Housing Authority director cannot explain why department vehicle was at a beach on a Sunday

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ST. THOMAS - The head of the V.I. Housing Authority responded to questions this week regarding a photograph, submitted by a Daily News reader, showing a Housing Authority vehicle parked at Brewers Bay Beach on a Sunday afternoon in January.

Executive Director Robert Graham said Thursday that he did not know specifically to whom the vehicle with license plate "HA-3" was assigned, but that the Housing Authority keeps a list of vehicles and the employees or housing sites to which they are assigned.

"Ordinarily we should not have a vehicle at the beach on a Sunday," Graham said. "I will have to check out this particular occurrence."

Graham said only a few of the Housing Authority's employees, including himself, the deputy executive director and some managers, have 24-hour access to a government vehicle. He acknowledged that could result in employees taking personal trips in vehicles owned by taxpayers.

"But we try to keep that to a minimum," he said.

Graham said Friday that the vehicle was assigned at the time of the photograph to the Housing Authority's former chief financial officer, who did have 24-hour vehicle privileges. Neither the vehicle nor the officer are with the Housing Authority any longer, according to Graham.

In July 2007, Gov. John deJongh Jr. issued an executive order aimed at curbing the amount of taxpayer money spent on gasoline and fleet maintenance by restricting the use of government vehicles.

The policy was supposed to cover all executive branch vehicles and require that the bulk of them would remain parked at designated locations except for during regular business hours - between 7:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. on weekdays - when authorized employees who needed the vehicles for official business would be allowed to drive them.

At the end of the day, the vehicles were to be returned to their designated parking areas.

Under the governor's policy, a few government vehicles still would be available for use for official business after regular business hours, and on weekends and holidays. Only commissioners, agency heads and people specifically authorized by the governor would be able to use their vehicles 24 hours a day, seven days a week, according to the policy.

The Housing Authority is updating its fleet and its vehicle-use policies, Graham said. In recent years, the Housing Authority has streamlined its fleet from 109 vehicles to 69 vehicles, 24 of which are golf carts, as older vehicles with more than 100,000 miles were retired, Graham said.

The Housing Authority now is in the process of adding 10 new pickup trucks to be assigned to specific housing sites and looking at vehicle-use policies governing issues such as locations where the vehicles may and may not be taken. For instance, the 10 new trucks should not leave the housing sites to which they are assigned, Graham said.

Graham said any instances of Housing Authority vehicles being seen in potentially unauthorized locations should be brought to his attention.

"They should not be at a beach," he said.

Readers who spot a government vehicle at a place they think it should not be can take a picture of it and send it, along with the date time and location of the vehicle, to Daily News City Editor Gerry Yandel at gyandel@dailynews.vi.

- Contact reporter Lou Mattei at 714-9124 or email lmattei@dailynews.vi.

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