May 6, 2003 – The bill before the Legislature to create a V.I. Tourism Authority appears to be veto-proof — with 10 sponsors comprising both majority and minority bloc members — but it's assuredly not influence-proof.
How much influence is wielded by the Turnbull administration and how much by the business community in an atmosphere of mutual distrust will be put to the test next week when the Senate Committee of the Whole meets twice — Tuesday evening on St. Croix and Wednesday evening on St. Thomas — to hear public comment on the proposal.
The "invitation list" for both meetings is the same, with witnesses presumably to appear in their respective districts. Tourism Commissioner Pamela Richards heads the list. The only other government representative is Edward E. Thomas Sr., chief executive of The West Indian Co., a quasi-independent entity that is run as a business.
Also on the list are Chamber of Commerce presidents Cassan Pancham of St. Thomas-St. John and Frank Fox of St. Croix, and Hotel and Tourism Association president David Yamada of St. Thomas-St. John and acting president Fred Laue of St. Croix.
While the hearings are open to public input, the invitees do not include the four other would-be seat holders on the proposed authority: leaders of the taxi industries in both districts; the chief executive of the Economic Development Authority, Frank Schulterbrandt; and the director of the Office of Management and Budget, Ira Mills.
Nor do they include representatives of other hospitality industry business groups such as St. Croix Alive, the Christiansted Restaurant and Retail Association, Our Town Frederiksted, the Frederiksted Economic Development Association and the St. John Accommodations Council.
Representatives of such groups, as well as individuals, are welcome to comment at the hearings. At the April 15 full Senate session, it was decided to defer action on the bill creating the authority until it could get a public airing at the Committee of the Whole meetings. Sen. Lorraine Berry, the bill's sponsor, said that the measure "will be passed, and it will become law, but we need input from the public." Sen. Louis Hill, a co-sponsor, said pretty much the same thing: "It will pass, but this way the public can voice their concern."
The St. Croix hearing is Tuesday, May 13, at 6 p.m. in the Legislative Conference Room in Frederiksted. The St. Thomas one is Wednesday, May 14, at 6 p.m. in the Senate chambers. Anyone wishing to be scheduled to testify at either hearing should call the office of Senate President David Jones at 712-2258.
Amendment empowers the private sector
The bill as introduced called for a nine-member V.I. Tourism Authority board that would include five ex-officio government representatives — the Office of Management and Budget director, Port Authority executive director, West Indian Co. chief executive, Economic Development Authority chief executive, and Planning and Natural Resources commissioner. It provided for the other four members also to be appointed by the governor but to be "recommended" by the chambers of commerce and the hotel associations.
In addition, the authority own executive director, to be named by the board, would be a non-voting member. The first executive director would be the current Tourism commissioner, whose position, along with the whole Tourism Department, would cease to exist. No department employees would be put out of work, however; any whose jobs were unneeded under the authority would be transferred to other government agencies.
On April 8, the Economic Development, Agriculture and Consumer Protection Committee took to heart the objections to that plan raised by business community leaders who argued that, as Fox put it, such an authority would "remain a government department, only with a new name."
The committee approved an amended version of the bill, eliminating the OMB and DPNR members and giving those seats instead to representatives of the taxi industries in the two districts. It still called for all members to be named by the governor, and for the private-sector nominees to require Senate confirmation.
On April 10, the Rules Committee also approved the measure — after further adjusting it. At that hearing, a letter was read from Elmo A. Adams, legal counsel to Gov. Charles W. Turnbull and a Democratic Party official, accusing Sen. Douglas Canton, chair of the economic development committee, of "capitulating to the pressure exhorted by the private sector" and "ramming it down the throats of the people of the Virgin Islands." After that, the majority caucused for about an hour, then came back with a compromise of sorts — giving a seat back to the OMB director, but taking away that of the EDA chief executive.
Also approved was an amendment to create a tourism police force of 15 officers for each district, to be funded with up to $1 million yearly from the Tourism Revolving and Advertising Fund or 10 percent of the fund's total.
As the Rules Committee met that evening, Jean S. Holder, secretary-general of the Caribbean Tourism Organization, was telling a crowd of University of the Virgin Islands students, government officials including the governor, and business owners and managers on the UVI St. Thomas campus that "the time has come for private and public partnerships."
When tourism is a jurisdiction's only economic base, he said, it is crucial for the government to work with the private sector to get that message to the community. He emphasized the need for the government to meet its responsibilities in the relationship.
Governor says Tourism Department must stay
On April 14, at a hastily called press conference, Turnbull made it clear that he didn't like the proposed private-sector majority on the authority's board and that he flat-out opposed the idea of the authority replacing the Tourism Department.
He noted that he had stated in his 2003 State of the Territory Address that "this administration continues to advocate the establishment of a tourism authority in which all stakeholders are equally and fairly represented." But, he said, "at no time did I commit to the abolishment of the Department of Tourism."
The governor said he envisioned the authority perhaps making suggestions to the department, or handling marketing. "Tourism authorities of the Caribbean model exist as marketing arms, not as replacements for a ministry or department of tourism," he said, citing the Bahamas, Barbados and the British Virgin Islands as examples.
He asked that "final action be held on the tourism authority proposal until both the executive branch and the Legislature can come to agreement on the structure that would allow for the establishment of a tourism authority while leaving a Department of Tourism."
Whether such an agreement has been reached and, if so, what it is, remains to be seen.
At the April 15 full session, the Senate acceded to the governor's request to hold off voting until after the proposal got a public hearing. Berry called for it to be withdrawn from the agenda, pointing out that Committee of the Whole hearings on the proposal were scheduled for May 13 on St. Croix and May 14 on St. Thomas.
The lawmakers could, should they so desire, vote at the second hearing, on St. Thomas, to move into a full Senate session and the vote on the tourism authority bill then and there.
At the end of its first year, the 24th Legislature passed a bill creating a tourism authority. Turnbull vetoed it, objecting to the lack of a government majority in its makeup. He then by executive decree established a "Tourism Advisory Council" and named the executive directors of the chambers and hotel associations to represent the private sector on it. However, all four business entities declined to participate. Although the governor eventually named four other business people as members, the committee never accomplished anything t
hat became public information.
The tourism authority proposed in the pending bill would be responsible for creating a comprehensive five-year tourism plan. The bill appropriates $13 million from the General Fund to help fund its operations through 2007.
More than two years ago, after the 24th Legislature passed the earlier tourism authority bill, but before the governor vetoed it, Richards spoke out against the idea. She has said nothing publicly about the current proposal. Invited to testify at the April 8 committee hearing, she stated only that she had not been furnished with a copy of the bill.
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