This week residents were given the first public opportunity to weigh in on the plan the Virgin Islands and United Kingdom governments have agreed for carrying out every Commission of Inquiry recommendation besides constitutional suspension. In response, they called for greater transparency and clarity in how the territory is led in the future.
Attendees at a June 20 town hall meeting at Elmore Stoutt High School numbered fewer than 50, but they asked pointed questions about how the government plans to meet the timelines for carrying out the proposed reforms — and who will foot the associated costs of making these changes.
On June 8, Governor John Rankin and Premier Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley announced that the UK will shelve the COI’s recommendation to implement direct rule as long as the newly formed National Unity Government meets a series of deadlines to carry out the other 48 COI recommendations over the next two years. On June 20, Dr. Wheatley said a collaborative approach to carrying out the reforms is necessary.
“I want Virgin Islanders to be the ones to make the decisions that affect the Virgin Islands and its people,” he said. “I want us to continue moving forward in our aspirations for self-determination. We all want the same thing.”
The premier was joined by Deputy Premier Kye Rymer, Health and Social Development Minister Marlon Penn, and Natural Resources and Labour Minister Mitch Turnbull.
When questioned about the tight deadlines for a constitutional review, audits, an electoral review and much more, ministers said some targets have already been met.
Cabinet, for instance, met its June 15 deadline for approving the terms of reference for an “implementation unit” to spearhead the COI reforms, Mr. Rymer said.
He added that government is also on target to meet this month’s deadlines concerning security at the ports and airports. To that end, Cabinet must approve joint responsibility for the Royal Virgin Islands Police Force and relevant government agencies to provide security at all ports until “security concerns are effectively addressed and new constitutional and legal arrangements have been considered,” according to the proposal.
Dr. Wheatley added that the government has at its disposal many talented public officers, retired officers, community resources, and specialist assistance to ensure the deadlines are met.
Meeting attendees also asked about possible changes to the belongership system and assistance grant programmes.
Mr. Penn said people already receiving benefits through assistance grants will continue to receive them for three months while officials review the current programmes and decide the most effective way to assess needs.
“We want to make sure that we have a social system that’s transparent: not dependent on any particular political leader, but dependent on your specific needs as a people,” he said.
Officials will then work to more clearly explain what kinds of benefits are available and how to qualify, he said.
The COI report repeated auditors’ longstanding criticisms of the way assistance grants have been awarded at the unchecked discretion of elected leaders.
To help reform this system, Dr. Wheatley said, his administration is considering establishing “district councils” to offer insight into each community’s development needs.
Following the wholesale review of social benefits recommended by the COI, Dr. Wheatley said he anticipates revamped programmes will be able to better address the “pockets of poverty” in the territory described by one attendee.
The start date for addressing welfare benefits and grants was June 30, and a final report is due to be submitted to the governor and premier by Nov. 30.
Attendee Bevin George asked about how the powers of elected officials may change with the proposed constitutional review. In response, Dr. Wheatley said that “curtailing open-ended discretion,” as described in the proposal’s list of goals, would entail setting reasonable limits on ministers’ powers under the law.
The premier added that setting such boundaries is appropriate, especially “if we look at some of the examples of how openended discretion has been used in the past.”
“The COI report pointed that out, but that’s not the first time we’ve heard that criticism,” he added. “We look at the phrase ‘at the minister’s discretion’ and would say that particular phrase has allowed, in some instances, too much power.”
Under the proposal, Cabinet must propose a revised Constitutional Review Committee with final membership to be jointly agreed by the governor and premier by June 30. The committee will have a year to do its work before submitting its final report by a deadline of June 30, 2023.
Town hall attendees acknowledged that residency and belongership are difficult subjects, but said they need to be addressed during the constitutional review.
One speaker called for clarity on how many years a person must live in the territory to apply for belongership given the confusion surrounding differing laws and policies.
Dr. Wheatley acknowledged the passionate views people hold on the topic and called for further discussions.
“For many years, we haven’t really had a constructive dialogue on it,” he said. “In my view, we’ve been silent about it and harbouring a lot of views and having vexations of the spirit. … I think it’s time for us to come together and have an open and frank dialogue on the way forward, respecting everybody’s views on the matter.”
When the Constitutional Review Committee is finalised at the end of the month, he said, his administration will also suggest a list of issues for the community to consider during the review.