Financial Report at Elections Board Meeting Raises Questions

A financial report issued by Elections Supervisor Caroline Fawkes prompted an at times contentious discussion regarding the adequacy of the body’s financial oversight at the St. Thomas-St. John Board of Elections Meeting on Thursday. Board members voiced concern over how little information they received regarding how the $390,000 allotted to Elections by the Legislature in December would be managed. The agency accrued extensive debts during the long and complicated 2014 election.

It was not clear Thursday how the funds would be divided between the St. Thomas-St. John and St. Croix districts, and although Fawkes presented a list of broad categories that the money could be used for, a detailed audit has not yet been completed.

Fawkes said $350,000 would be used to cover expenses from the run-off election and $20,000 each would be used to cover early voting and the recount. Several types of expenditures were listed as covered by the funds, including office supplies, advertising, security, caterers, the printing and shipping of ballots, and the transportation of voting equipment.

But just what exactly those categories would cover was not laid out in a concrete enough way to satisfy some board members. Ivy Moses, a first term board member from St. John, expressed outrage over a report that a personal rental car had been charged to Elections on St. Croix.

Board Chairman Arturo Watlington Jr. said the St. Croix board had determined that the expenditure in question was an abuse, and that it was not a policy issue but one that should be left to the day-to-day operations of the supervisor’s office.

"We should not stand in judgment of a district issue on St. Croix," said Watlington, but he agreed that the board must insist on the separation of funds by district in the future to make oversight more manageable.

Watlington said that since Elections activities were different in character between the two districts, the money being received in one lump sum presents problems. St. Croix, for instance had two days of early voting in comparison to St. Thomas-St. John’s 12 days.

No Deputy Supervisor

Complicating the matter further was the fact that Thursday’s meeting was the first to be held after the official resignation of Deputy Supervisor Nefrediezha Barbel, who has been on leave since several confrontations prompted her departure in August. Barbel officially resigned from her position in a brief letter that was read at Thursday’s meeting.

Fawkes said that "timing is critical" in getting the position advertised and filled but that, despite the vacancy being for a St. Thomas-St. John district post, Elections bylaws mandate that all hiring decisions be made by the joint board. In order to have a quorum, eight members would have to be present with no less than three from either of the two districts.

A motion raised by new board member Carla Joseph to form an ad hoc committee addressing the vacancy was voted down three to two with two abstentions. Watlington stated concern that forming such a committee, even if it made no direct hiring decisions, would be perceived of as an attempt to "hijack" the process without any input from St. Croix district board members. He said that such moves had been met with hostility in the past.

Joseph made the case that the ad hoc committee would simply begin to organize such things as job descriptions and pay salary before approaching the joint board. Watlington said, aside from being uncomfortable with the legality of such a committee, he did not know of any information that needed to be gathered to fill the position since bylaws are already clear in regards to the deputy supervisor’s duties.

A later motion to make a recommendation for a temporary acting deputy supervisor passed four to two. A joint board meeting is scheduled for Jan. 20 to discuss the recommendation.

Legal Challenges

An argument erupted at the close of the meeting when Joseph, acting as secretary, read a January 14th letter from board member Diane Magras accusing the board of illegal action in their recent attempt to bar her from executive sessions. Magras is involved in a lawsuit against the board.

At the board’s last meeting, Magras refused to be excluded from the executive decision prompting the board to call the police. Magras maintains that the body did not have the authority to exclude her.

The reading of another longer letter from Magras was waived by the board in a six to one vote in which Magras was the only no.

Moses called the elections board "one big circle of conflicts of interest," and said it was ridiculous that time was being used to discuss Magras’s complaints when a previous topic she raised – the closing of the polling station at Guy Benjamin School in Coral Bay – was deferred to a later date by Watlington.

At one point, Moses took out a folding tourist map of St. John and called the closing of the polling station "disenfranchisement" for those who live on the east end of the island. Watlington said only 115 people had voted at the GBS polling station in 2014. He said it would hold up the entire Virgin Islands electoral process to keep the GBS polling station open on election day due to the time it takes for ballots to be delivered from Coral Bay to St. Thomas.

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