July 17, 2001 – Following the approval of six nominations and one bill, the Senate's first day of a marathon three-day full session ended abruptly about 6:15 p.m. Tuesday when Senate President Almando "Rocky" Liburd said the legal counsel's office was snowed under drafting amendments to a second bill on the agenda. The session is to resume at 10 a.m. Wednesday.
Cecil Benjamin was approved as Commissioner of Labor by a vote of 11-4. Benjamin, who has been serving as acting commissioner, sustained several stormy hearings on St. Croix earlier this year, with the Rules Committee finally sending his nomination to the full Senate with an unfavorable recommendation.
Benjamin had headed the St. Croix chapter of the American Federation of Teachers union for about 20 years. Some AFT members accused him of misrepresentation and misappropriation of union funds and of failing to represent members properly in negotiations with the Turnbull administration, charges which Benjamin denied. Sen. Adlelbert Bryan then called a Committee of the Whole session to delve into the charges last week, but the evening ended anti-climactically when many union officials failed to show up.
Voting against Benjamin's nomination Tuesday were Sens. Bryan, Alicia "Chucky" Hansen, Celestino A. White Sr. and Norma Pickard-Samuel, who chairs the Labor and Veterans Affairs Committee. Pickard-Samuel has consistently questioned Benjamin's ability to run the Labor Department, even though she described him as her "friend and former teacher."
Nominations were approved for:
– Ian Williams as director of V.I. Fire Services.
– Four persons as members of the St. Thomas-St. John Anti-Litter and Beautification Commission: Edwin Davis, U.S. Postal Service retiree; Colette C. Monroe, environmental activist and League of Women Voters board member; Faye A. James, V.I. Agriculture Department executive assistant; and Eastlyn Igewemadu, eight-year commission member. This will bring the board to full operating strength for the first time in eight years, Igewemadu had said at a prior Rules Committee meeting.
White praised the Rules Committee for prudence at its last nomination hearing, when it sent the nominations of Craig Barshinger and Ron Belfon to be members of the Economic Development Authority board back to Gov. Charles W. Turnbull for clarification. The name of Randolph Allen had come up at the meeting, and it was unclear whether he already held one of the two seats for which Barshinger and Belfon had been nominated. Therefore, White said, the committee stood in danger of electing two persons for one post, and by its action "we saved a law suit against the governor."
(A Government House press release Tuesday said Turnbull had withdrawn his nominations of both Barshinger and Belfon and had substituted Allen and Malcolm Plaskett, both of whom had been members of the Industrial Development Commission, which has been replaced by the EDA board. See story "Turnbull nominates 5 to PSC".)
With the defection of Sen. Emmett Hansen II from the minority to the majority earlier in the day, the majority now has nine members, one more than is needed to control the outcome of voting. Given more latitude, some observers said, the majority senators need not cleave so closely to one another now, and it will be interesting to see if any rifts result.
After the relatively peaceful processing of the nominations, what might be a taste of the new Senate alignment surfaced when Bryan, as acting president while Liburd was off the floor, refused to allow Sen. Alicia "Chucky" Hansen to speak on the nominations after the roll call had begun. The move did not sit well with Hansen.
Saying "This is it today. I have a right to speak," she exited the chambers, but was audible outside as well. Several majority senators trailed out after her tirade, but action on the floor remained lively.
Sen. Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg, the sole unaligned legislator, had been trying to get the floor for his allotted time while Bryan refused to acknowledge him and continued on with the roll call, which was unanimous for the nominees. As Liburd resumed his seat, Donastorg told him of Bryan's refusal to recognize him. As Bryan jumped up to defend himself, Liburd called a recess until things quieted down.
Donastorg and Liburd had been at odds twice earlier in the session as Donastorg tried to find out once again the status of the Senate's $54,000 voting system that was purchased last year but has yet to be used. Liburd has said the system needs fine-tuning.
The Senate approved a bill giving the Government Employees Retirement System more power in managing its finances and giving senators a 75 percent cap on retirement, an increase from the current 65 percent.
Amendments tacked onto a bill concerning notices to persons on the eligibility list for affordable housing were flying fast and furious when Liburd called the session to a halt.
The agenda for the three-day session includes more than a dozen other bills, including those to allow Internet gambling and toughen penalties for crimes of violence involving a firearm.


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