Federal funds to buy voting machines depend on compliance with Disablilities Act, St. Thomas-St. John board is informed
Published: February 15, 2013
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ST. THOMAS - The V.I. Elections System must overcome at least two distinct hurdles before it can purchase new electronic voting machines.
Board of Elections attorney Kimberly Salisbury told the St. Thomas-St. John Board of Elections at its meeting Thursday that the Elections System must become compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act - and all other federal laws - before the federal government will release the funds to purchase the machines.
That means getting the U.S. Justice Department to certify that the new St. Thomas elections office is ADA compliant, according to board members Claudette Georges and Alecia Wells. It also means the board must adopt a new facilities plan - a process that, according to Georges and Wells, requires a public comment period and may take several months.
The ADA certification could happen by the end of the month following a planned Feb. 21 visit by Justice Department officials, according to St. Thomas-St. John Deputy Elections Supervisor Mabel Maduro.
It is less clear how long it might take to adopt a new facilities plan. No one at the meeting Thursday knew specifically where the last form of such a plan might exist.
Maduro said she would look for it after the meeting in a large room of boxes and other materials that have yet to be unpacked from the office's move from Crystal Gade to its new location above the Sugar Estate Banco Popular.
The status of the new voting machines has been a recurring question for the Elections System since the territory adopted a law in December 2011 requiring all subsequent elections to take place on electronic voting machines that are certified by the U.S. Elections Assistance Commission.
The territory's lack of compliance with this law for the 2012 elections is at the heart of an ongoing lawsuit in District Court over the validity of the 2012 election results.
At a meeting earlier this month, St. Croix Board of Elections Chairman Adelbert Bryan read a letter from Office of Management and Budget Director Debra Gottlieb reporting that the $2.1 million appropriated for the machines was not available to be released - despite the fact that a contract authorizing their purchase received final approval in December.
The remarks by Salisbury, Georges and Wells on Thursday explain why.
St. Thomas-St. John Board of Elections Chairman Arturo Watlington Jr. expressed frustration with the situation. At one point he walked to the corner of the meeting room where a demonstration model of one of the new voting machines stood locked in a black case. As Watlington studied the locked box, Maduro told the board that no one on the Election System's staff is able or authorized to open or operate the machine.
"So this machine is just a dummy sitting there?" Watlington said.
No one responded to his question.
Watlington also spurred a discussion Thursday about how the St. Thomas-St. John District planned to deal with an announced government-wide 5 percent budget cut. The St. Thomas-St. John District's budget will be reduced from about $75,000 to $73,000, according to Watlington.
The lack of a concrete answer raised other questions about fiscal management in the Elections System in light of turmoil atop its administrative ranks.
Longtime Elections Supervisor John Abramson Jr. has announced that he will be on sick leave until retiring at the end of May, leaving it unclear exactly who is in charge of the Elections System until a new supervisor is hired.
Common practice - and what has been occurring since Abramson first started taking leave last November - is that the management of each district would fall to the deputy supervisors - Maduro for the St. Thomas-St. John District and James Weber III on St. Croix.
As far as finances go, Maduro said a number of times Thursday that she relies on Weber for much of the financial information she gets about the St. Thomas-St. John District - which, according to Maduro, is how Abramson wanted it.
"But that's a board decision," Watlington said. "It's been done so wrong for so long it seems right."
Watlington told Maduro she cannot continue to rely on Weber for financial information that pertains to the St. Thomas-St. John District.
"It's not fair to us, and it's not fair to yourself," he said.
New board member Lydia Hendricks also voiced concern.
"Are the persons we're looking at capable?" she said. "I'm concerned, that's all."
Earlier, board member Wilma Marsh-Monsanto asked who had approved Abramson's medical leave. She said that it has been reported to board members that Abramson submitted a note from his doctor saying he will be too sick to work until after his May retirement, and it did not appear anyone from the Joint Board, which by law is Abramson's boss, had authorized this leave.
Abramson still is collecting his $78,200 salary.
"If the board is in charge, somebody needs to know who approved his leave," Marsh-Monsanto said.
Watlington only repeated the information about the doctor's note and said it would not be appropriate to discuss the issue further in open session. At the end of the meeting, the board went into closed session to discuss Abramson's status.
- Contact reporter Lou Mattei at 714-9124 or email email@example.com.