The V.I. Port Authority board of directors held a hastily-convened meeting Monday morning that did not include remote access and was only announced to the public an hour and 40 minutes before the scheduled meeting time.
The board was originally scheduled to meet on February 17, but V.I. Port Authority spokeswoman Monifa Marrero Brathwaite issued a notice via email saying the meeting had been postponed and would be rescheduled at a later date.
In an email sent at 8:20 a.m. Monday, Brathwaite announced the board would be meeting at 10 a.m.
While the board established a videoconference link between its conference rooms on St. Croix and St. Thomas, it declined to extend that service to the public. Brathwaite confirmed the Authority denied several requests for access. The late notice and lack of remote access made it logistically impossible for St. John residents to attend, and members of the public who could not immediately travel to the St. Croix or St. Thomas conference rooms were also effectively barred from the meeting.
Approximately 20 people convened in the conference room for several hours, where some board members and Port Authority staff removed their masks to eat a catered continental breakfast of pastries and a fruit platter.
While the meeting was scheduled to start at 10 a.m., the board did not have a quorum and could not proceed until board member Kevin Rodriquez arrived at 10:30 a.m.
V.I. Port Authority Executive Director Carlton Dowe and Brathwaite apologized for the late public notice Monday, and Brathwaite said board members were informed of the meeting over the weekend.
Dowe said the board typically provides public notice of its meetings two weeks in advance, but Monday’s meeting was rescheduled at the last minute due to lack of a quorum on February 17. It remains unclear why the board has been unwilling to provide remote public access, after holding meetings exclusively via teleconference from March through September.
The board resumed in-person meetings in October, and while many public and private agencies have been gradually returning to offices and meeting rooms, the vast majority continue to provide remote access for those who cannot, or choose not, to attend in person due to the coronavirus pandemic.
During his weekly press briefing Monday, Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. said while government employees are being required to return to work sites to provide in-person services, individuals can obtain exemptions and accommodations from their supervisors on a case-by-case basis.
“The Virgin Islands government has a telework policy that has been implemented. Not for COVID, but for perpetuity. It’s not going away. The changes that we have made in government relations, all these changes from online registration to virtual meetings, flex time to remote working, are here to stay. These are not temporary measures. Please utilize them to transition back to the workplace and a 40-hour work week,” Bryan said.
While taxpayers must receive the services they’re entitled to, which often requires in-person interaction, “many of us are failing to see the vast change that we have undergone in the last year. Things are never, ever, ever going back to the way they were,” Bryan said.
“Adapt, and look for the new opportunities that are here today and face our new reality. We have faced many trials through this COVID pandemic, but we have learned so many new lessons. Let’s put these lessons to work and really make the territory thrive.” During Monday’s press briefing, Bryan expressed surprise that the Port Authority refused to provide remote public access to Monday’s board meeting. “They’re saying you can’t access it virtually?” Bryan asked. “I’ll definitely give Mr. Dowe a call and check into that.”
Updates and executive session
The meeting itself included an update on hurricane repairs, a unanimous vote to allow the St. Croix Taxi Association to pay off its $6,662.50 outstanding debt for its space at Rohlsen Airport in monthly installments, and approval to enter into contracts and negotiate leases for the tobacco and perfume kiosks and food concessions at King Airport.
But board members and staff reserved comment about several issues of public interest for executive session, which is not open to the public.
When Tourism Commissioner and board member Joseph Boschulte asked about delays in cleaning guts at King Airport that caused concern for the FAA, Director of Engineering Damian Cartwright said aggressive vegetation growth is “being attributed to an issue that was caused by Waste Management.”
Cartwright said he would give more details in executive session, “I don’t want to put that on the record publicly.”
Board member Celestino White Sr. said he is still waiting to hear what the plan is to merge V.I. Port Authority and the West Indian Co. “As a board member I’m still sitting and waiting. I have not been invited to sit with anybody and talk about this merger,” White said. “Can you give me answers?”
Dowe said board members would receive an update in executive session.
And a recent data breach apparently affected port authority’s ability to access its own financial reports. Chief Financial Officer Anna Penn said she didn’t have anything to present Monday because of “the situation that happened,” but port authority has refused to provide the public with any details of what actually occurred. Brathwaite said their legal counsel is preparing a statement on the data breach.