Political parties push back against Elections System regarding primaries

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ST. CROIX - A second round of finger-pointing and blame casting took place Thursday regarding the V.I. Elections System and its board's attempts to determine what the two larger political parties in the territory are planning to do about their nominations for candidate offices for the upcoming election cycle.

During a St. Croix District board meeting Wednesday, Supervisor of Elections Caroline Fawkes reported that she had not received any response from the state chairpersons of the Democratic or Republican parties to a letter she sent out seeking information about their plans of action regarding primary elections or other procedures to nominate candidates.

Only the ICM party - which historically never conducts a primary - responded, but it did not address the matter of a primary and instead members brought in its logo, according to Fawkes.

Fawkes said the deadline to respond to the Elections System about primary plans was Feb. 14.

Even before the 2012 elections, the 29th Legislature passed a law that the parties had to cover the cost of conducting their primaries.

Now with the 2014 cycle upon us, Fawkes said action must be taken.

Democratic State Chairman Cecil Benjamin said Thursday that despite Fawkes' claim that there was no response to her letter, he had never received the letter.

"I never received a letter or anything else. They have yet to contact me," he said. "They are held in high authority and they should be more honest in terms of their position as public servants."

Benjamin presented a letter from his party that was dated April of last year and addressed to joint Elections board chairwoman Alecia Wells in which he requested information concerning the party's responsibility for the primary, particularly in relation to funding. He said the party was in the process of planning and needed to be consistent with law and requested a meeting with members of the joint board to discuss options.

"This shows we were concerned, and no one from the board or system ever responded to the letter in writing, telephone or otherwise," he said.

Benjamin said he had discussions last August with Senate President Shawn-Michael Malone during which Malone said $350,000 will be released, and the Legislature will continue to fund the elections and political parties would not be responsible for the costs. However, it is the party's position that the law is still in place and nothing has really changed, Benjamin said.

"We have been planning to go through a democratic caucus or calling a convention," he said. "But we need to know what is really going on and if funding is coming."

Fawkes said Thursday that she stands by her comments because she was never given any information from Benjamin or the party.

"I have never seen a letter from them, I came here in August, and for them to think they sent something last year and should not respond now with the new requests, is out of place," she said. "We emailed and called him and got no response. Our office is running on facts and documentation and we have it all."

Fawkes shared a February email from Democratic St. Croix District Chairperson Brad Nugent in which he thanked her for the letter and said he would share it with the rest of the leadership team and be sure that Benjamin received the information as well. She said copying Benjamin on the email serves as him being duly notified regarding the reminder of the current election system requirements for primary candidates

In the Republican camp on Thursday, Herb Shoenbohm, the St. Croix Republican Party president, said his party made a timely response and has a plan in place for the party to conduct its own primary, caucus or convention to select nominees and party officers. He said the plan includes a generic plan for future elections.

"It is our position that Title 18 Section 232 clearly is still in place," he said. "Some members of the board take the position that since the OMB has made available $350,000 in public monies for the Elections System's operation that this changes the law, but it doesn't."

Shoenbohm said it is the party's position that the board by itself cannot reject a process that they have already accepted and required of the party.

While no details of Shoenbohm's letter was shared at the board meeting Wednesday, Fawkes acknowledged that she received Shoenbohm's letter, but she said the board had determined that he was not the state chairman and was not authorized to speak or respond on behalf of the party.

John Canegata, the Republican state chairman, said he found out Wednesday that the letter from Fawkes had been sent to an incorrect mailing address for him. He said he received the letter Wednesday evening and had not reviewed it.

Fawkes acknowledged Thursday that the mailing address for Canegata was incorrect, but she said the letter also had been sent to his email in January, and he acknowledged receipt to that same email address Wednesday evening.

Fawkes said the issue of the primaries will be discussed during the joint board's meeting Wednesday on St. Thomas.

- Contact reporter Fiona Stokes at 714-9149 or email fstokes@dailynews.vi

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