In a response to pressure for a by-election date from the Speaker of the House of Assembly Hon. Julian Willock, His Excellency Governor Augustus Jaspert promptly ended the debate on the matter of whether Fourth District Representative Mark Vanterpool should be sworn into the House of Assembly by stating that the legislator’s resignation was invalid.
For weeks the matter of representation for the Fourth District has been public debate. The situation regarding the Fourth District seat arose when on 5 March – days after being reelected – Vanterpool issued a statement and a video announcing that he was retiring from representational politics.
However, in an unexpected move on 14 March 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, 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 Vanterpool’s resignation.
The Speaker continued his push for a by-election this week when he issued a statement urging the Governor to call a by-election. Hon Willock statement on 25 March alluded to the Governor’s previous announcement that he was not aware of a vacancy in the House of Assembly and stated that the Governor was repeatedly informed of such a vacancy.
“My ruling of 13th March 2019 to accept Mr. Mark H. Vanterpool’s letter of resignation dated 5th March 2019 still stands. Additionally, I have advised His Excellency the Governor Mr. Augustus Jaspert in writing on two occasions that there is a vacancy for representation in the Fourth Electoral District in the House of Assembly, as Mr. Vanterpool followed through on his expressed intent and did not show up on 12th March 2019 to be sworn in as an elected Member,” Willock announced on Monday.
In urging the Governor to make the by-election call Willock stated: “I trust that Governor Jaspert will not allow the people of District Four to go without a district representative for much longer. It was unfortunate that the people of District Five, following the passing of Honourable Delores Christopher, had to wait five months for a new district representative. I know that the Governor values our democracy and the role it plays in good governance and improving the lives of our people, so we await a by-election date, which under the constitution, can only be called by him.”
Governor Shuts by-election Talk Down
Within 24 hours of the Speaker’s statement His Excellency responded and brought an end to the uncertainty as it related to the Fourth District seat. In his 26 March statement the Governor also acknowledged receipt of the letters referenced by the Speaker: “I am aware of the Honourable Speaker’s latest statement relating to representation in the Fourth District. This rightly recognizes that I value democracy tremendously and the role it plays in good governance and improving the lives of the people of the Virgin Islands. I have received correspondence from the Honourable Speaker that sets out his views on whether the seat is vacant. I am also aware that the question of whether the Fourth District seat is vacant is being contested by the Member-Elect of that district.”
The Governor said he wanted to do due diligence before responding to the matter, and was now clear on the matter. “As with all matters, I will remain neutral and impartial and will be guided by the Constitution and the appropriate legal framework. I have received legal advice that has been copied to the Honourable Speaker, advising that the resignation of the Member-Elect was invalid on the basis that the Member-Elect has no constitutional right to resign prior to being sworn in. Therefore, at this point, I do not intend to issue a writ for a by-election.”
However, the Governor announced that he would not comment on the swearing-in aspect of the situation as he said that it is not within his ambit: “The swearing in of the Member-Elect is a matter for the House to determine, having regard to the will of the electors in the Constituency.”
Opposition Leader Voices Concerns
Speaking for the first time on the matter, Leader of the Opposition and Eighth District Representative, Hon. Marlon Penn announced that his colleague should be sworn-in at the earliest convenience so that the Fourth District can be represented.
Hon. Penn stated that in his opinion the resignation was invalid: “The fact that the letter was not addressed to the Speaker, (in fact there was no Speaker at the time), made the letter null and void. Moreover, the Clerk of the HOA wrote to Hon. Vanterpool on 13 March advising of the constitutional requirements and that his resignation should be addressed to the Speaker. Hon Vanterpool therefore wrote to the Speaker on 14 March, advising him that he wished to be sworn in at his earliest convenience as the representative of the Fourth District, as declared by the Supervisor of Elections.”
The Leader of the Opposition further noted that there was a discrepancy between what the Speaker was announcing and what was written to Hon. Vanterpool. “Oddly enough, despite that correspondence from the House of Assembly, the Hon. Speaker also wrote a letter dated 13 March (received by Hon. Vanterpool on the 14 March) pointing out the requirements of the Constitution for a member wishing to vacate his seat, which Hon. Vanterpool’s letter failed to meet, but yet the Hon. Speaker purported to accept Hon. Vanterpool’s resignation.”
“Subsequently, the Hon. Speaker has made several statements to the effect that he will not swear in the Hon. Member and is instead waiting for the date for the by-election. With the greatest respect, this is not a call for the Speaker to make unilaterally. His Excellency the Governor has in fact stated that there will only be a by-election if formally notified that the seat has become vacant and he will be guided by the Constitution of the Virgin Islands and legal advice. The NDP’s position and that of the Hon. Vanterpool is clear. It is also consistent with any reasonable legal interpretation of what transpired and most importantly consistent with the Constitution of the Virgin Islands. There is no vacancy in the fourth. Hon Vanterpool remains the duly elected and declared representative of the 4th Electoral District and therefore there is no need for a by-election,” Hon. Penn said.
The Opposition Leader also decried the position that has been taken by Hon. Willock calling it unfortunate: “The position that the Hon. Speaker has taken is most unfortunate especially at this time when this territory needs the best minds, the most experienced and competent to govern our Territory. Furthermore, it would be a travesty to our democracy if the Hon. Speaker unilaterally choses to disregard the voice and decision of the people of the 4th Electoral district and the Constitution of the Virgin Islands.”
“The Hon. Speaker should be minded of his own solemn pledge to the people of this Territory and the Honourable House of Assembly that “his tenure as Speaker will be fair, non-partisan and objective…” and that he is “aware that while the Opposition is in the minority, those districts that sent them to the House, deserve to be heard through their members and will be heard”. I am therefore calling on the Hon. Speaker of the House of Assembly to… Honour his own pledge …Honour the will of the people…Respect the Constitution of the Virgin Islands and swear in Hon. Vanterpool to the House of Assembly without delay so that we can all get on with the work that the people of this country have elected us to do. We must get on with the work of rebuilding our beloved Virgin Islands,” Hon. Penn added.