Elections Boards' St. Croix retreat cost taxpayers more than $17,000

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ST. CROIX - A three-day retreat that the Joint Boards of Election took last month at the Carambola Beach Resort & Spa cost taxpayers more than $17,000.

That number includes on-island transportation costs, speakers, hotel rooms, food, equipment rental and airfare for speakers who came from outside the territory and for board members and staff who needed to travel between islands.

The Daily News requested the information under the territory's Open Public Records Law.

Joint Boards chairwoman Alecia Wells said in a letter that the last time the board had a workshop-retreat was on St. John in 2005. According to Wells, almost $6,000 has been encumbered for a number of years for another such workshop.

The plan had been to have this retreat on St. John, but the board changed the venue to St. Croix.

The board also decided to call the three-day workshop an "advance" rather than a "retreat."

"This workshop was essential since we have new board members and a new management team," Wells said in the letter.

She also discussed why she thinks the retreat was necessary.

"The goal of this educational workshop was to educate, share experience and knowledge, and promote a feeling of teamwork and to build a better understanding among board members," Wells wrote. "Other areas we also wanted to focus on was having board members assess their personality types, group dynamics, problem-solving techniques and consensus building skills, which will lead to better teamwork and better overall productivity."

The retreat ran from Dec. 13 to 15 at Carambola with a brief interruption on Sunday to conduct business.

The Joint Boards held a meeting to conduct business at the V.I. Cardiac Center on Thursday, Dec. 12, the afternoon before the retreat began, but unable to finish its agenda, the board decided to continue its meeting to Sunday, Dec. 15, with an early morning start. The Sunday portion of the meeting interrupted retreat activities, but the retreat resumed once the meeting adjourned.

According to figures provided by Wells and the Election System in response to the Daily News request, the largest category of expense for the retreat was for the hotel, at $7,776.

Elections Supervisor Caroline Fawkes said Tuesday that the $7,776 figure included 18 rooms at Carambola for two nights, Dec. 13 and 14.

The rooms were taken by five board members from St. Thomas-St. John, six from St. Croix, four Elections System staff members, and three speakers who were from off-island, Fawkes said.

St. Thomas-St. John Board of Election members, who had to fly over for the meeting Thursday afternoon, also stayed in hotels Thursday night, at a cost of $977.56.

The price tag for food at the retreat was $2,329.46, while speakers fees were $1,650, according to Wells' letter.

The off-island speakers who were brought down for the retreat were Doug Lewis, executive director of the Election Center, which is operated by the National Association of Election Officials; and Jerry Holland and Tracie Davis, supervisor and deputy supervisor of Elections for Duval County, Florida.

Fawkes said that during the 2012 elections, Duval County began using the same voting machines as the territory will start using in the 2014 elections.

The presentations from Holland and Davis involved how they implemented using the new machines and how they educated voters on them. They brought along copies of their policies and procedures, Fawkes said.

Among the topics Lewis covered was parliamentary procedures.

Airfare for bringing in the off-island speakers was $2,385.37, according to the information Wells provided.

Other speakers at the retreat were local, and presentations included governance, board responsibilities, training in the new email system, and information on group dynamics and personalities, Fawkes said.

On-island transportation for participants was $450. Fawkes said that the St. Croix Taxi Association was hired to take care of whatever transportation needs there were for the retreat, including picking members up when they got off the plane.

Equipment rental at the hotel - automation for slides and presentations, along with white boards and other equipment - was $525. Fawkes said there was no extra fee for the conference room.

That brings the total to $16,093.39.

Local airfare - which is part of a contract the government has with Seaborne - was not initially included in the response to the Daily News request. Fawkes said that board members traveling from St. Thomas would have had to come to St. Croix anyway for the Thursday board meeting.

Airfare is $170 per person, roundtrip, according to Fawkes. She said six board members and two staff members from St. Thomas-St. John flew.

That would bring the local airfare total to $1,360, which, when added to the $16,093.39, comes to a grand total of $17,453.39.

Three members of the Joint Boards - Adelbert Bryan, Lawrence Boschulte, and Wilma Marsh-Monsanto - did not attend the retreat at all. Member Harry Daniel attended part of the retreat. The rest of the board members - Wells, Lilliana Belardo de O'Neal, Glenn Webster, Lisa Harris-Moorhead, Raymond Williams, Rupert Ross Jr., Roland Moolenaar, Arturo Watlington Jr., Claudette Georges and Lydia Hendricks - attended the full retreat.

Marsh-Monsanto did fly from St. Thomas to St. Croix for Thursday's board meeting, but she stayed overnight at King's Alley and flew back the following morning, not participating in the retreat, Fawkes said.

"I had some previous commitments," Marsh-Monsanto said, adding that she also thought the retreat would be a waste of time.

Bryan said he just didn't go to the retreat - and noted that he is not the only member of the board.

Daniel said that he attended the Thursday meeting and the retreat on Friday, but left Saturday morning because of prior commitments.

Boschulte said he did not attend the retreat because he thought there were better ways to spend the money.

He noted that he did attend the 2005 retreat when he was still fairly new to the board because he thought he might learn something - but said he has been a board member for a long time now.

Boschulte also said he thinks that board members who live on an island where a retreat is held should sleep at home instead taking hotel rooms. He also questioned whether a less expensive option to the Carambola could have been found.

Fawkes said she thinks it was money well spent.

"I don't think it could be spent better. I come from the federal system where retreats and workshops are important," she said, adding that there are a lot of new people on the board since the last retreat in 2005, as well as new leadership at the Election System. "I think it was needed. I think it came in well at the end of the year. I think we will see the progress in 2014."

- Contact Joy Blackburn at 714-9145 or email jblackburn@dailynews.vi.

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