Included in the rules of the 30th Legislature New Senate rules curtail campaigning, promise transparency to restore trust
Published: January 16, 2013
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ST. THOMAS - The new rules adopted by the 30th Legislature on Monday show an effort to restore the public's trust in the institution by requiring the public posting of expenses and prohibiting all campaign activities on Senate property.
The changes come about after the Senate's secrecy became a major issue on the heels of The Daily News' 10-month battle for public documents from the 29th Legislature.
Under the new rules, Senate President Shawn-Michael Malone promises to expand transparency through monthly and quarterly postings of travel and other expenses and to provide more detailed documentation of expenditures without a fight when the public asks for it.
The 29th Legislature left a bad taste in the mouth of many voters.
A joint federal and local audit exposed $6.9 million of mismanaged, poorly spent and unaccounted for money in the 26th, 27th and 28th Legislatures.
Sen. Alvin Williams Jr.'s office was raided by federal agents, and he was indicted on bribery and racketeering charges in November.
The Daily News took the 29th Legislature to court last year for failing to provide its travel records and ignoring the open records laws for almost a year. After a court hearing in October in V.I. Superior Court, The Daily News and Senate President Ronald Russell reached an agreement, and the Senate finally relinquished the public records.
Four long-time senators - Carlton Dowe, Louis Hill, Usie Richards and Celestino White Sr., as well as Williams - decided not to run for the 30th Legislature. Three more senators, Neville James, Russell and Patrick Simeon Sprauve, were voted out of office.
Malone said the changes to the rules are an attempt to improve the Legislature's image.
"Obviously, yes, this does have a lot to do with what people expressed with their votes and not just during the campaign but all of last year," Malone said.
He said the public can expect a number of changes in the way the Senate operates, from updating employee manuals to creating a line-item budget for itself, to releasing public documents upon request.
"The institution's respectability has to be restored," he said.
When the 30th Legislature was sworn in Monday, the first thing they did was convene in session to adopt an organizing resolution and the revised rules of the Legislature.
The rules mostly contain the same language that gets adopted each term: the procedures for submitting a draft request for legislation; how the sessions and committee hearings should be conducted; and the job duties and responsibilities of the various officers and non-elected central staff members.
However, two significant and major changes have been included in the new rules.
The first change strengthens the rules about campaigning using Senate resources. No law in the territory prohibits the use of government resources for campaigning, but in the past, the rules of the Legislature have included vague language about not using resources.
The new language says Legislative or senatorial staff must not participate in any campaign activity during working hours. Additionally, the Legislature's resources, vehicles and facilities must not be used for campaign activities.
"We're not going to abuse our authority to exploit the resources of the government to get elected," Malone said.
The other big change is an entire new section about financial disclosure.
The Senate president and the director of business and financial management must develop and implement standard operating procedures as it relates to travel advances, inter-island travel, per diem, transportation, pre-approved Senate expenditures and reimbursements and cell phones, according to the new rules.
In addition, travel expenditures for legislative employees must be published monthly on the Senate's website. All other receipts and expenses will be published quarterly in summary form, the rules state.
The business office shall provide written guidelines and forms or computer templates for the reporting of travel expenses, which shall be posted on the website as well.
"This is very unusual for the Senate, but we have to do things to restore public trust in the government," Malone said.
What gets posted on the website may be a summary, but if specific information is requested by the public or the media, it will be provided without a fight, Malone said.
"One way or another, you'll get all the information," he said.
A code of ethical conduct also is included in the rules adopted by the 30th Legislature.
Under the ethics rules, senators must:
- Conduct themselves at all times in a manner that reflects respectfully on the Legislature.
- Adhere to the spirit and letter of the law.
- Maintain campaign funds separately from personal funds.
- May not discriminate in hiring and must not violate the Senate's zero-tolerance policy for sexual harassment.
In addition, the ethics code dictates:
- Senators, staff and contract employees must comply with the conflict of interest law in the V.I. Code.
- Senators, their staff and any employee of the Legislature may not accept gifts of substantial value, directly or indirectly, from any individual, corporation or organization having a direct interest in legislation before the Senate.
- Senators and staff may not accept any payment or honors in excess of what is customary for giving a speech, writing an article or other similar activity.
Provisions for censure or expulsion of senators who fail to follow the rules also are laid out in the newly adopted rules.
Under the rules, no senate staff can be hired if the executive director and the director of business and financial management says that the hiring exceeds the amount remaining in a particular senator's allotment.
The 30th Legislature did keep a provision added to the rules in the 29th Legislature about pre-emption that works in favor of transparency and accountability.
Legal counsel can deny a bill-drafting request because another senator had already submitted a similar request.
In the past, the legal counsel division did not have to disclose who had pre-empted a senator's bill, which allowed a legislator to anonymously block a bill indefinitely.
However, the 29th Legislature changed that, and the rules for the 30th Legislature keep that rule in place.
"When a senator files a request for the drafting of a bill or an amendment to a bill, the senator is deemed to have consented to the disclosure of the drafting request to the public," the rules state.
- Contact reporter Aldeth Lewin at 714-9111 or email email@example.com."An employee of the Legislature, including a member of a senator's personal staff, must not participate in any campaign activity during working hours. The Legislature's resources, vehicles and facilities must not be used for campaign activities."
"The Senate President and the Director of Business and Financial Management shall develop and implement standard operating procedures as it relates to travel advances, inter-island travel, per diem, transportation, pre-approved Senate expenditures and reimbursements and cellular phones."
"Travel expenditures for Legislative employees shall be published monthly on the Legislature's website. All other receipts and expenditures shall be published quarterly in summary form. The business office shall provide written guidelines and forms/computer templates for the reporting of travel expenses, which shall be posted on the Legislature's official website."