In an honest and open-minded review of both past and present planning efforts here in the Virgin Islands, there comes to mind the inescapable impression that these studies amount to no more than just a great deal of wishful thinking. A July 14, 2020 Letter to the Editor submitted by Anne Hill of St. John comes to mind: Well written, insightful and very much deserving of recognition as an example of speaking truth to power. Designing, envisioning and endless planning are getting us nowhere fast, and the time has always been right for more citizens to say so.
Unexpectedly, I received an invitation to join an online panel discussion of the “Third Annual Hazard Mitigation and Resilience Workshop,” an ongoing effort by a group known as The Hazard Mitigation and Resilience Plan (HMRP). The theme for this year was “Understand Today to Plan for Tomorrow.”
On their promotional page, it was stated that “this plan will not be successful without your participation.” As I believe this subject matter to be well beyond important and significant, there is no point in mincing words or evincing some standard approbation. I am convinced that with or without significant outside involvement, the effort is destined to be yet another well-intentioned but stillborn attempt to deliver on a much-needed vision of how our community should prepare itself as more and more hazards are quantified for both near-term preparations and long-term planning.
This effort was far too structured around a predetermined syllabus which left a sizeable number of potential hazards from even being considered. Then, given the constraints of time, making a half-baked effort to define, discuss and then determine solutions, the composite whole was rendered of far less value than a thorough investigation of just the potential hazards that we might face.
If the goal was to “tell the tale” and end with a clear, if not happy ending, then the exercise was, for me, a misdirected effort and a distraction from the pressing need to better assess our problems and identify how limited local resources should be directed to address them.
There remain a great many unanswered questions. And of those asked, few received definitive explanations. By way of example: “How will this effort be viewed by the Virgin Island’s government, and will there be a formal adoption and implementation with a mandate to enact?”
On the same day, Nov. 5, the Virgin Islands Economic Development Authority held the first of six virtual open houses (two on each island) for its “VISION 2020” subtitled: “Our Community, Our Economy, Our Future. A Vision of Prosperity for All.” Frankly, I would’ve liked to have the benefit of sitting in on that effort as well, but this overlap made that impossible. Why did this need to happen as it did? From this incident it would seem reasonable to deduce that if coordination is not now possible, then cooperation will not later be probable.
To offer some background, during the latter half of the 1990s, I served as the St. John representative on the Overall Economic Development Plan Commission. In hindsight, the experience served as one of those rude awakenings about the function of government. If one suspects its performance to be less than adequate in some regards, at least it should give the impression of being well-intentioned.
My experience brought about the inescapable conclusion that the stated mission and objectives of this particular planning process were also not being meaningfully addressed, nor was there some tangible benefit derived for the territory’s economic well-being.
In fact, one of my memories from that time was of at least one “off the record” conversation, in which it was stated our efforts were simply a requirement for the disbursement of federal funding. The “planning” part was merely an exercise that produced additional publications for the growing library that represented past efforts. Are good objectives even possible in any planning process when good governance is not first understood as an acknowledged expectation of the electorate? When the offices of government, by design, are easily subverted from service to the common good, becoming instead a mechanism that functions at the direction of special interests, how can planning become more than just a stated ideal, but the operable blueprint that guides orderly and well-designed improvements that serve and safeguard the community?
Our Revised Organic Act is a convoluted misstep, one incapable of being viewed as a design for good government. As a first step, our Senate needs to enact the legislation that the electorate called for in the recent referendum.
With carefully vetted and well-intentioned delegates to that Constitutional Convention, an acceptable document will become possible. Once an accountable structure is formulated, our government will find itself transformed into a far more responsive and dedicated institution than we now have.
At this time of year, an old American idiom comes to mind, so “let’s talk turkey” — that is to say honestly and directly. Are the two organizations previously referred to genuinely trying to initiate worthwhile planning or are they just muddying the waters and creating a distraction from the work at hand that really needs to be done? Is what they’re proposing good planning or are they just gaming the system?
As a community, our first order of planning should be the restructuring of our current version of government, which by all rights should be considered the first “great public hazard” in need of removal. After that, every citizen will better understand their sovereign power and office holders will correctly be limited in the exercise of their authority as representatives of the people, not private interests.
Planning, after all, should not simply be a mental exercise for a few, but rather a basic function in which all participate. This is an element of self-government that was historically enshrined in the “town meeting” whereby all registered voters debated, deliberated and made decisions.
An empowered electorate will provide the elusive resilience now needed, and good government will then prove to be the goal of the sustainability so ardently sought after.
— Hugo A. Roller, St. John