A bill to ease the burden on commissioners who are required by law to serve on an excessive number of boards and commissions received overwhelming support in the Senate Committee on Rules and Judiciary on Thursday.
Some commissioners are required to serve on five or six boards — in addition to juggling their regular duties — and “the number continues to grow as we create new boards and commissions,” according to bill sponsor, Senate President Donna Frett-Gregory.
“In some instances, it has created a significant burden on certain Cabinet officials,” said Karl Knight, Gov. Albert Bryan Jr.’s chief of staff, who made a rare appearance at the Legislature as the sole testifier on the bill.
For example, the Finance commissioner is required to serve on the Public Finance Authority, the V.I. Lottery Commission, the Board of Tax Review, the V.I. Government Hospital and Health Facilities Corporation, the V.I. Banking and Insurance Board, and the Government Employees Services Commission Group Health Insurance Board, and Knight said the director of the Office of Management and Budget has a similarly overwhelming number of positions.
Knight said the governor’s office particularly supports a provision that grants greater flexibility to appoint alternative members, such as deputies or assistant directors and commissioners, who may have more time and resources available.
Committee Chairman Sen. Milton Potter said that while there may be value, for example, to the attorney general and Public Works director serving on the Port Authority governing board, “it can reach a point of diminishing returns when you spread individuals out too thin.”
Senators need to “make sure that we are not placing our commissioners in a position where they’re unable to perform their respective duties,” Frett-Gregory said, and cited Anthony Thomas’ dual role as commissioner of Property and Procurement and V.I. Water and Power Authority governing board chairman. Senators amended the bill to include a provision that the governor can nominate a replacement to fill a vacancy 60 days before expiration of a board member’s term, and to allow for no more than two members of a board and commission to be people who live outside the territory.
Many boards and commissions are having trouble filling vacancies and meeting quorum requirements to hold votes, and a lot of people have offered to serve but “because they’re not currently residents, we’re unable to take advantage of their knowledge and expertise,” Knight said. Given the now-widespread use of video conference technology, it’s “a very timely and useful measure for us.”
The bill requires off-island members to have either been born in the Virgin Islands, have a parent born in the territory, or have graduated from a local high school.
The measure will be further amended to include those who “have ties of up to 10 years in the Virgin Islands,” Frett-Gregory said. “We have to recognize that there is expertise that will have to come from outside of this territory based on our geographical location.” Senators also voted to approve Bill No. 34-0025, establishing minimum criteria for service on the Public Services Commission governing board and reducing the number of voting members from seven to five.
“Those seven seats have not been fully filled in more than a decade,” PSC Director Donald Cole testified. “And it is not a surprise — the commission is time and effort intensive for no direct gain — it is hard work solely for a public benefit.”
The commission is down to only three current members, and “does not have a quorum at this time. Since December 2020 it cannot take action. This is a potentially serious problem: utilities may be able to change rates unilaterally, rate investigations may go undone, and federal benefits lost to companies and the territory,” Cole said.
The bill would reduce the quorum from four to three, which would allow the PSC to resume taking action at meetings. Senators also voted to approve Bill No. 34-0026, which reduces the number of WAPA board members from nine to six, and establishes minimum requirements for membership.
The legislation doubles the stipend for non-government PSC board members from $50 to $100 per day, and increases the WAPA stipend from $50 to $175. The bills specify that no more than two members may reside off-island, and must have been born in the Virgin Islands or have graduated from a territory high school or the University of the Virgin Islands.
Sen. Janelle Sarauw said she intends to do away with the residency requirements for boards that require specific technical skills, and compared it to a patient asking where their doctor was born or educated before allowing them to perform emergency heart surgery.
“I don’t care where the person comes from at this point, we have to find the qualified expertise,” Sarauw said. “These are technical boards that require technical expertise. When boards don’t have technical expertise you know what we do? We pay consultants.”
PSC Chairman David Hughes told senators that he was not born or educated in the Virgin Islands, but he is one of those individuals who is willing to take on what is often thankless, hard work.
“It is a tremendous commitment of time with no reward,” Hughes said. “No one in their right mind would serve in either one of these institutions without feeling quite strongly about their ties to the territory.” Bryan had previously vetoed the measure concerning the WAPA board’s makeup, arguing in a letter to the Legislature that their proposed changes violated the separation of powers doctrine in the Revised Organic Act, which functions as the territory’s Constitution — concerns that senators dismissed Thursday, as the bills still grant the governor the power to appoint members to those boards.
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Sen. Kenneth Gittens and others pointed out that the Legislature created those boards and commission, and retains the power to modify or abolish them as necessary.
Thomas and Noel Hodge, WAPA interim executive director also pushed back on the measure Thursday, and Hodge said the current board composition has “served WAPA well.”
“I don’t think the public would agree with this sentiment,” said Sen. Novelle Francis Jr.
“It is clear that the current management structure at WAPA, to include the board, has failed us miserably,” Gittens said. “WAPA’s high rates and unreliable service are killing the ratepayers of the Virgin Islands and are killing the growth of new businesses here in the territory.”