Civil Rights Commission at standstill despite $1.4 million in last five years
Published: August 15, 2012
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ST. THOMAS - The V.I. government has appropriated about a quarter of a million dollars in each of the last five years to investigate and adjudicate citizen complaints about civil rights violations.
But $1.4 million later, taxpayers have no results to speak of from the V.I. Civil Rights Commission.
"It's a sad reality that the Civil Rights division has been stymied in its ability to render effective service for the past seven years and continues to be so," Commission Investigator Rudisha Rabsatt wrote in Senate testimony last week. "Our community inexorably suffers."
The commission is tasked with protecting residents against discrimination based on race, national origin, age, religion, gender and political affiliation, as well as against hate crimes, sexual harassment and retaliation. It can seek criminal charges or file lawsuits on behalf of complainants.
"Most people come to the Civil Rights Commission when they can't afford an attorney," Rabsatt said.
The commission had 501 unresolved civil rights complaints at the time of Rabsatt's testimony: 320 were pending investigation by Civil Rights Commission staff; 148 were awaiting a hearing before the commission; and 33 were waiting on either meetings or settlement agreements. The backlog of complaints dates to the year 2000.
Investigations have stalled because the commission has only three paid staff members, one of whom has not been working on commission cases, and no executive director, according to Rabsatt. None of the 148 cases waiting for a hearing can be completed because the seven-person commission has just two active members, Rabsatt said. Four members would be required at a meeting to constitute a quorum.
"Because of these circumstances, the process of the division has come to an abrupt standstill," Rabsatt said.
She described the commission's stack of 501 pending complaints as "mountain high."
"This, on the whole, has resulted in justice delayed and justice denied to those in our Virgin Islands who have been victimized by discriminatory actions," she said.
Only the governor, with Senate approval, can appoint members to the Civil Rights Commission or individuals to serve as its executive director, according to the V.I. Code.
The commission is supposed to "represent the pluralistic nature of United States Virgin Islands society," including members of both sexes, residents of all three islands, representatives from the three major political parties and "members of all ethnic groupings residing in the United States Virgin Islands," the code states.
The governor has requested an average of $291,000 a year since fiscal year 2008 to fund the Civil Rights Commission, budget records show.
In fiscal year 2012, the commission's $362,571 budget included $235,582 for salaries and $27,522 for expenses, such as communications, training and travel, records show. The commission, which is under the umbrella of the V.I. Justice Department for budgetary purposes, requested $241,543 for fiscal year 2013.
By law, commission members are paid $30 for each day of commission-related work, plus expenses. If the member already is employed by the government, he gets paid for expenses only.
Government House spokesman Jean Greaux Jr. said he would look into the issue, but he "would not be surprised" if the governor had asked individuals to fill the slots but the prospective commission members did not want to serve.
The commission is not included on a page of the governor's website listing 37 other executive-appointed boards and commissions. The web page also allows members of the public to apply for vacancies on boards or recommend names to the governor.
Sen. Nereida Rivera-O'Reilly called the commission's inability to function "a huge problem," but said it was the same story the commission told at last year's budget hearings. Rivera-O'Reilly said she would have expected the governor to fill the commission's vacancies by now.
"The commission has been stagnant," she said. "There is no sense of urgency coming from this administration to appoint members to dispose these cases. They could rise to the level of some pretty serous civil rights violations."
She suggested that the commission's dysfunction may itself be violating citizens' due process rights.
"It's an embarrassing shame for me," Rivera-O'Reilly said.
Rivera-O'Reilly and Rabsatt encouraged anyone interested in serving on the commission to come forward.
"If people are interested in serving on the commission, they should submit their names," Rivera-O'Reilly said. "Don't simply wait for the governor to reach out. You should step up and offer your services. That's the start."
Rabsatt said commission members do not need a law degree but should have "a keen knowledge" of civil rights issues.
Anyone interested can send a resume to: Rudisha Rabsatt, Investigator, Civil Rights Commission, P.O. Box 6645, St. Thomas, VI, 00804, or by fax to 776-2012. Rabsatt's phone number is 774-5666, ext. 175.
- Contact Lou Mattei at 714-9124 or email email@example.com.