The ongoing saga between elected Fourth District Representative, Hon. Mark Vanterpool and Speaker of the House of Assembly Julian Willock has taken a new turn now that the matter has landed before the High Court. The announcement that a judicial hearing will be made on the matter was announced on 2 April in statement by Hon. Vanterpool after the Speaker did not swear him in at Tuesday’s sitting of the House.
The situation of the Fourth District representation arose on 5 March when Hon. Mark Vanterpool issued a statement and a video announcing that he was retiring from representational politics. A few days later (14 March) Hon. Vanterpool withdrew his decision to resign. He announced that because he submitted his letter of resignation to the Clerk of the House of Assembly and not the Speaker of the House his request to leave was invalid. Therefore, Hon. Vanterpool said that he wished to be sworn in as a Member of the House. This announcement resulted in a response from the Speaker of the House Hon. Julian Willock who declared that a by-election should be held because he already accepted Hon. Vanterpool’s resignation.
Last week His Excellency Governor Augustus Jaspert issued a statement announcing that based on advice that he received from the Attorney General it is his view that Hon. Vanterpool’s resignation was invalid.
However, when the House of Assembly was held on 2 April Hon. Vanterpool who attended the sitting had no choice but to sit in the gallery unacknowledged by the Speaker. Noting the situation Leader of the Opposition, Hon. Marlon Penn rose on a point of information to inquire from the Speaker why the elected member was not being sworn in.
Hon. Penn said to the Speaker: “Can you give the House a reason why for not swearing him in today? For the privilege of the House and the privilege of the people of this Territory, if we are not swearing in the Honourable Member of the Fourth District, can you please tell the people of this Honourable House and the people of this Territory why, and two, if you sought advice of the Attorney General.”
The Speaker however stated: “There shall be no amendments to the order paper…I will not accept your question on this matter.”
As the Leader of the Opposition persisted in his efforts, the Speaker rose to his feet and declared: “This matter with the person in question will be decided on at a later time… I am no longer entertaining anymore discussion on that matter, it is closed.”
Matter Heads to Court
Following the Speaker’s decision not to swear him in, Hon. Vanterpool issued a statement a few hours later announcing that he was seeking judicial review of the matter. Hon. Vanterpool said: “1 April, 2019, through my attorneys, I sought a response from the Speaker to my request to be sworn in my letter to him on 14 March, 2019, in keeping with Section 67 (3) (a) of the Virgin Islands Constitution.”
Hon. Vanterpool said that he even sought an injunction to prevent the sitting of the House of Assembly from the court but was unsuccessful in that attempt.
In announcing the details of the hearing Hon. Vanterpool said: “As was evident, the House proceeded today and the Speaker refused to swear me in. In addition, my attorneys filed for judicial review on the whole matter and considering the urgency, the High Court granted a hearing date for Wednesday 10 April, 2019.”
Now that the matter has taken a new turn Hon. Vanterpool said that he is still wishing to see a smooth resolution to the issue.
Speaker Prepared to Hear Court Decision
Following the sitting members of the media interviewed the Speaker and asked him if he understood that Hon. Vanterpool attended the sitting in hopes of being sworn in. The Speaker said: “He never told me he was expecting to be sworn in. The Leader of the Opposition tried to as or bring a motion or question and I conveyed my views to the Leader of the Opposition.”
Hon. Willock seemed unconcerned by the fact that the matter has escalated to the jurisdiction of the court. In reference to the upcoming court hearing the Speaker said: “Mr. Vanterpool has a right under the Constitution to seek a judicial review on the Speaker’s decision, so that’s a matter for him not for me. It’s a matter for Mr. Vanterpool, I have ruled on the matter. I have accepted his resignation and as far as I am concerned the matter is now closed. The Governor thinks otherwise so the best place I think is for the court to have an interpretation of the Constitution.”
The ongoing situation that is more of an impasse has been generating a lot of public debate. However, Hon. Willock said that he has noted the discussions in various circles and says that he thinks it is a sign of a democratic society.
“I welcome public debate. We have to ensure that we have a thriving democracy…We will encourage democracy, we will encourage debate, fruitful debate and at the end of the day we are going to abide by whatever decision, whether it’s the courts, whether it’s the House.”
The Speaker indicated that he will not drop the matter as it stands at this time: “This will be a House of Asssembly that subscribes to the rule of law,” he explained as his rationale.
When asked if the Attorney General advised him on the matter, the Speaker told reporters that the question was infringing on lawyer Client privilege, which he said he is not going to violate.
In the days since the matter has started many announced that the people of the Fourth District are the casualty in this impasse as they are without representation. When this position was put to the Speaker he said that he would not allow five months to pass without the matter being sorted: “Unfortunately when the late representative for the Fifth District passed it was five months without a representative for the Fifth District. That was unfortunate and I can assure that five months, they would not be a five-month period without a Fourth District Representative. As the Speaker I am not going to allow the matter to drag on.”
When it was pointed out that there is currently an impasse — with the Governor saying there is no need for a by-election writ, and the Speaker stating that the resignation has been accepted Hon. Willock said: “There are other options for everybody. There is the court, there is the House itself can do certain things. There is option.”
Meanwhile, he is asking that the public understand that this is not a personal fight, but rather a matter of principle: “The people of the Territory might remember clearly that this is not a fight between Mr. Vanterpool and myself. I have the highest respect for Mr. Vanterpool. He has served this country well. He means well for the most part. However, there is an issue of the Constitution and the way forward and that would be worked out.”
As the matter drags on, a petition has since been circulated calling on Premier Hon. Andrew Fahie to revoke the appointment of Mr. Willock as Speaker of the House of Assembly. When asked for a comment on the petition the Speaker said: “I don’t want to comment on it, free speech.”
Premier Discusses Petition
Premier and Minister for Finance Hon. Andrew Fahie commented on the petition stating that while he applauds the action and it is the author’s democratic right, he wondered why petitions weren’t circulated during the previous administration.
“That part with the petition, I love it because it shows that democracy is alive and well. I just was wondering where that zeal was when $7.2M for the plane was given out. I was wondering where that zeal was with the petition when the $8M was missing from the East End Long Look sewerage money…,” the Premier declared.
Nonetheless, Hon. Fahie said that this matter does not involve the Premier. Hon. Fahie spoke of the separation of powers between the three branches of government and said that he does not know what will come out of the matter. He said that he did not wish to comment because the matter might become a legal one and he did not want to prejudice it.
“I am not going to say who is right and who is wrong,” Premier and Minister for Finance Hon. Andrew Fahie announced in relations to the impasse between the Speaker of the House of Assembly and the elected Fourth District Representative, Hon. Mark Vanterpool. A matter that will now be heading before the High Court.
When asked what about the constituents of the Fourth District that will not be represented in Standing Finance deliberations, Hon. Fahie said: “Remember, we didn’t start this thing. I was elected by the people of the First District and they sent me to town to swear in and I swore in. I see it as a simple matter. I didn’t start it…I feel when people elect you, you go and swear in and do the people’s work. The events that have spin off since then is one which is unfortunate; but we will have to wait and see if it is a legal matter or not to comment further.”
“There was an action that created this and had the true will of the people on elections night been adhered to we wouldn’t be here, but we are where we are and I am not going to say who is right and who is wrong. I am not the judge. If the Speaker and the Member decides that this is going to court, I am going to stay quiet on it and let it take its course and if the court says otherwise the Speaker will have to oblige,” Hon. Fahie added.
Opposition Leader Concerned
However, Leader of the Opposition, Hon. Marlon Penn did not mince words as it relates to where the blame for the matter ought to fall as he told reporters in an interview on Tuesday that the Speaker’s decision disadvantages the Fourth District residents.
“It is unfortunate that the Speaker didn’t see it fit to speak to the people of the Territory and explain to the people of the Territory the reason and the rationale for doing things a certain way. It’s the Speaker’s house, he has all right to do, but he has to do it with respect and responsibility; he has to be responsible in his actions and it is unfortunate that he took that. I don’t want to have a fight on Budget day. I don’t want to have a public fight on this issue, but it is an issue that has to be addressed.”
The Leader of the Opposition said that he is concerned about the representation for the Fourth District. Hon. Penn said that it was not well that the Speaker did not see it fit to give an explanation to the House of Assembly. In stressing why the Speaker should have explained to the House, Hon. Penn said: “For the Speaker not to give an explanation to the people of this Territory, not to give an explanation to the House, where actually the Speaker’s authority lies.”