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Undercurrents: They Also Serve, and Serve, and Serve

A regular Source feature, Undercurrents explores issues, ideas and events as they develop beneath the surface in the Virgin Islands community. This is the third in a three-part series about government boards and commissions.

Rev. Reuben Vessup’s love of music was well known on his native St. Thomas; he’d been in his church choir since he was 14 and spent many years with the Caribbean Chorale. About the time he joined the ministry and moved to a St. Croix parish, a St. Croix seat on the V.I. Council on the Arts became vacant. He was asked to fill it and agreed.

“That was about 20 years ago,” he said. “I’m still on it.”

Moreover, he said, most of the people he serves with have been there all along too.

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Like many government entities that rely on citizen volunteers, the council functions with at least some members whose terms have officially expired but who continue to serve.

Earl DeWindt, who retired from his job as assistant principal at Bertha C. Boschulte Middle School after 30 years, has volunteered in a number of community causes, including serving on the Affordable Housing Advisory Committee of Housing Authority.

“Two years is the term. I did seven, and I think that’s enough,” he said. “Give someone else a chance.”

On the Historic Preservation Commission, “I think all our terms have expired,” said longtime member, businessman Ronald Lockhart. “We just continue until we’re told to go.”

What prompts such dedication?

“I think that everybody needs to find a way to serve their community,” said LaVerne Ragster. The former president of the University of the Virgin Islands and a longtime community activist, Ragster currently serves on the Waste Management Authority board.

“You’re not doing this for the money,” Lockhart said. “You’re doing it for the love.” The Historic Preservation Commission pays private citizen members a stipend of $75 a day for days they meet – a typical compensation. Also as usual, it pays reasonable travel costs, but it doesn’t pay for the time members may spend researching and learning about the issues with which they deal.

“I would like to make a difference,” is the way DeWindt explained his willingness to serve. “There’s a need to assist people who cannot afford to buy a home at market prices,” and the Affordable Housing Advisory Committee was devised to help meet that need.
St. Thomas attorney Tom Bolt has worked with a myriad of community groups over the years. He said his service on the government-sponsored Commission on Uniform State Laws is especially important because the group addresses legal issues that directly impact people’s day-to-day lives, such as ensuring that a protection order obtained in another jurisdiction is honored in the territory.

“You’re actually making a difference in people’s lives,” Bolt said. “That’s why I do it.”

For Dr. Wilbur Callender, the motivation seems to be twofold: the desire to help, and the drive to keep active after retirement. He serves as the membership’s elected representative on the Government Employees Retirement System Board of Trustees and as the medical staff’s representative on the St. Thomas-St. John District Governing Board of the Roy L. Schneider Hospital.

“I campaigned for the (GERS) position because I wanted it,” he said. Besides his medical degree, he obtained a Masters in Business Administration some years ago. “I got it and then I didn’t use it for 10 years.” But an MBA comes in handy for someone wrestling with the intricacies of investment strategies and trying to balance a teetering system.

Not long after he made his commitment to GERS – a five-year term – he was tapped for the hospital board. Few people fit the exact criteria spelled out for the position of medical staff representative, so he said he felt he couldn’t refuse.

Some GERS trustees have come under fire in the past for what critics said was excessive travel at GERS expense. In response, Callender said the board is working to on a travel policy to cover trustees and eliminate any question of junkets.

“It needs to be more of a volunteer situation,” he said, speaking in general about occasional abuse. “Some people try to supplement their income” by building up stipend and travel payments.

On the other side of that coin are the citizens who end up giving more time and energy than they ever imagined they’d be asked for when they first agreed to volunteer.

“Being a board member is more complicated than people understand, and the level of responsibility is very high,” Ragster said. “We don’t do enough training of people who serve on boards.”

The amount of training varies from entity to entity. In the case of the Waste Management Authority Board, Ragster said she missed a retreat for members that took place just before she joined the board. She was provided a lot of reading material and will be going to a conference in the fall.

Vernon Finch, a retired government official who worked in several capacities, said there was no formal training offered when he joined the VI Council on the Arts years ago but it wasn’t necessary because members were already familiar with how it functioned.

A few months ago the governor asked him to join the Lottery Commission and “there was a lot of material presented to me.” There still was no formal training per se, but Finch said he was allowed to attend a world lottery conference in Montreal where he learned a lot about the gaming industry. “It’s a big business. It takes a while to grasp it.”

“Being on a board is a learning experience,” Ragster said. Members not only learn about the area of expertise covered by the entity, but about finances and budgets and interpersonal skills needed for dealing with other members and with all those who interact with the board.

Of course not all members are from the private sector. Each entity has a complement of government officials who serve by virtue of their positions. Some are members of numerous entities at once. Finance Commissioner Angel Dawson, for instance, is on the Public Finance Authority, the Lottery Commission, the Territorial Hospital Board, the Board of Tax Review and the Small Business Development Agency.

Budget Director Debra Gottlieb may hold the record.

“I think I’m on 13 or 14,” she said. “Some of them are not active right now.”

Once she looked it up and enumerated them, the number turned out to be 13: the Public Finance Authority, the Housing Finance Authority, the Lottery Commission, the Post Compliance Agreement Task Force (regarding federal funding for Education,) the Health Reform Task Force, the Pension Reform Task Force, the Territorial Hospital Facilities Board, the Government Employees Services Commission, the Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy Committee, the Retroactive Wage Commission, the Insular Government Finance Officers Association, the Tax Study Commission, and the V.I. Medical Institute.

Some are dormant; most are active and meet anywhere from once a quarter to several times a month. Meanwhile, as part of the official Governor’s Financial Team, she has a standing appointment every Monday, and generally actually meets about twice a month.

Gottlieb admitted that “Sometimes it gets a bit overwhelming,” but she rejected suggestions from administration critics that officials are unable to fulfill their regular duties because of board overload.

“I think it’s how you structure it,” she said. “I have a great staff” who provide backup.

She said she was careful to ensure that she is not the only person who can approve various OMB actions so nothing needs to sit and wait for her signature while she’s at a meeting. She has built-in controlled redundancy.

She also has the option on some entities of sending a department representative and said she does so sometimes, although “I generally go to just about all of these.”

Neither Gottlieb nor Dawson would estimate the overall cost of paying per diem and expenses to private citizen members of government agencies.

Payments are part of the budget for the department or agency which guides each entity. But there is no consistent way of showing the cost in their budgets. It may be listed as “board expense” or could be listed under “travel,” “operations” or another term.

While some people criticize the system of public-private participation as unwieldy – there being something more than 120 different entities by the administration’s count – Dawson had nothing but praise for the longstanding practice.

It’s good to have different perspectives represented, he said. “I see absolutely no cons.”

“It does (work) if the board is able to be staffed to its full capacity,” Gottlieb said. “I think it’s essential that boards have their full complement of members.”

Ragster, for one, couldn’t agree more. The Waste Management Authority Board has seven seats and only four of them are filled, meaning it has to have everyone present to make a quorum. “If one person’s missing, no work gets done.”

And work does get done on many government entities.

As an example, Vessup and Finch both said the V.I. Council on the Arts is getting more and more applications for small grants. This is federal money, with a local match, which is channeled through the Council. The group doesn’t just wait for applications to flood in. It holds a workshop in each district once a year to educate would-be applicants about effective ways to present their projects and request funding.

“We try to work with them so nobody gets left behind who has something credible,” Vessup said.

Currently, the Council is rather a victim of its own success. It has about twice as many applicants as it did in his early years, Vessup said; some 200 last year compared with 60 or 70 in the past. But the federal funding has been at a standstill for the last 10 to 15 years.

Vessup said he gets satisfaction for helping promote the arts and artists in the territory. There’s also the camaraderie of the group.

“It is fun in a way,” he said of his service. “But it is work.”

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