June 5, 2001 – "This committee chairman is not here to obstruct the will of the people but, rather, to bring this bill to the attention of the people for their input," Sen. Donald "Ducks" Cole said Monday evening at the start of a hearing on a proposal to reduce the membership of the Legislature from the current 15 members to nine.
The Government Operations, Planning and Environmental Protection Committee session took place in the Legislative Conference Room in Cruz Bay. The committee also has scheduled hearings on the measure for Tuesday evening on St. Thomas and Thursday evening on St. Croix.
Senator Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg, prime sponsor of the legislation and a committee member, said his proposal should not be labeled as "Donastorg's bill" but rather as "the people's will." Donastorg's appearance at the hearing came as a surprise, as he had said earlier that he would be off island during the hearings. He had written Cole asking that he rescheduled them for this reason, and Cole declined.
Radio talk-show host and St. John psychiatric social worker Iris Kern, one of the few persons offering testimony, concurred with Donastorg. "The issue is more important than any one senator," she said. "This measure deals not with the size of government but its form, and to deny the mandate of the people is a direct dissolution of the democratic principle."
In last November's election, about 87 percent those voting in a referendum to reduce the makeup of the Senate supported the idea, with 12,589 favoring a body of nine members and another 2,826 for a body of 11. Supporters contend a majority vote should be binding on lawmakers.
However, Sen. Celestino White, a committee member, disagreed with Kern and with the concept. Several years ago, he said, a referendum calling for the establishment of capital punishment was approved by the electorate. "So should we have done that?" he asked rhetorically. "If so, we would be hanging people all over the place."
Businessman and community activist Jose Penn, another of the limited number who testified, criticized fellow St. John residents for not being more involved in the workings of government. "It's not enough to just go out and vote," he said. "As concerned citizens, we must attend hearings, PTA meetings and the like, to insure your voice is heard."
Penn questioned the legality of the referendum, which the Legislature's legal counsel, Yvonne Tharpes, says is now a matter for the courts to decide. On Friday, the St. Croix Chamber of Commerce filed suit against the Legislature for its failure to act in accordance with the November referendum.
St. John resident Steve Black charecterized the referendum vote as a "wake-up call" for the government to consider restructuring. He expressed preference for a government of island councils, saying they would ensure a closer relationship between the electorate and its representatives.
"There are too many problems, territorial and local, which overwhelm legislators," Black said. "The legislators cannot be expected to wear so many hats."
Sen. David Jones, a committee member, tentatively agreed with Black, calling for a more comprehensive approach to government. He said this is the intent of a bill he has introduced calling for a fifth constitutional convention.
Donastorg earlier characterized the tri-island hearings as a measure by the Senate majority to 'kill the bill." In April, he succeeded in special-ordering the measure onto the floor of the Senate for a vote, amending it there to provide that the savings realized should go toward paying public school teachers. But the body voted 8-5 to send to send it back to the Government Operations Committee, whose chair, Cole, has publicly stated his opposition to reducing the Senate size.
Cole has maintained that the bill would be unconstitutional under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Despite Donastorg's earlier statements that he would have to be off island this week, a member of his staff said Tuesday he will also attend the St. Thomas and St. Croix hearings.


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