March 9, 2003 – In its inaugural sessions on Tuesday and Wednesday and later this month, the Legislature's newest standing committee will be wading into wide-ranging concerns that are hot topics in the territory and beyond.
Sen. Lorraine Berry is convening her brand-new Public Safety, Judiciary, Homeland Security and Justice Committee on Tuesday morning and Wednesday afternoon on St. Croix, with a "working breakfast" sandwiched in between. Then she'll take much the same agenda to St. Thomas for a hearing scheduled to open on March 26 and continue on April 3.
"Public safety" and "homeland security" are the primary focuses for the meetings, and in connection with the latter, Berry has invited one of the top aides to national Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge to come to the territory and, implicitly, to address her committee.
"Our situation and fiscal circumstances are so extraordinary they require direct federal consultation," she told Michael Brown, under-secretary designate. "We need to see that Washington is taking us seriously, and your appearance would go a long way in this direction."
So far, Brown has not scheduled such a visit.
Aside from the two days of hearings on each of the two islands, Berry's committee will meet with six Florida-Caribbean Cruise Association representatives coming to St. Croix at her invitation at the 8 a.m. working breakfast on Wednesday. The topic for discussion is the crime issue that led at least one cruise line, Carnival, to cancel its calls at the island, and to "explore solutions to get them to return to St. Croix," according to a Thursday release from Berry's office.
Homeland security considerations
Last Monday, Berry wrote to Brown citing an exchange which transpired at a conference on anti-terrorism in Washington, D.C. She stated that Harold Baker, VITEMA director, had expressed concern to Ridge about the territory's "175 miles of open borders which are a gateway to the United States" and "that we have come to the point where our accessibility and vulnerability [are] apparently globally recognized."
Ridge's response, Berry told Brown in the letter, was that the new Homeland Security Department has 95,000 miles of borders to be concerned about.
"I believe Mr. Ridge's response would have been different were he apprised of our unique posture," Berry wrote Brown, then citing five specifics:
– The territory is the home of Hovensa, "the largest oil refinery in the Western Hemisphere, and oil refineries are tops on the list of the department's 'protection priorities.'"
– "On any given day we have 30 to 40 thousand cruise ship passengers in our harbor." (The basis for these figures is not clear; cruise ships typically carry 1,900 to 2,700 passengers; on heavy-traffic days there may be six ships calling at St. Thomas and, rarely, one at St. John or St. Croix.)
– The territory is "perhaps the only jurisdiction where indictments and convictions were obtained against Arab residents for smuggling in Arabs."
– "Muhammad Atta, the ringleader of 9/11, entered the United States from the Virgin Islands, according to reports in The Miami Herald."
– Among the islands, it is said our borders are the easiest to infiltrate."
Berry then issued this challenge to Brown: "Do these circumstances exist in any of the 95,000-mile areas noted by Mr. Ridge? If not, does this not make the Virgin Islands the soft underbelly of the United States and thus in need of far more federal assistance?"
In a release on Tuesday, Berry described Brown as "the point man in dealing with the fiscal needs of states and territories in their compliance with federal anti-terrorism recommendations." She said he "has virtual oversight over the allotment of monies to states and territories from the new department's $5.9 billion budget." Berry said she understands $500,000 has been allotted to the territory, adding, "this is only a fraction of what is required if the Virgin Islands is expected to adequately enact recommended anti-terrorism measures."
The said Brown has "demonstrated a definite interest in coming to the territory," the release stated.
Cruise lines and crime
Berry said on Thursday that she has been in contact with Michele Paige, F-CCA president since January setting up the meeting of cruise industry officials with her committee. Berry intended for the delegation of six representatives headed by Paige to appear before the panel on Wednesday morning at the continuation of Tuesday's hearing.
However, at the request of Lt. Gov. Vargrave Richards, the meeting has been changed to a private "working breakfast" of the committee; the cruise industry personnel; Richards; Police Commissioner Franz Christian; Adj. Gen. Cleve McBean, V.I. Territorial Emergency Management Agency director; and Eddy Charles, director of the Law Enforcement Planning Commission.
Berry said the meeting will be closed to the public and news media but the participants will hold a press conference following the breakfast.
Prior to deciding on the breakfast meeting format, Berry had announced in a release that Sen. Luther Renee had agreed to co-chair what was to have been the Wednesday morning portion of the with the cruise industry representatives in his capacity as chair of the Economic Development, Agriculture and Consumer Protection Committee.
That same release further specified that testimony was scheduled to be heard from the following private sector representatives: Frank Fox, St. Croix Chamber of Commerce president; Tommy Broadmax, St. Croix Hotel and Tourism Association acting president; Simone Palmer, chair of the St. Croix Alive Task Force on Crime and Prevention; Unise Tranberg, director of the Frederiksted Economic Development Association; Kelvin Denni, St. Croix Taxi Federation representative; and Julia Renfro, president of the Christiansted Restaurant and Retailers Association.
Another release from her office stated that Berry was "enormously pleased to observe that her scheduled March 12 committee meeting with cruise ship officials may well have spurred the administration to now meet and discuss acceptable terms with these officials relative to their return to the Virgin Islands." She said meetings "between the administration and cruise lines are not taking place after almost a year of silence in which concerns of cruise ship officials were ignored."
In addition to the crime and other concerns that led three cruise lines to take St. Croix off their itineraries last fall, Berry said her committee also will be examining the status of the Long-Term Operating Agreement finalized in the summer of 2001 between the cruise lines and F-CCA and the Virgin Islands.
The task force that worked out that agreement was co-chaired by John deJongh Jr., representing the private sector, and then-Sen. Vargrave Richards, representing the Legislature. (See "V.I. ignores task force in cruise line pact p.r.".) Various provisions of the agreement are not being observed, with the cruise lines contending that the territory has not held up its end of the agreement regarding the marketing of St. Croix.
Safety and security needs, mandates and strategies
Christian, McBean and Charles, along with Police Chief Novelle Francis, also are among those who are scheduled to testify Tuesday and/or Wednesday afternoon on "the overview of all relevant information on the territory's security needs and the mandates of specific offices to implement and coordinate emergency preparedness and response; the plans and strategies to combat crime and other matters impacting on the respective departments."
In addition, Officer Naomi Joseph, president of the St. Croix Police Benevolent Association, and Lt.
Romeo Christopher, president of the St. Croix Law Enforcement Supervisors Union, are to testify on "the unions' point of view regarding the [Police Department's] readiness to implement all aspects of public safety mandates."
In a release last Monday, Berry cited as other concerns that her committee needs to address "the appalling escalation of crime, particularly rapes, molestation of children, violent assaults and murder." Witness will be heard "in an attempt to determine solutions to our crime wave," she said.

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