March 26, 2002 – After Gov. Charles W. Turnbull reappeared from his meeting with the Water and Power Authority board Tuesday afternoon without a board member or the WAPA executive director in tow, disgruntled employees decided to take matters into their own hands.
The governor told the workers he had advised the board to come out and "listen to the employees, just like I did." The board had voted earlier in the day not to do that.
So, chanting "If you're not coming out, we're coming in," and "If Mohammed won't go to the mountain, the mountain will come to Mohammed," about 30 of the 75 or so employees who had been outside WAPA's Sub Base offices since early morning marched inside, upstairs and into the second-floor board room, disrupting the meeting in progress.
They were closely followed by Sens. Donald "Ducks" Cole, Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg, Carlton Dowe and Celestino A. White Sr., plus reporters and other WAPA employees into the small, dark and hot conference room. Power to the room, the adjacent executive offices and the customer service offices had been cut off by persons and means unknown in the morning.
At the start of the day, White had been the first senator on the scene, arriving shortly after the demonstration began. He listened to the complaints of Hubert Turnbull, president of the WAPA Employees Association, and other workers, then went upstairs to the conference room where the WAPA board of trustees was meeting in executive session. He asked the board to recess and persuaded its chair, Carol Burke, to go downstairs then and there and speak to the crowd.
Burke did so, briefly addressing the workers, many of whom were angrily chanting "Thomas must go," a reference to Joseph Thomas, WAPA executive director. Burke said the board would vote on whether to come down and speak to the protesters. After learning of the board's vote against doing so, the crowd grew more restless.
Members of the press, barred from the closed-doors board session, ran up and down the stairs as the action moved from the conference room to the street and back. Board member Ira Hobson, commissioner of Housing Parks and Recreation, left the board meeting at mid-morning and telephoned Government House, asking the governor to intervene in the matter.
The crowd settled down after being told that the governor would come at noon to meet with them.
Before Burke was able to establish some order, protesters changed "Thomas should go back to Georgia" along with demands and complaints. Meanwhile, board member Claude "Tappy" Molloy decided to leave, despite the pleas of his board members that he stay.
With Molloy gone, the board had no quorum, something Burke tried to explain to the crowd. "My employees don't want to hear that," Hubert Turnbull responded.
Hubert Turnbull said the employees want three things:
– Thomas and Glen Byron, WAPA's human resources director for 13 years, must "go."
– Nobody attending Tuesday's demonstration should be reprimanded or have their pay docked for the day.
– Personnel working on Easter Sunday should receive holiday pay.
Burke asked the employees to air their complaints one by one. One voiced repeatedly throughout the day was that the workers are unable to communicate with Thomas. "He shows us no respect," some said. "He won't listen to us," others echoed. "He doesn't understand us."
Ironically, Thomas, who moved to the territory last year to take the chief executive post at WAPA, has been hosting town meetings to discuss WAPA issues with the public. The third and final one was Tuesday evening at the Palms Court Harborview Hotel on St. Thomas. Another of Thomas's initiatives has been expanded internal communication with employees. One of the demonstrator's placards Tuesday read, "Meet with the employees, not the public."
The governor had explained to the crowd before he went up to the board meeting that although he appoints the board members, "I can't fire the board or Thomas; the board can fire Thomas."
The protesters wanted the board to do just that Tuesday afternoon, refusing at first to accept, for starters, that the board could do nothing without a quorum.
Among the employees' allegations:
– That WAPA is seeking to contract outside workers to meet its new responsibility for the territory's street lights, while WAPA employees are able to do the job.
– That they are unable to communicate with Thomas.
– That when Thomas held an employee meeting to introduce his new management team, he left without allowing workers to ask questions or express themselves.
– That there are critical staffing shortages because workers who retire are not replaced.
– That there are only four plumbers for the St. Thomas water district, and that this forces inexperienced workers to perform work they are not trained for.
– That there has been a cutback in meter readers.
– That there are no signs of work under a $6.5 million appropriation which they say is to replace WAPA's aging St. Thomas headquarters building.
– That moving expenses for Thomas and another WAPA officer were supposed to be $6,500 but actually came to $32,000.
As Burke moved around the conference room listening to employees' concerns, disorder kept breaking out as some took the opportunity to attack Thomas, who was present, in person.
When Thomas said he didn't recall leaving the mentioned meeting without allowing for a question-and-answer period, the employees weren't buying it. "Yes you did," they chorused, as one added with regard to Tuesday, "We were very disappointed you didn't come downstairs to speak with us."
Thomas said he had to address many things immediately upon taking over as executive director, among them insurance and finance issues. He said he made the decision to concentrate on those issues first. "I can't argue; I concentrated on those things," he said. "After today, we have to sit down and talk in a logical manner."
Hobson suggested the board set a time next week to meet with employees. After some discussion, Thomas, Burke, and the remaining board members, Luz James III and Alphonso Franklin, agreed to a meeting at Palms Court Harborview at 5:30 p.m. on April 3.
The workers in the room didn't embrace the idea overwhelmingly. "He has had ample time to meet with us," Hubert Turnbull said of Thomas. "He has shattered our confidence."
"This is going to be difficult," Joseph Wrensford, a water distribution employee, said.
Dowe urged a "dialogue," as he had done earlier in the day. "When you don't have a dialogue, all hell breaks loose with all these petty little complaints," he said.
James assured the employees that their complaints and demands would be heard at the April 3 meeting. He added, "Have a good Easter, and please turn on the lights."
Thomas said there would be "no retaliation" for the workers' actions Tuesday. However, he also said that he didn't approve of that way of doing things contrary to union procedures. He said it didn't set a good precedent for future dealings.
Burke, who had calmly presided over the 45 minutes or so of controlled chaos after the workers entered the room, thanked the workers for their time, urged them to return to work, and echoed James's plea, "Please turn on the lights."
For an account of the morning activities, see "Workers say WAPA contracting outside linemen".
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