Virgin Islanders could soon have greater protection from sexual orientation-based discrimination in the workplace, and the executive director of the Taxicab Commission could have greater autonomy from its much-criticized board.
In an at-times tumultuous Senate hearing Wednesday, the Committee on Government Operations and Consumer Protection voted to subpoena the Water and Power Authority, which committee chair Sen. Carla Joseph said had rebuffed calls for in-person testimony three times. If the committee follows through on the move, WAPA representatives would be legally bound to appear before the Senate.
Although pointed, the subpoena discussion was tranquil compared to the heated previous segment in which current and former Virgin Islands Taxicab Commission agents accused each other of lying and failing to follow procedures.
The bill under consideration would give the Taxicab executive director greater authority to hire, discipline, and fire — explicitly defining a currently implied role. The chairperson of the commission’s board of directors, Loretta Lloyd, bristled at the idea.
“Why would a legislator attempt to introduce legislation to micromanage a semi-autonomous agency?” Lloyd said. “With all due respect, selective prosecution is not the way to run any board or commission — and for that matter creating special legislation to appease certain individuals is unethical.”
The senators quickly punched back against Lloyd, saying it was their job to make changes to laws when existing laws weren’t enough. Senators twice accused Lloyd of micromanaging two former executive directors while also failing to provide requested meeting minutes.
“I have deep concern regarding the governance of this board to be able to effectively carry out the mission and purpose of the Taxicab Commission. It is not a good day,” said Joseph. “We are servants. We are not self-serving.”
Taxi Board Vice-Chair Elizabeth Hansen Watley said she left duty-bound to sign on to Lloyd’s written testimony but did not agree with it. Joseph and Sen. Janelle Sarauw said it was a cowardly move.
“You have a board that has run amuck,” Joseph said. “This is really an ant’s nest”
During the more-than two-hour hearing, former Taxi Commission executive directors testified that Lloyd and her board were a hindrance to taxi operations, acting unilaterally and seemingly without forethought.
Lloyd introduced current Acting Executive Director Vernice Gumbs as the full-fledged executive director, although Gumbs acknowledged that she had not received any documentation of the fact. After the previous director quit in disgust, Gumbs had worked three months without pay while the Board processed her hiring. Gumbs was since back-paid, she said.
Former Taxicab Executive Director Shane Benjamin said before he was fired in 2021, Board members were collecting multiple per-diem payments for single days’ work.
Sarauw said the multiple billing had become the Board members’ new income.
“If they make a phone call, they get a per diem. If they talk about the grass and the grass is too high outside and the call last 20 seconds, they submit for per diem,” said Sarauw. “Miss Loyd, I call you out on the floor because you say I am lying on you and I’m not telling the truth, and it never happened before.”
Lloyd, testifying virtually from off island, tried to interject, but Joseph would not let her talk over Sarauw, ordering Lloyd’s microphone silenced.
Former Taxicab Executive Director Linda Smith testified the Board usurped her power to do her job, failing to authorize hiring multiple qualified candidates for Commission jobs. She abruptly quit earlier this year.
Sarauw said the Board had been eroding for a long time.
“Everybody should be cringing at what is happening,” Sarauw said. “Miss Loyd, with all due respect, you are terrorizing the executive directors of the Taxicab Commission. And this bill today is a liberation. They need to be liberated to do their jobs.”
Lloyd responded. “My heart is very full,” she said. “I am very much aggrieved to hear the lies, especially from Mr. Shane Benjamin, who I had under my arm and lead him. And he just disrespected the Board. I am so aggrieved, really aggrieved, to hear all this bunch of lies that, you know, people are telling. Ms. Smith is telling a bunch of lies. Things I haven’t even thought about. But it is so.”
The Senate committee’s first matter of the day had no such fireworks, with senators and testifiers all agreeing on the importance of a bill that would add to legal protections from workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation. The bill would augment an existing law protecting workers from age, race, creed, color, national origin, place of birth, sex, disability, or political affiliation discrimination.
Nesha Christian-Hendrickson, assistant commissioner and legal counsel at the Virgin Islands Department of Labor, praised the bill but added it should be expanded to protect pregnant and trans-identity people.
“Although this bill speaks to sexual orientation, we do know that gender identity is a big part of the transgender communities’ concerns,” Christian-Hendrickson said.
The Virgin Islands Chief Deputy Attorney General Eric Chancellor and AARP State Director Troy De Chabert-Schuster said the legislation was key to ensuring people were able to avoid being discriminated against and potential hate crimes.
Sen. Javan James Sr. hoped the legislation would ultimately trickle down to eliminating bullying in schools, which he said was behind the recent brawls and fights that may be based on perceived sexual orientation.
The proposed new law would cover civil matters, not criminal, however.
Division of Personnel Director Cindy Richardson said she has put emphasis on collecting complaints of gender and sexual orientation discrimination.
“One of the things we do encourage is that the individual speak up,” Richardson said. “The Division of Personnel is definitely in alignment with what’s being done here today.”
Although discrimination reports are scant in the territory — three cases in St. Croix in 2021 and one in 2022, and one in St. Thomas in 2021 and one in 2022 — actual harassment is likely underreported, Sarauw said.
“Because it’s not reported doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. Because of the society we live in, we don’t normalize these conversations,” she said. “Because we have this level of toxic masculinity, our men think ten times before reporting.”
The bill was forwarded to the Committee on Rules and Judiciary unanimously.