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Charlotte Amalie
Monday, July 22, 2024


April 5, 2002 – A meeting between WAPA employees and management Wednesday evening to resolve issues raised at an employee protest last week has generated mixed feelings, according to comments made on Thursday.
Joseph Thomas, WAPA executive director, called it an "excellent meeting" setting the framework for future meetings to be held on St. Croix and St. John.
Hubert Turnbull, WAPA Employees Association president, walked out of the meeting when the WAPA board failed to appear.
Carol Burke, WAPA board chair, is displeased that Thomas did not read a letter she had sent him aloud at the meeting, as she said he had been asked to do. "That doesn't sit well with me, or with the board," she said Thursday. "Deliberately not doing what we asked is an affront to the board." She said the letter explained why the board decided not to attend the meeting.
The Wednesday meeting came about after workers demonstrated outside WAPA headquarters on St. Thomas, citing numerous grievances, while the board was meeting inside. When the board members refused to come out and meet with them, some of the protesters stormed into the meeting room to press their case.
"The board reviewed its policies," Burke said Thursday, "and it determined it would not be proper for the board to meet with the employees" on Wednesday night. We had a conference call with Mr. Thomas to discuss the issue. Mr. Thomas said he could handle the meeting. The issue is under the purview of the executive director's responsibilities."
Turnbull said the employees expected the board to be present Wednesday night. "The executive director apparently made the decision that it was not a board issue, that it was an employee/management issue, and we weren't supposed to meet with the board," he said Thursday.
With no board present, Turnbull said, "It didn't make any sense for us to remain there. I picked up my stuff and decided to walk out." Having left the meeting with nothing resolved, Turnbull said Thursday, "I don't know what the next step will be."
Thomas said on Thursday that several other employees followed Turnbull out, but some lingered and came back. "About 30 employees stayed," he said, and the meeting lasted from 5:30 to 8 p.m. "I was disappointed that the folks with Turnbull didn't stay," he said. "We might have been able to mend some fences. At some point, we have to sit down and talk about things between us. Nobody's going anywhere."
Although it started on a discordant note, Thomas said, the meeting turned out well. "We talked about a wide variety of things, and the employees said they were happy they hadn't walked out."
In Thomas's view, "The grievance process needs to be overhauled. Too many cases end up clogging the system, and it ends up being too slow. Many of these issues should be resolved before they get to the grievance process stage. I need to give the labor-management committee more power, maybe sit in on it myself. These things are causing unrest. We need to take a deep breath and start over."
Thomas reiterated what he had told the employees last week when they burst into the WAPA board meeting: "We had critical operational and financial problems I had to deal with when I first arrived; so, I addressed those first."
Turnbull has been critical of Thomas's management style, stating the chief executive doesn't communicate with the employees. Thomas said he hopes that subsequent meetings he plans to have soon on St. Croix and St. John will help resolve employee grievance issues and open up better communication.
Expenses provoke complaint, response
At Wednesday nights' meeting, Sen. Norma Pickard-Samuel distributed copies of a letter she had written to Burke earlier Wednesday with a 19 pages of bills, receipts and other documentation concerning expense WAPA reimbursed to Thomas and Robert Vodzack, WAPA's chief financial officer, including $32,408 for Vodzack's moving expenses from Pennsylvania.
The senator wrote Burke that she was "outraged" that the utility was reimbursing Thomas for everything "from salt and pepper to cat treats and Oil of Olay lotion." She told the board chair, "I am respectfully requesting an immediate independent audit of the utility."
Burke said on Thursday that she would call a special board meeting to review Wednesday night's meeting and the documents forwarded by Pickard-Samuel. "This is the first time I have seen these documents," Burke said.
She dismissed Pickard-Samuel's audit request, saying, "We do our own independent audit."
Thomas said Thursday that answers to any questions about the expenditures could have been "provided with a phone call. There is no smoking gun." Pickard-Samuel sent copies of her letter and the itemized expenses to the news media. Turnbull said he had seen the information, too, but declined to say how he had come by it.
Thomas explained Thursday that the expenses — other than those for moving Vodzack — were incurred to furnish and stock a condominium WAPA has leased for one year on St. Croix to house St. Thomas employees who travel to St. Croix on company business. All of the receipts Pickard-Samuel circulated were for St. Croix purchases.
"We are trying an experiment to cut down on travel expenses," Thomas said. "We have set up a senior management team with territorial, rather than island-specific, responsibilities, which means they must travel to St. Croix, sometimes spending two or three days a week there, which is extremely expensive."
He said overnight costs for employees had been running about $200 to $250 a day, including hotel rooms and restaurant meals. The condo costs an average of $2,250 a month for a two-bedroom unit, he said, and if it has an average occupancy of 15 employee nights per month, it will save WAPA $1,500 a month.
Thomas said WAPA personnel purchased basic supplies for the condo, including Oil of Olay hand soap and food staples, as an alternative to employees taking meals at restaurant. "A one time personal purchase of a cat treat was inadvertently not deleted from the initial purchases
for the condo when I submitted my expense report," he said in a release Thursday.
He said he thanks the community leaders for their concern about the appropriateness of the authority's expenditures, and invited them "to call with any questions regarding cost-saving measures" that he is instituting.
WAPA itself questioned the bill submitted by Bob Lynch Moving and Storage for Vodzack's moving expenses in a letter that Pickard-Samuel included in her documents. WAPA's human resources director, Glen Byron, stated in the letter that the utility was paying the bill under protest.
Thomas said the WAPA officials thoroughly checked the expenses, and that he had met with the mover. "Apparently all companies charge about the same," he said. "We found if things had been packed a little differently, they could have saved some money, but not much. You don't know what the move is going to cost until it's over."
Thomas said WAPA is "the most investigated and audited agency in the V.I. We do not do things that are deliberately a misuse of the authority's funds. We are extremely conservative. I'm not going to do anything that is not in the best fiduciary interest of WAPA."

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