) and two lieutenant governors as acting governor, Athniel “Addie” Ottley in 1973, and Julio Brady in 1985.

There could be a few more. Exact numbers are uncertain because the official Index of Executive Orders is missing 39 numbers, most of them during the Evans administration.

While some executive orders deal with mundane administrative tasks, such as setting the dates for property tax collections, others are historically significant.

Number 23, for instance, deals with transferring management control of the St. Croix airport from the Department of Insular Affairs to the V.I. Department of Public Works. It was signed by Gordon in 1957.

In 1966, Paiewonsky signed order Number 90 “to designate the Board of Trustees of the College of the Virgin Islands for the temporary administrative management of a certain tract or parcel of land of approximately 50 acres on the island of St. Thomas, commonly known as the Rifle Range.” Paiewonsky also signed a number of orders in 1967 facilitating the establishment of the V.I. Water and Power Authority.

Evans issued Temporary Regulations governing the operation of horse racing; Luis implemented the Left-Turn-on Red program. In 1993, Farrelly ordered the transfer of shares of common stock of the West Indian Company Ltd. acquired by the Government of the Virgin Islands to the V.I. Finance Authority.

Many orders establish boards, commissions, special committees and task forces to oversee everything from educational initiatives to homelessness.

Not all orders are effective.

On February 14, 1990, Farrelly sent a Valentine to WAPA “To Provide for the Timely Payment to the Virgin Islands Water and Power Authority for Goods and Services Rendered to Various Departments and Agencies of the Government of the Virgin Islands.” But somewhere along the line there must have been a break-up.

At any rate, the order was news to WAPA spokeswoman Cassandra Dunn, who is accustomed to fielding questions about just how much the government owes the utility. As of the end of the last fiscal year, on Sept. 30, 2013, she said the V.I. government – primarily the executive branch – owed WAPA $17.6 million. In addition, its semi-autonomous agencies owed another $14.4 million, and Juan Luis Hospital alone has a $9 million WAPA debt.

Sometimes executive orders fail to last past an administration.

In the waning days of his second term, Farrelly issued three executive orders dated Dec. 6, 1994. All involved salaries, and one increased salaries for members of the exempt service (ie, gubernatorial appointees.)

The first order Farrelly’s successor, Gov. Roy L. Schneider, issued on taking office was to repeal the three orders and to rescind the salary increases for unclassified personnel “except those making $15,000 or less.”

Sometimes orders don’t even last through an administration.

During the tenure of the late Gov. Evans, he and then Lt. Gov. Addie Ottley occasionally disagreed.

One year, while Evans was off-island, Ottley recalled, “I wanted to veto the budget” to send a message about the need for fiscal responsibility.

But, he said, “I was overruled on that.”

In July 1974, Ottley issued an executive order suspending study leave for government employees. It was a belt-tightening move, he said. In September, after he returned to the territory, Evans issued another order, repealing Ottley’s.

Despite occasional dueling orders and the danger that they might sometimes be used to circumvent the legislative process for making laws, Ottley said he thinks executive orders are generally an effective method for successful administration.

“I think they’re a good thing. You can really do a lot (using them.) Ultimately it expedites the process,” he said.

Obviously, the territory’s governors agree.

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