May 9, 2002 – Sens. Alicia "Chucky" Hansen and Norma Pickard-Samuel brought full circle Wednesday night the hostility with which they greeted Joseph Thomas in the same Senate chambers exactly one year earlier, his first day on the job.
The former Water and Power executive director, whose resignation submitted last week was effective Monday, appeared as a private citizen Wednesday. He said he was there to correct matters from Tuesday's meeting of the same committee on St. Croix which he said in a six-page statement were so "inaccurate, distorted or misleading, that I almost don't know where to start."
The Wednesday meeting started about 45 minutes late while documents were being copied by the post audit division, Hansen said. The session opened with Thomas reading the six-page statement with Hansen the only senator in attendance. Post audit employees later brought to the chambers pounds of WAPA documents in stacks more than a foot high for each senator. The Senate chamber was filled with about 15 WAPA managers and attorneys and almost that number of employees.
"Those who had been asking for my removal were absolutely correct in assuming that my leadership results in a tighter and better-run operation," Thomas said. "The thing that may have been missed, however, is that such an operation is a good thing. A well-run utility can be a great place to work."
Thomas said when he arrived at WAPA last year, he was told that the Virgin Islands wanted its utility to be first class in order to "improve the quality of life for our citizens, and to improve the economic outlook for potential new businesses as a way to provide more revenue to our government and productive careers at home for our youth."
He said he believes that now the "realization that may be setting in is that in order to accomplish our goal, we will have to do things differently than we have done them before." He added, "Ask yourself, is the utility in better or worse shape since I took over?"
After Thomas's presentation, Hansen called Hubert Turnbull, WAPA Employees Association president. He spoke for about 40 minutes in a litany of complaints, mainly against Thomas, but with a few swipes at others in management at the authority. "I'm not going to blame Mr. Thomas for everything," Turnbull began, "but I will blame him for most of these things."
Turnbull said, "It's kind of sad that we allow Mr. Thomas to take credit for where we were and where we are today," to which Hansen responded with a voluble "Thank you."
An ultimatum from employees
Turnbull said that from now on, whoever is slated to replace Thomas will need to "treat the employees differently." He declared, "We will continue this fight. We have said Thomas must go, and we have said Byron (Glenworth Byron, human resources director) must go … and the other managers who believe they will step in our way, they must go."
Thomas again defended three items which have been gone over repeatedly by Hansen's committee since Pickard-Samuel made public expenses incurred by WAPA that include $32,000 in moving expenses for Robert Vodzack, the utility's chief financial officer, and itemized expenses for a condominium Thomas leased on St. Croix for management employees traveling from St. Thomas. (See "Subpoenaed WAPA officials get Senate grilling".)
Thomas also defended his mention of a temporary restraining order in a letter to Turnbull after an employee job action which resulted in employees barging into a WAPA board meeting in March and demanding the dismissal of Thomas and Byron.
Hansen accused Thomas of treating his employees "like children" with mention of the restraining order. "You might do things like that in Wisconsin," Hansen told Thomas, "but that's not the way things work here." Thomas said in his statement that he had managed employees in three unions in Wisconsin for many years "and we never had an incident like the March 26 walkout in nine years."
He also defended the severance agreement accorded him by the WAPA governing board. Carol Burke, the board chair, attended Tuesday's meeting but was absent Wednesday. She had been "invited" to both hearings, while the WAPA officials had been subpoenaed. Hansen said Burke had missed her flight from St. Croix.
The severance agreement gave Thomas lump-sum payments of $150,000 and $19,538 as bonus and leave pay, respectively, payable by the close of business on May 6, 2002, and provided for a continuation of his health and benefits package, or its equivalent, for one year.
"Mr. Thomas isn't doing bad," Hansen had said Tuesday. "He spends without authorization, he goes beyond his limit, the board determines it's a violation and the board rewards him with compensation." It was a remark she returned to several times Wednesday night, re-reading part of Thomas's statement several times, including a final thrust at about 11 p.m.
Thomas said the arrangement with the board benefitted both parties. "An amicable separation also helps the authority's reputation with external parties, reflecting maturity and orderliness in the management transitions," he said.
Thomas 'gone' but not forgotten
Other committee members took turns grilling Thomas, Rothgeb, WAPA counsel Kathy Smith and Byron, focusing mainly on Thomas. Pickard-Samuel said she would not address Thomas directly because "he is gone," although she took the opportunity to remind Thomas that he couldn't come to the Virgin Islands and "treat us like fools."
She interrogated Rothgeb about which employees had stayed at the condominium on St. Croix. Rothgeb responded after intense questioning that to his knowledge only Thomas and Vodzack have stayed there.
Thomas chastised the senators for their role in the March union demonstration. "The approach the employees took was a power play … and many of you senators were caught up in it," he said. "The result of the support some of you provided then and your continuing support is likely to be counterproductive to the required balance between authority employees and management." He said the senators' involvement also could "be costly to the authority and its customers, as well as other agencies with a strong union representation."
Sen. Donald "Ducks" Cole — who with colleagues Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg, Carlton Dowe and Celestino A. White Sr. had met with the workers as they were protesting on March 26 — said the senators were simply representing their constituents. "Thomas has served his time," Cole said. "He has done some good things, but he has done some things that have raised the ire of the leaders of this territory."
Hansen said the Tuesday and Wednesday meetings accomplished something. "We will see lower fuel bills," she said. She asked Glenn Rothgeb, WAPA's assistant executive director and now acting chief executive, to furnish her a report within 30 days on turbine attachments which she said would boost fuel economy. Hansen asked for a detailed listing of all WAPA equipment and its energy loss and output capacity.
She said nobody had heard the last of the Finance Committee's investigation of the authority. "This meeting is not adjourned," she said. "It is recessed." And she said she wanted to meet with the WAPA officials "one more time, privately, no reporters."
Finance Committee members present were Sens. Cole, Dowe, Donastorg, Hansen and Pickard-Samuel. Sens. Douglas Canton Jr. and Norman Jn Baptiste were excused. White, who is not a member, made a brief appearance.
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