March 23, 2005 – "The public has the right to know who is making what decisions about public policy," Sen. Louis Hill said Wednesday.
He said the Economic Development Commission has "consistently" denied the public that right by making decisions about tax benefit packages for companies during executive sessions. Hill became aware of the practice during the controversy over EDC granting benefits to Innovative Telephone Company. Commission members had refused to disclose how they voted the benefit package. (See "Senators Probe Vitelco Tax Break Decision").
"As far as I know that does not happen anywhere else, but in the Virgin Islands," he said, adding, "And it should not be happening here. I think what they are doing is clearly illegal."
Hill admitted that the V.I.code in reference to open meeting does not clearly state that decisions must be made in public session, and the attorney for the EDC Rosalie Simmonds-Ballentine has said that it is her interpretation that the votes can be taken in secret sessions.
Hill plans to take the ambiguity out of the code. He has requested legislative counsel to draw up a bill that would amend Section 254 of the V.I. Code "clearly stating" that votes can't be taken in executive session.
He said he expects to hear back from legal counsel this week, and if no one else has taken authorship of the bill, he will introduce it in the next session of the Senate.
All public boards and commissions in matters of public policy should be open in their voting the same way the Senate is, according to Hill.
He said open voting keeps officials "accountable" for their actions.
Just two weeks ago, the V.I. Daily News threatened suit against the St. Croix Board of Elections for taking action at a meeting for which the Daily News received no public notice.(See "Golden Gets Nullified and Certified, All Over Again").
Hill said he "absolutely" agreed with the Daily News' stand that actions can only be taken in meetings open to the public, with required notice to the public of the meetings.
The Board of Elections later rescinded the action taken in the questionable meeting and redid it in an open meeting.
Section 254 of the V.I. Code has eight reasons for executive meetings. They refer to personal privacy, criminal charges, and financial trade secrets. No where is there the mention of a board voting in secret and keeping the votes secret.
The section actually says, if a board or commission votes to go into executive session, a list of who voted for and against that move should be provided to the public within 24 hours.
The EDC was still trying to maintain secrecy about who voted for the telephone company's tax breaks three weeks after the meeting.
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