Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. is expected to announce the lifting of more of his COVID restrictions on Monday. While this is welcome news for V.I. businesses that have managed to keep their doors open, it’s way too late for the many forced to shut down permanently.
Reports of Bryan’s expected announcement began circulating last week after he confirmed an “ease down on the restrictions again” following his most recent relaxations in late October. Bryan did so from Colorado where he was attending a cannabis symposium with another reported 40 Virgin Islanders, including Senate President Donna Frett-Gregory — all on the taxpayers’ dime. To date, no other information has been released on that jaunt, even while Government House continues to tout transparency that’s often been hazy at best.
Bryan, who noted that COVID cases are declining, specified a post-Thanksgiving date for when further restrictions will likely be lifted. It begs asking whether he has a crystal ball that is being put to use of late. If so, we only wished he’d used it long before to save businesses, and consequently hundreds of jobs, lost under the burden of doozy mandates like the use of plastic utensils and beach closings on weekends and holidays.
Wouldn’t it be great if the governor would also predict how soon at least one of the territory’s damaged schools would begin undergoing repairs? After all, as governor-elect, he implied he could do better when he admonished Gov. Kenneth Mapp for a perceived delay in such repairs after 2017’s twin hurricanes.
Further, since Bryan cited a decline in COVID cases as “encouraging signs” to relaxing restrictions, does this mean the Virgin Islands is no longer in a state of emergency? Recall that the Legislature, tired of gathering every month, allowed for it to be extended until Jan. 10, hereby giving Bryan unfettered powers to sign off on contracts under the guise of public exigency. On Monday, we can only hope that the governor will tell the public why, after a year and a half, the V.I. is still in a state of emergency.
As for the 34th Legislature, will senators take back their power when the current extension expires, or will they simply rubber stamp another Government House request?
The Legislature has had its own share of doozies this year, and the latest comes courtesy of Sen. Genevieve Whitaker who sponsored a bill to enforce gender equality in government.
Whitaker, who trumpeted the bill’s passage said via statement that “this legislation is just one step towards reducing the gender disparities that exist throughout our government. As a territory, we can now join the rest of the world in working to include women in all our important decision-making process [sic].”
In case Whitaker didn’t pay attention in V.I. history class, the Virgin Islands pays homage annually to the queens of the Oct. 1, 1878, revolt known as Fireburn. Currently, there are more public schools named for former female educators than men. The V.I. also has had two female delegates to Congress, three female Senate presidents, and a woman is the V.I.’s top lawyer, while others head the government’s largest departments. We understand that Whitaker, the former deputy supervisor of Elections, ran twice unsuccessfully before winning a Senate seat, but this hinges more on voters’ choice than gender.
Frett-Gregory, in supporting Whitaker’s bill, noted that there had only been two Senate presidents before her and that “it’s time for women to stand up for women.”
The fact is that had these women — the late Sens. Ruby M. Rouss and Lorraine L. Berry — not made personal choices to enter into politics, they certainly would not have been in a position to even seek out the Senate presidency. In short, there can be no gender disparity if women are not throwing their hats into political races or accepting nominations for boards and commissions. No amount of legislation can fix that.
Sen. Franklin Johnson, who saw the writing on the wall and the only senator to vote against the bill, said it would create a “Pandora’s box.”
We couldn’t agree more, and Bryan should veto Whitaker’s Bill given its discriminatory nature. Whoever is governor should be free to nominate the best qualified candidates for commissions and boards — not be legislated to choose based solely on gender. Further, if anyone needs a reminder of how little significance such legislation holds, recall the initial nomination hearing of Education commissioner-nominee Racquel Berry-Benjamin. Her harshest critics were the women on that Senate committee.
The youth are the future?
V.I. politicians’ favorite go-to phrase is the “youth are the future.” So, it’s why we are surprised that as a former Education commissioner Frett-Gregory has done little in that regard. During last week’s legislative session, she heralded a bill to swap the prime land the Addelita Cancryn Junior High School sits on to the V.I. Port Authority. Cancryn, which has been a staging area of sorts for post-hurricane debris and recovery vehicles, was damaged during the storm. Reports are that the Federal Emergency Management Agency didn’t agree with local officials’ contention that it was destroyed, and a rumored sale/swap to a company other than the Port Authority didn’t go as planned.
The legislation calls for the Port Authority to “pay into the Education Maintenance Fund,” but a sum was not identified. Frett-Gregory was also Education’s deputy commissioner over its Finance Division so she knows a bit about its operating budget. All of this should matter because even under her stewardship there were never sufficient monies for something as basic as maintenance of classrooms and school grounds.
Under the legislation, Port Authority must also build a warehouse for Education to utilize for food storage. We’ll know soon enough what’s in the proverbial small print, but for now the future of our youth doesn’t look so bright with one less location for learning.
Age is but a number
A bill changing the retirement age from 55 to 65 for law enforcement officers is getting push-back from some in the community.
It’s sponsored by two former police officers — Novelle Francis, a former police commissioner and Dwayne DeGraff, a former St. Thomas police chief. Francis aims to dispel the notion that the bill mandates law enforcement officers work longer. The former Senate president said individuals are living even longer, and that his proposed amendment would simply give officers the option to continue working — if they still want to. Currently the law already gives police officers, corrections officers and firefighters until age 63 to retire or eight years past the mandatory retirement age of 55.
While this move is exemplary, we can’t help but think of more pertinent laws that could be amended to help improve lives — laws relative to senators’ own retirement age and getting a full pension after serving just three terms. Currently, V.I. senators earn more — $85,000 annually, plus perks — than legislators in every state but California, Pennsylvania and New York.
Sen. Alma Francis-Heyliger, exhorted colleagues attending a Government Operations and Consumer Protection Committee meeting last month to support her legislation to change the retirement age for senators, calling on them to “lead by example.” The bill sought to move the retirement age to 60 from 50, which was set in 2006 under the infamous Act 6905.
On the Senate floor, the freshman senator later attempted to amend her bill, moving the suggested age from 60 to 65. Her motion failed to get a second. Francis-Heyliger then moved her bill to the Committee on Rules and Judiciary for further consideration, but that motion also failed to garner a second.
The bill died in committee, meaning it was rejected outright.