Potholes, litter, derelict cars, clogged guts, traffic lights – these are just a few of the things the territory’s island administrators deal with daily as the de facto mayors of the Virgin Islands.
Avery Lewis, St. Thomas-Water Island administrator, and his colleagues Shikima Jones, St. John, and former Sen. Sammuel Sanes, St. Croix, talked shop and fielded questions from a Zoom panel and audience Thursday evening on the 28th episode of the Press Box, the virtual town hall broadcast each week from Government House on St. Croix.
Dodson James, former St. Croix administrator under the Gov. John de Jongh Jr. administration, among the many other roles he has filled over the years, moderated the lively discussion, streamed live on Facebook.
“I think one of the greatest roles of the administrator is, I serve as a conduit from the community to the ears of the governor, and to the administration, and letting the governor know, this is what is happening in the streets, this is what we need to do to correct it, and let’s move forward,” said Lewis, who was appointed by Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. in January 2019.
“I also think that the role of the administrator, even before this position, I looked at it as the person that, maybe you just didn’t know who to call, you didn’t know which agency solves that particular problem, so I am the gap between you and resolution,” said Lewis, a former elementary school teacher, American Federation of Teachers president, and federal grants administrator.
Sanes also was appointed by Bryan in 2019.
“Usually what my office tries to do, as well as the other offices, we try to direct individuals to the right path in terms of any issues that they have, and now, more so than ever, we also have government entities calling us, requesting assistance. So, that’s what we’re basically trying to do … The connection of people with services,” Sanes said.
“We help nonprofit organizations. We help new businesses that are coming up. It’s very exciting because there is no such thing as any day being the same thing. Every day something new, every day we assist more and more individuals. And I gotta say, working with my partners here, we do a lot for the community,” said Sanes, who noted that the three administrators have a close working relationship, with help just “a phone call away.”
Jones, who started in public service at Government House under Gov. Roy L. Schneider’s administration in 1995, eventually became the Sports, Parks and Recreation Department project coordinator responsible for youth and seniors activities and in-school and out-school programs, a position she held for 17 years before “coming full circle” when she was named St. John’s island administrator in February 2019.
“Trash, abandoned vehicles and roads,” were her top priorities upon her appointment, said Jones, to agreement from Sanes and Lewis.
“So far we have made a dent,” Sanes said. “We have recovered over 400 abandoned vehicles in less than two years – and that is only on the island of St. Croix.”
“I would say that number is accurate, maybe a little more on St. Thomas,” said Lewis. “What some of the problem is, the program is designed to refund itself, as you know, we submit the fines. We’re working closely with DMV to make sure those fines will go in. There are some cases where the vehicles are just not traceable, you can’t find a VIN number,” he said. But for the most part, we’ve been tracking and doing what we have to do.”
“The community has been a great help with us, calling the office, letting us know where these vehicles are, but it’s timing, sometimes it’s money, it’s staffing issues, but that’s not the primary role of the island administrator, so we had to set a schedule,” said Lewis.
An administrator needs to be out in the community, not behind a desk, said Lewis, whose first projects focused on cleaning up previously underserved communities, including Savan, Garden Street and Round the Field, and getting Public Works crews into neighborhoods “that were never seen, or passed over, for lack of a better word.”
Sanes has focused on the homeless – “something I am very passionate about” – by helping to secure a $30,000 grant for Ten Thousand Helpers in Frederiksted to expand by converting trailers to housing for the homeless, as well as funding for the Men’s Coalition, to expand services to its clients.
“Every day we come up with these new ideas,” Sanes said, touting a program to scan important documents for seniors onto USB drives, secured in waterproof bags, so that they are protected in case of a hurricane. Work also is underway on a drag racing track – almost 80 percent complete, said Sanes — in conjunction with the Caribbean Drag Racing Association and with help from the Legislature and Office of the Governor.
Lewis, early on, had to help mitigate the impacts of a drawn-out Main Street Enhancement Project that started in 2016 but was still dragging on in 2019, causing major disruptions to businesses along the busy tourist route as roads were torn up for the installation of proper storm drainage.
“Early in the project, it was real tedious, it was real devastating,” Lewis said. “Businesses were going out, there wasn’t income coming in. So just to go down, just to have a conversation with them, just to speak with the contractors, see how we could expedite the process, to make life easier for the business community. But not only that, to come up with ideas, make them be a part of the project, not just that the project was running.
That included, eventually, coming up with a plan for how taxis would operate on the street, as well as input on the aesthetics of the design, Lewis said.
“On St. John, it’s all about collaboration and networking. We work really well with government and private sectors. It works really, really well for us. And it’s something that we’re going to continue to do because that’s what builds Love City,” Jones said. “You can’t have Love City without connection and communication.”
The administrators also fielded questions from a Zoom panel – Chris Mitchell on St. Croix, Lori Anderson on St. Thomas and Dietra Powell on St. John – who started by asking about roads and why some remain in poor condition.
Sanes, Lewis and Jones were unanimous in their answers, that as long as WAPA is working to complete sewer projects, and AT&T is laying new cable, final paving has to wait – “Working smart, and working together,” Jones said – as trying as that can be for motorists.
“It has to be done that way because we keep making the same mistake as we did in the past – we pave a road, and then two to three months later another entity comes and tears it up again. So what we’ trying to do, we’re trying to fix the roads within a certain timespan,” said Sanes, but “one of the issues that we have, these entities, government entities, they get their funding at a different time,” exacerbating project coordination and completion.
“That’s the problem,” Jones agreed, though she had good news to share about a stretch of Centerline Road that was damaged in the hurricanes of September 2017, noting that work will begin on Sept. 28.
“I am very, very excited about that. You don’t know how happy I am about that,” she said. Public Works Commissioner Nelson Petty Jr. also is working on securing funds for the design stage of Route 108 from Cruz Bay to Coral Bay, said Jones.
The questions from the Zoom panel and viewers covered everything from the graveyard in Cruz Bay, the mobile hospital on St. Croix and loitering on the boardwalk in Christiansted, to recycling programs, community police patrols, the homeless population at Emancipation Garden and gut maintenance on St. Thomas – offering insight into the broad role of the administrators.
“When I got in there, I had a general idea of what the role of the administrator is. But when I took office I realized, well, this is a broader scope, so I had to recalculate, readjust, and come again,” said Lewis.
COVID-19 has only added to the workload, as residents reach out to their administrators when they cannot get through to agencies that have been overwhelmed by the pandemic, such as the Labor Department, which is processing thousands of applications for unemployment insurance.
The administrators, in response, gave their office and cell phone numbers for people to call for help.
Lewis can be reached at 340-693-4350 (office) and 340-227-5423 (cell); Jones at 340-776-6484 (office) and 340-474-5762 (cell); and Sanes at 340-373-1404 (office) and 340-390-8861 (cell).
COVID-19 also featured prominently in the final question of the night – whether the administrators believe in the universal mask mandate in effect for the Virgin Islands – a question that hit particularly close to home for Lewis and Jones, who have both had the virus.
While Jones had no symptoms and was shocked by her positive test result, it was a different story for Lewis.
“I’ll answer that proudly,” said Lewis, in response to the question. “I do believe in universal mask wearing. Let me tell you something, I just got over the COVID. I was down for a month. Breathing, and coming back, is no easy thing. I don’t take this lightly, so when I go out, I have a mask. That’s why we have six-foot distancing,” said Lewis.
“I don’t take it lightly. Because I was down. I know the feeling. I know the feeling too good. Breathing. Headache. Fever. Everything. Please protect yourself. Don’t take it lightly. Do the right thing. Hand sanitize, wear your mask, try to avoid mass gatherings. Adhere to the CDC rules,” said Lewis. “I know everybody in the Virgin Islands likes to fete. Nobody likes to fete more than me. You say fete, Avery is there. But I know. So I’m asking everybody who is listening to me, and who will hear me tonight and carry the word, take it serious, wear your mask.”