After getting word that V.I. Supervisor of Elections John Abramson will be on leave until after May 31, the St. Croix Board of Elections voted to give Deputy Supervisor James Weber the roles and duties of supervisor on St. Croix and to change the locks to the office.
Abramson, who has been out on medical leave, sent the Joint Board of Elections a letter on Jan. 31, announcing he was resigning the position with an effective date of May 31, 2013. He recently notified the Joint Board he would be unavailable until after that date.
Board Chairman Adelbert Bryan, who previously tried unsuccessfully to have the Joint Board remove Abramson from his position, said if Abramson was not returning to work, the St. Croix board should take away his access and direct staff not to obey his directions.
"Access to this office should not be in Mr. Abramson’s possession for four months when he is not here,"
Former Sen. Lilliana Belardo de O’Neal offered a motion to have Weber take up Abramson’s responsibilities and ask Abramson to turn in his keys.
Bryan said he wanted staff directed not to obey directives from Abramson because it would put staff in a conflict if Abramson directed them to let him in.
Board member Roland Moolenaar moved to amend O’Neal’s motion to also change the locks on the Sunny Isle’s offices of the V.I. Election System.
Board member Lisa Harris-Moorhead, an attorney who works for the V.I. Legislature’s office of legal counsel, objected, saying only the Joint Board of Elections can hire, fire or suspend the supervisor. The district board cannot suspend or fire Abramson, so it cannot take actions that amount to the same thing, such as locking him out of the building, she said.
"Unless the Joint Board fires or suspends him, I don’t know how the district board can take things away from him," Moorhead said. "I just think you have some legal concerns you are glossing over," she said
Bryan responded that Abramson "should not have access to the keys and documents," and that he was "not suggesting we suspend him."
"I never said you were suspending him. I am saying you lack the authority to do these actions without suspending him," Moorhead responded.
Voting to give Abramson’s responsibilities to Weber and change the locks on the office were Bryan, Moolenaar, O’Neal and Glenn Webster. Voting nay were Moorhead and Raymond Williams. Rupert Ross was absent.
Reached by phone in the late afternoon, Abramson said he had hoped for a smoother transition as he retired.
"I had anticipated we would sit down and work out a transitional period," Abramson said. "I planned to go in and discuss it with staff, not with the board. I would meet with subordinates and tell them how to handle this matter," Abramson said.
“The bottom line is I was out four months over the last year, and nobody had a problem then so I don’t know how they are now. I have never been derelict in my duty," Abramson said.
Asked how the board should address his absence on a day-to-day practical basis, Abramson said "those issues are not in my purview. Those are Joint Board policy issues."
Abramson also said he was upset that personal matters regarding his health and medical history were publicly discussed at the meeting, which he said was a violation of federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability privacy rules as well as local laws about discussing personal and personnel matters in public meetings.
The board also discussed efforts to get new voting machines. Over the last two years, Bryan has argued vociferously that the territory’s voting machines are out of date and unreliable, pushing for the purchase of new machines that have a voter-verified paper trail. The Joint Board selected a company and a machine early in 2012 and the Legislature approved funding to purchase the machines in April. Gov. John deJongh Jr. signed the appropriation May 14.
On Aug. 30, 2012, Weber said the new machines were under contract but could not be purchased in time for the 2012 general election because federal funding under the Help America Vote Act was frozen until the St. Thomas-St. John District Elections office becomes compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Weber said at the time that the machines would be purchased well before the 2014 election.
On Wednesday the board read aloud a letter from Office of Management and Budget Executive Director Debra Gottlieb saying the government could not release the funds appropriated by the Legislature, because the ongoing fiscal crisis had forced the government to divert the funds to pay for other appropriations approved by the Legislature.
Gottlieb wrote that OMB is "aware of the appropriation and understands the importance of having new voting machines,” but the "$2.1 million is not available to be released" because the bond funding cited for the appropriation was diverted to cover budget shortfalls in 2012 and 2013, and the remaining funds will be used in the upcoming year to address a projected budgetary shortfall in excess of $25 million," she wrote.
Bryan and several other board members questioned whether Gottlieb or the government had the authority to not allocate the funds.
Bryan also said St. Thomas/St. John Deputy Supervisor of Elections Mabel Maduro had informed the board the St. Thomas Election System had moved to new offices, above Banco Popular in Lockhart Gardens, and was now ADA compliant.
He said the board should ask Stephanie Barnes, the territory’s ADA coordinator, to certify that the offices were now compliant so the government would release its HAVA funds and the Election System could then purchase the new machines.
Weber said Wednesday the Election System contracted to purchase 43 of the new machines at a cost of just under $551,000.
The board also discussed plans for an Election System tent at this year’s V.I. Agrifest, which will be held on St. Croix from Feb. 16 to 19. They planned to try to bring the system’s photographic identification machine to the fair so the board could not only register voters but also complete the process, taking their pictures and giving voters their voter ID cards.
Ross, the outgoing St. Croix board chairman and chairman of the Joint Election Board, boycotted the meeting over a past-due payment of roughly $53,000 to attorney Scot McChain, on behalf of the board, for representing several board members in a lawsuit over a failed recall election attempt.
At the board’s last meeting, Ross said he would boycott the meeting if the payment had not been made by that time.
In 2012 the V.I. Action Group gathered petitions to try to force a recall election against six members of the St. Croix Board of Elections – all members but Bryan – because the board did not disqualify Sen. Alicia "Chucky" Hansen from running for office. The group sued the board and the Election System after the board determined V.I. Action Group had not collected a sufficient number of signatures.
V.I. Action Group lost the suit, as well as a lawsuit filed to try to directly disqualify Hansen.
The board engaged McChain to defend itself in the suit but has not been able to pay him. During budget hearings last fall, Ross asked the V.I. Legislature for a supplemental appropriation to make the payment, but no supplemental appropriation was made.
Ross said Wednesday it was important that the board pay McChain.
"I have a moral and ethical obligation to make sure the attorney gets paid." Ross said.