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Commentary: A Case of Opaque Transparency

Coral Bay harbor, where two marina developments have been proposed. (Source photo by Amy H. Roberts)

The Virgin Islands should be thankful that we have, under the leadership of Gov. Albert Bryan Jr., a government that is committed to transparency as one of its core values. But before too much thanks is given, it might be prudent to see whether the promise of transparency has actually been delivered. As the old proverb says, “Promises are like babies, easy to make, but difficult to deliver.”

Susan and David Silverman (Source file photo)
David Silverman (Source file photo)

What exactly is transparency in government? The International City Management Association says that “Transparent governance means that government officials act openly, with citizens’ knowledge of the decisions the officials are making.” So transparency certainly involves acting openly with full disclosure. The American Legislative Exchange Council says that transparency is “government’s obligation to share information with citizens that is needed to make informed decisions and hold officials accountable for the conduct of the people’s business.”

And rather than putting words into his mouth, here is what Gov. Bryan said in his 2022 State of the Territory address: “I have committed to leading an administration that is honest, transparent and accountable.” And he has said on many occasions, including most recently at the Coral Bay Town Hall meeting, that if you want to assess the transparency of the Bryan Administration you need only go to the website, transparency.vi.gov.

Over the first three years of this administration it has been my impression that much was promised regarding transparency, but not nearly as much has been delivered. The local news media reported on no-bid government contracts awarded to friends and family of the governor without any public notice. This happened in 2020 during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic when a contact tracing contract was slated for award (and later rescinded) to a Bryan family member. It happened again in 2021 when a public-private partnership was awarded a multimillion-dollar grant to build a diabetes treatment center in a no-bid, non-disclosed contract. But perhaps these were just anomalies. Or perhaps not.

If the cornerstone of the Bryan transparency initiative is the much-touted transparency website, then we should be able to go to that resource and find answers to simple questions about how the Virgin Islands government is spending our money.

So I put together some fairly simple trial questions to see whether the Bryan transparency website would provide answers. With my emphasis on St John, where I live, I asked, “How is the St John Capital Improvement Fund being spent?” I asked, “How much money is collected from St John property taxes and which island pays the highest per capita property taxes?” I asked, “What is the total GVI expenditure on St John projects? Same for St Croix? On what projects is that money spent?”

What I found was disappointing, to put it mildly. Not a single one of the trial questions could be answered using any of the data that was available on the transparency website.  On questions of expenditures you are given two choices – expenditures grouped by function (which sounded promising), or expenditure details by individual check. None of the data is available for download or analysis.

The expenditures by function table was essentially useless. For example, on the island of St John the chart and table indicated that 94 percent of the expenditures were for “General Government” and most of the rest was consumed by “Transportation Facilities.” Presumably some money was spent on education, infrastructure repair, cultural events, and other worthy causes but you can’t find this on the Bryan transparency website.

The government's expenditures for St. John, as listed on its transparency website. (Screenshot)
The government’s expenditures for St. John, as listed on its transparency website. (Screenshot from the transparency.vi.gov website)

OK, so maybe the answer is in the details. But unfortunately no, since there is no mapping from the details to the projects and other classifications of interest. To be fair there are probably several thousand individual checks listed but without a way to categorize, or download, or filter, this information is pretty useless.

And then we come to the question of transparent decision-making by the Bryan administration. In a matter of great interest to me – the CZM Permits and Trust Land Agreement for a proposed mega yacht marina in Coral Bay – Gov. Bryan has consistently acted in full support of the Summers End Group without ever once consulting with the constituency most directly affected by this proposal, the residents of Coral Bay.

Transparent governance? Promises were made, and a superficial effort materialized, but like babies, promises are easy to make and very difficult to deliver.

David Silverman,
Coral Bay, St John

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