April 11, 2003 – The long-awaited creation of a V.I. Tourism Authority was soundly endorsed by the Senate Rules Committee Thursday evening, despite strenuous objections from some who feel the government won't have enough say in the proposed agency.
Gov. Charles W. Turnbull urged the 25th Legislature to form such an authority in his 2003 State of the Territory address. Although he had vetoed such a bill two years earlier, he said in January that the time had come for a change.
Turnbull said he vetoed the earlier bill because it gave too much power to the private sector. This same issue was raised in a letter introduced Thursday evening, from Elmo A. Adams Jr., Democratic Party chair, to Sen. Douglas Canton, Senate majority leader.
Adams, who also is legal counsel to Turnbull, challenged the Democratic majority's decision to define the makeup of the authority's nine-member board as six private-sector members and three public officials. He accused Canton of "capitulating to the pressure exhorted by the private sector" and "ramming it down the throats of the people of the Virgin Islands."
At a Senate Economic Development, Agriculture and Consumer Protection Committee hearing on Tuesday, business leaders objected strongly to a provision of the bill making five of the board members ex-officio administrative officials — 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.
The bill called for the other four members also to be appointed by the governor but to be "recommended" by the chambers of commerce and hotel associations in the territory's two districts.
After several hours of testimony and discussion Tuesday, the Economic Development Committee amended the bill to drop the OMB and DPNR ex-officio positions and give those seats on the authority board to the taxi industry in each district.
After receiving Adams' letter on Thursday, the majority caucused for about an hour and came up with a compromise. They dropped the chief executive of the Economic Development Authority in favor of reinstating the OMB director.
Senate President David Jones and most other senators called the bill a "work in progress." Should the governor veto the bill, the Senate apparently would have the 10 votes necessary to override the veto. The legislation is to take effect 90 days after it is signed into or otherwise becomes law.
The proposed authority would comprise:
– One member each recommended by the St. Thomas-St. John and the St. Croix Chambers of Commerce.
– One member each recommended by the St. Thomas-St. John and the St. Croix Hotel and Tourism Associations.
– One member each recommended by the taxi associations for each district.
– The WICO chief executive officer.
– The Port Authority executive director.
– The OMB director.
The Tourism Authority's own chief executive, to be appointed by the authority board, would sit on the board as a non-voting member. The CEO would replace the current Tourism commissioner.
Canton noted that the current Tourism Department employees would not lose their jobs. "We're not putting employee out on the street," he said. "It's a way to move faster with the times." The bill states that any current employees unnecessary to the authority would be moved to other government jobs.
Although Jones was not signed on as a sponsor, he spoke forcefully in support of the bill. "Those tourist destinations that continue to resist change will continue to fall behind, and they will lose their advantage," he said. "We can't expect something different when we do the same thing year after year."
As the committee discussed the authority bill Wednesday evening, Jean S. Holder, secretary-general of the Caribbean Tourism Organization, was telling a standing-room-only crowd of University of the Virgin Islands students, government officials including the governor, and business owners and managers that "We need to learn how to better manage the process of transition."
Public-private partnerships, if taken from a good model, are a big part of the solution, Holder said. "The time has come for private and public partnerships," he said, with an emphasis on the government meeting its responsibilities in the relationship.
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. Holder said he has never heard anyone comment on the state of the bathrooms in their hotel room. "They talk about how they were treated," he said — by the housekeeper, the bartender and others in the community.
Most tourist destinations now have a management agency that represents a partnership or the business and public sectors.
Sen. Celestino A. White Sr., not a committee member, strongly backed Adams' position opposing a business majority on the board, but he had too much competition. Ten senators sponsored the bill, crossing majority/minority lines: Lorraine Berry, Roosevelt David, Carlton Dowe, Emmett Hansen II, Louis Hill, Almando "Rocky" Liburd, Shawn-Michael Malone and Ronald Russell.
Hill and Dowe defended the amendment they had proposed on Tuesday to include the taxi industry representatives, pointing out that the taxi drivers are the first and the last to see visitors and should be represented on the board.
Hill also said it was time to move forward. "Fears perpetuated by some in the community that this is going to be some organization forced on them is complete nonsense," he said
David said there is a fear that "native sons" will not get a voice on the board. Then he pointed out that VIPA's executive director is Darlan Brin, and WICO's chief executive is Edward E. Thomas Sr. "Aren't they native sons?" he asked his colleagues.
The legislation states that the purpose of the authority is the development and maintenance of a vigorous and competitive international V.I. tourism industry with an availability of trained personnel; a modern, well-maintained infrastructure; adequate financial resources; and a receptive climate for tourism investment.
Dowe came up with a funding resource tied to the Police and Tourism departments. He amended the bill to include a tourism police force of 30 officers — 15 for St. Thomas-St. John and 15 for St. Croix. The force would be funded with up to $1 million yearly from the Tourism Revolving Marketing Fund, or 10 percent of the fund's amount.
Acting Police Commissioner Elton Lewis and the St. Thomas-St. John Hotel and Tourism Association president, David Yamada, strongly endorsed Dowe's measure. In an April 3 letter, Lewis said: " I am quite elated by your commitment demonstrated by your special legislation … to assist the VIPD."
Yamada said of the hotel association that "historically we have consistently opposed using monies from the Tourism Revolving Fund for any purpose other than advertising and promoting the V. I." However, he continued, "our current environment demanded that crime in our territory be addressed immediately … hence, we will not oppose an allocation" from the fund.
The bill is listed on the agenda for the full Senate session scheduled for April 15 and 16.
Committee members voting for the bill were Sens. Berry, Canton, David, Dowe, Hill, Jones and Russell. Sens. Raymond "Usie" Richards and White, who are not members of the committee, also attended the meeting.
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