In mid-July 2020, representatives from the Magens Bay Authority appeared before the Senate Finance Committee to discuss the Authority’s budget and plans, and to emphasize the losses (up to $95K per month) sustained by the Authority since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. As has been the case for many years, the Authority did not request any financial assistance from the Legislature.
The senators stated the need for improvement of the tourism product in the Virgin Islands. They suggested ways to make money focused on music and cuisine as an expression of culture at Magens Bay Park. While diversifying the tourism product in the territory is an important goal, improvements should occur throughout the entire Virgin Islands. Unique, beautiful and well-known, Magens Bay provides access to nature, trails, flora, fauna, space and solitude. There is tremendous potential here for nature-based tourism, and by extension, education and a variety of recreational experiences for locals. If it is good for residents, tourists will enjoy it too. Offerings that give tourists a local experience are not solely confined to food. It can center on the experience of the island lifestyle, what it is like to live on a still beautiful (but increasingly environmentally fragile) island, bathe in the sea, sit on the shore, listen to nature’s sounds, hike, walk, breathe without being confined.
COVID-19 has changed priorities and brought forth new ideas. At Magens Bay, these natural attributes became even more valuable to residents. During these long nine months, during the worst of the lockdown, when non-essential businesses and schools were closed and people were allowed outside only for exercise or essential shopping, Magens Bay Park provided a venue of freedom and relief. With traditional family and group activities stopped, Magens still offered ample roads for walking and running, trials for hiking, places to bicycle without traffic, safe swimming (lifeguards on duty) and areas for children to play. Magens Bay (and by extension the Authority) lived up to its mission, it allowed us to be outside, as island people like to be, and it fulfilled its obligation to the donor of the land, Mr. Fairchild. The Authority maintained the trust it has for the people of the Virgin Islands.
Now to the pressing matter at hand. On November 19, 2020, the Committee on Rules and Judiciary held a hearing on Bill No. 33-0374, as amended, sponsored by Senator Sarauw. It is a bill to change the composition of the Magens Bay Authority Board, length of terms and how persons are appointed to the board. Bill 33-0374 deletes the language of Title 32, Chapter 3, Section 53, which states:
“The powers of the Authority shall be exercised by a board of seven directors. The board shall be composed of the governor with power to vote by proxy, and six other members, who shall be residents of Saint Thomas. The initial appointment of members under the Ordinance of the Municipal Council of St. Thomas and St. John, approved August 22, 1946 [Bill No. 282], was for two, four and six years, respectively. Thereafter, the term of each member of the board was six years; and the term of each member shall continue to be six years. After the initial appointments, members appointed to the board to fill vacancies resulting from death, resignation or the expiration of terms of members who were appointed by the board; and such appointments shall continue to be made by the board, except that the governor, with the advice and consent of the Legislature, may, by appointment, fill any vacancy on the board remaining unfilled for sixty days or longer. Members shall be eligible for reappointment. They may be removed by the governor for neglect of duty or malfeasance in office. Three members of the board shall at all times constitute a quorum.”
Today the Magens Bay Authority Board is composed of seven dedicated, well-qualified, civic-minded individuals, diverse in age, ethnicity, gender and business and professional background. They are native Virgin Islanders or long-term residents who work or have worked in the private sector, government and academia. Collectively they have experience in land use and natural resources planning, finance, law, management and administration, government operations, construction, horticulture, landscape architecture and human resources. When openings occur on the board, members seek new persons who are strong in expertise that may be lacking on the board at the time.
Nevertheless, the proposed legislation initially has one member appointed by the president of the Legislature, four persons appointed by the governor from employees of the departments of Planning and Natural Resources, Agriculture, Tourism, UVI and two private individuals. Subsequently, an amendment changed the employees of government agencies to specialists in the environment, forestry, hospitality and small business. Note, the current board already has much of this expertise. A final amendment occurred on the floor of the Senate, but as of this writing, it has not been provided in writing to the Authority.
The range of issues raised by Senator Sarauw, which supposedly justify this legislation, over the course of two hearings and a radio appearance is broad: lack of cultural entertainment, products and food, environmental degradation on Peterborg peninsula and the uplands of the Magens Bay watershed caused by private development which impacts the bay, misperception of the board as a social club, lack of diversity of the board members, conjuring up political affiliations, and a variety of other complaints. Clearly, some of them are beyond the board’s responsibility, and others are twisted to suit the argument. This long list, designed to ensnare people by interest, is confusing. These reasons do not make sense when considered against the gravity of the consequences if the legislation passes. They obscure the true reasons for the legislation and only confirm the suspicion that “there is more in the mortar than the pestle.”
This attempt to change the composition and terms of the Magens Bay Authority Board, putting control of who is appointed in the hands of politicians is something Mr. Fairchild feared. In a statement dated June 25, 1943, Mr. Fairchild articulated his vision for the beach, its development, management and board. He anticipated there would be forces seeking to steer the board one way or the other, with potential adverse effects to the beach and the public’s access to it. Therefore, he specifically stated that the board should not be subject to political influence and that it should be self-perpetuating, with continuity and longevity. He made sure language in the documents limited involvement by government officials. He also made a provision that should a board member do something wrong, there was a way to get that person off the board.
Mr. Fairchild was so precise in his vision that almost three years passed in carefully worded written correspondence and negotiations between himself and high-level government officials. Finally, in 1946, Bill No. 282, establishing the St. Thomas Park Authority with its purpose to receive gifts of land and listing other responsibilities, came before the Fifth Municipal Council. The councilmen debated and examined the language from many angles. They offered amendments. Finally, the bill in its final form was voted on. Governor Hastie signed it into law on August 22, 1945. Only after the establishment of the Authority, did Mr. Fairchild sign the deeds giving the land to this corporate instrumentality to hold the land in trust for the people of the Virgin Islands and to administer it by the stated terms. This is the contract. To change the terms of the contract, by changing the language concerning the board, breaks the contract. Breaking a contract is unconstitutional. Even so, the Ninth Municipal Council tried to do just that in 1954 by proposing another park authority to take over Magens Bay. United States Attorney Cyril Michael prepared an opinion for Governor de Castro which found this was wrong and unconstitutional. That legislation did not pass. Yet, the same situation has come up again!
Obviously, the Magens Bay Authority Board stands in opposition to this legislation!
Crucian readers may think this issue mostly a St. Thomas matter. But, in old legislation, there is a reference to a St. Croix Park Authority which was never instituted. This authority would have had a similar makeup to the Magens Bay Authority, overseeing Cramer’s Park, as an example. What possibilities does that bring to mind? Other persons may fail to grasp the importance of this violation of the contract. To those, consider this. How would you feel if you made a donation to your community of a valuable piece of property, negotiated with the government all the particulars to accomplish the mutually agreed upon civic goal, and with your contract in hand, you deeded it over. And then time passes, and with changes in political leadership, your gift is put to a different use you never would have agreed to. How would you feel? You would be angry. And how would your descendants feel? What example would this be to others who had thought to be generous with their assets for the benefit of their fellow citizens?
If the Senate passes Bill No 33-0374, as amended, it will break the contract. By breaking a contract, it will violate the U.S. Constitution. Is the future you want for Magens Bay Park, Lindqvist Beach, Smith Bay Park and Drake’s Seat one of uncertainty, degradation and possible loss? Or do you want to see the parks continue under sound and prudent management, growing into the 21st century while stewarding the resources we have for the enjoyment of persons today and for generations to come? To continue forward, urge your senators to vote NO on bill 33-0374 as amended. Call them today and make your opinion known. The number for the Legislature in St. Thomas is 340-774-0880 and on St. Croix it is 340-773-2424.
Katina E. Coulianos, St. Thomas
Chair, Magens Bay Authority Board