Constitutional Convention meeting marred by arguments, technical snarls
Published: October 29, 2012
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ST. THOMAS - By about 2 p.m. Saturday, Fifth Constitutional Convention delegate Clement Magras leaned forward in his chair on the third floor of the Government Employees Retirement System building in Charlotte Amalie and spoke up, to no one in particular.
"We've been here an hour and nothing's happened yet," he said in a modest tone that was easily swallowed up by the noise of several other conversations. "Let's move on."
But the late start to the scheduled 1 p.m. meeting - while perhaps not what one would expect from an elected body facing a tight deadline to pass a new draft of what could become the territory's foundational document - was a minor issue compared with the technical and political breakdowns that followed.
Throughout the meeting, persistent technical problems with video conferencing equipment hindered discussion between delegates on St. Thomas and St. Croix. The St. Croix delegates were barely audible in the St. Thomas meeting room, and much, if not most, of what was said on St. Thomas did not seem to be heard on St. Croix. At one point, a shriek of feedback disrupted all communication for several minutes.
The belabored communication between islands opened the door to dozens of tangential discussions between small pockets of delegates throughout the meeting. Almost every motion and Constitution-related comment expressed at the meeting either had to be repeated several times or was lost in the din.
"You guys, we're going to have to take turns talking," delegate Sen. Craig Barshinger said at one point, to little avail.
Delegate Stedman Hodge Jr., identified as the sergeant-at-arms for the convention, made three attempts to quiet the delegates on both sides. Each time, whatever order this established fell away within minutes.
After taking roll call three times, the meeting officially began about 2:15 p.m. The convention successfully took three votes during the course of the next two hours.
One 13-13 vote killed a motion to suspend one of the convention's procedural rules and allow proxy voting at the meeting.
The second and most significant vote was to adopt nine changes to the draft constitution that the convention sent to the federal government in 2009. The U.S. Justice Department responded in 2010 highlighting the following nine areas of concern:
- The absence of an express recognition of United States sovereignty and the supremacy of federal law.
- Provisions for a special election on the V.I.'s territorial status.
- Provisions conferring legal advantages on certain groups defined by ancestry, place and timing of birth or timing of residency.
- Residence requirements for holding certain political offices.
- Provisions guaranteeing legislative representation of certain geographic areas.
- Provisions addressing territorial waters and marine resources.
- Imprecise language in certain provisions of the proposed constitution's bill of rights.
- The possible need to repeal certain federal laws if the proposed V.I. constitution is adopted.
- The effect of Congressional action or inaction on the proposed constitution.
The convention voted 21-3, with two abstentions and four delegates absent, to adopt some form of changes addressing these concerns. However, widespread confusion about which version of the changes was being voted on - and which revision of the draft constitution they would modify - persisted before, during and after the vote.
Prior to the vote, Barshinger made a point of order asking the convention to identify which draft document the body was voting on.
Delegate Arturo Watlington Jr. said the convention was voting to approve the nine changes without having them attached to any particular document.
"I don't know what that means," Barshinger said, before abstaining from the vote.
After the motion passed, Watlington made another motion to change the word "Senate" to the word "Legislature" wherever it appeared in the draft constitution. The motion was seconded, then objected to, but no vote was taken before a new motion was made by a delegate on St. Croix to approve a draft of the constitution that had been circulated to at least some of the delegates in mid-October.
Watlington was the most vocal of several objectors on St. Thomas who said the delegates need to make sure they all had the same document before them prior to voting on a new draft.
"How do you know what's which goes where?" Watlington said.
As the motion sat on the floor, the meeting, loosely held together to begin with, started to dissolve. Delegates on St. Thomas began leaving the room and engaging in one-on-one discussions with little regard to what was happening on St. Croix.
"We need to meet in one room," delegate and former governor Charles Turnbull said. "This is not going to work."
The Convention's legal counsel tried to chime via teleconference to add specifics about what some of the modifying language was before being cut off mid-sentence.
"You ain't no delegate," Watlington said. "Shut your mouth."
Watlington asked convention President Gerard Luz James II to take the motion to approve a draft document as out of order because it was unclear, at least among the St. Thomas delegates, which document was being voted on. James denied the request, and Watlington challenged the chair's ruling.
That led to a final vote - a 13-13 tie, which meant James' ruling stood - before the meeting totally disintegrated.
Barshinger sent an email Saturday evening announcing a tentative plan for the convention to reconvene this morning at the Legislature building on St. Thomas. He said the Legislature's executive director, Pamela Richards Samuel, would arrange a charter flight for St. Croix delegates to come to St. Thomas about 7 a.m. to allow a meeting to begin about 8 a.m. today.
The convention is facing a deadline of Wednesday to pass a new draft of the constitution as mandated by Act 7386. The 29th Legislature passed the act in August to create the Fifth Revision Constitutional Convention.
Some of the delegates challenged the legality of the Revision Convention, but a federal judge rejected their request for a restraining order to prevent the implementation of the law, ruling their complaint did not meet a number of criteria.
James said prior to Saturday's meeting that the convention intends to have a completed document before the Oct. 31 deadline. If the delegates fail to approve a document to forward to Washington by the end of the month, the V.I. Legislature will take over the role of reviewing, drafting and approving a constitution, according to Act 7386.
If a new draft constitution is ratified by the delegates, it will be sent again to Congress for ratification, which requires a majority vote. If passed by Congress, the document will become the new supreme law of the territory.
If the proposed constitution does not receive more than half of the votes cast, the territory will continue to be governed by the Revised Organic Act of 1954.
- Contact reporter Lou Mattei at 714-9124 or email email@example.com.