April 20, 2006 — The League of Women Voters of the United States, always committed to openness in government, joined with several organizations this year, to present a national dialogue on open government and secrecy. Here in the Virgin Islands where a sneeze in Fortuna is heard and blessed in Red Hook, 'openness in government' should be a given. This does not always appear to be the case.
Subsequent to the passage of the Freedom of Information law in 1966, "Sunshine Laws" were enacted in 1972 and 1976. Their purpose is to ensure that citizens can keep abreast of many of the issues, which affect the environment, the finances of the government, services such as health care, or policies affecting education.
Title 1 Chapter 15, section 252, Virgin Islands Code, makes clear that our local sunshine law only refers to " the decision making processes of this government" and by amendment, Section 254 (g), Virgin Islands Code, requires "all meetings of standing and special Committees of the Legislature .be open to the public." Is this enough? The Sunshine Act in its declaration of policy states, "the public is entitled to the fullest practicable information regarding the decision making processes of this government." Title 1 Chapter 15 Sec.252 V.I.C. The League of Women Voters of the Virgin Islands believes that everyone has the right to know what government is doing.
Recent action by 26th Legislature recognizes that the public must be informed and committees have begun by taking favorable actions on three bills. Bill No.26-0076, requires that votes taken during executive sessions be made public, "excluding any information exempted from public disclosure under subsection (b)." Bills Nos.26-0087 and 26-0129, deal primarily with the use of the government TV access channel and would open all meetings of the Public Services Commission and the Lottery drawings.
The League of Women Voters of the Virgin Islands believes that move toward more openness in the Executive Branch should extend to the Legislative branch. But recently, when the President of the 26th Legislature of the Virgin Islands, chose to publish the roster and accompanying salaries of all employees of that body many of the Senators "lashed out at the media", and appeared to forget that, despite their having providing themselves with a lump sum budget, the expenses of their offices are paid by the taxpayers, the public.
All government actions are in the name of the electorate – and are answerable to that electorate. Knowledge of what information is legally accessible, as well as how to obtain such data, is essential to maintain transparency. Sunshine laws must reflect that openness.
Rosalie Simmonds Ballentine
President, League of Women Voters of the V.I.
Editors note:We welcome and encourage readers to keep the dialogue going by responding to Source commentary. Letters should be e-mailed with name and place of residence to [email protected].