Dec. 18, 2003 – Last Jan. 13, in his 2003 State of the Territory address, Gov. Charles W. Turnbull stated: "This administration continues to advocate the establishment of a Tourism Authority in which all stakeholders are equally and fairly represented."
That was the sum total of what he had to say on the matter. And many in the community would argue that what he said was not what he meant.
In the two years before that and in the year since, the governor has had a great deal more to say, and much of it can be summarized in a single syllable: "No."
Abetted by business-community leaders and armed with ample evidence of how other Caribbean tourism destinations do it, lawmakers in three Legislatures have sought to bring a tourism authority, or some variation thereof, into being. It happened three years ago, but only briefly, undone by a gubernatorial veto. It might have happened again as recently as last month, or even this week, but the way things look at the moment, it won't happen before 2004, if then.
Turnbull has said "no" repeatedly — and has made it clear that he will continue to say "no" in the future — to two things that he unalterably opposes in a tourism authority.
In a letter this week to Sen. Lorraine Berry, sponsor of a bill currently before the 25th Legislature that has been reworked so many times as to barely be recognizable, Turnbull laid out one of them: "I am not in favor of any board which seeks to dissolve the Department of Tourism or one which will usurp the powers and authority of the Department of Tourism."
The other: any board in which majority power lies with the private sector.
Berry has made efforts this year to accommodate the governor's ultimatums and now says she will make further efforts to do so. As a result, what started out as a tourism authority has become a tourism board and what would have replaced the Tourism Department will now supplement it, and what would have been a business majority on the governing board is now a minority. And still the bill is fundamentally unacceptable to Turnbull.
Having found that out in a two-page letter he sent her on Tuesday, Berry made a motion on the Senate floor on Wednesday to remove her "tourism board" bill from the day's agenda until such time as she receives the governor's amendments to the measure. Her motion was approved without discussion.
Authority approved, vetoed, replaced by an advisory council
The 23th Legislature late in 2000 approved the creation of a Tourism Authority as part of the Omnibus Act of 2001. The measure called for replacing the Tourism Department with a semi-autonomous agency run by a governing board of a six private-sector and three government-sector members. The agency would be funded by the hotel room occupancy tax. Like the Port Authority and the Water and Power Authority, it would have the power to issue bonds to fund its programs.
Turnbull, objecting to the majority representation of the business community on the board, vetoed it early in 2001.
In April of that year, he announced the creation, by executive action, of a Tourism Advisory Council, to consist of four public-sector and four private-sector appointees and be chaired by the Tourism commissioner. He also announced that he had named the executive directors of the territory's Chambers of Commerce and Hotel and Tourism Associations to be the business representatives.
He had not, alas, run the idea by the organizations; and in short order all publicly and collectively said thanks, but no thanks. "Our past experience with tourism advisory committees has not been fruitful or productive," the groups' presidents said in a joint release. "As a consequence we have instructed the executive directors of our four organizations to neither attend nor participate in the Tourism Advisory Committee."
Turnbull proceeded to make his public-sector picks — Leona Bryant, former director of tourism under the Economic Development and Agriculture Department; Claire Roker, St. Croix district manager for the congressional delegate's office; James O' Bryan, the governor's assistant for public affairs and policy; and Mario Carroll, V.I. Taxicab Commission executive director.
In October 2001, following the council's first meeting, the governor announced four private-sector appointees — Lisa Schmidt, Cape Air marketing director; Susan Chandler, V.I. Charter Yacht League; William Cherubin, LIAT local manager; and Al Franklin, Our Town Frederiksted. He said the council had met once, to discuss an advertising campaign, and would meet monthly. Whether it did — and if so, what it accomplished — was never publicly made known.
Board makeup is a big hangup
New Tourism Authority legislation introduced early this year by Berry and sponsored by a theoretically veto-proof 10 senators, made its debut in the Economic Development, Agriculture and Consumer Protection Committee last April. There, business leaders objected to five of the nine proposed board members being ex-officio public 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.
The committee amended the measure to remove the OMB and DPNR ex-officio positions and give those two seats to the representatives of the two districts' taxi industries — thereby giving the private sector a 6-3 edge over the government members. The Senate majority then caucused and put the OMB director back on the board but took the EDA executive out. The bill moved on to and emerged from the Rules Committee with that formula intact.
The authority's chief executive, to be appointed by the board, would replace the Tourism commissioner and be an ex-officio member of the board. The bill guaranteed that no Tourism Department employees would be put out of work — that those not needed for the authority's operations would be moved to other government jobs.
The bill was placed on the agenda for an April 15-16 Senate session.
At a press conference on April 14, the governor urged the Legislature to repeal its legalization of video lottery terminals via a veto override and to delay action on the Tourism Authority bill because he was opposed to such an authority replacing the Tourism Department. The ensuing session brought defeat for Turnbull on the VLT issue but victory on the tourism front, as the sponsors withdrew the bill from the agenda and announced that the Committee of the Whole would — better late than never — hold public hearings on the measure on May 13 and 14.
At the first hearing, on St. Croix, Pamela Richards was the only witness opposed to the creation of an authority. However, business leaders said for the first time publicly that they would go along with a nine-member board having five government representatives in the majority. They put that stance into writing the next night on St. Thomas.
Proponents of a tourism authority argued that its structure would ensure more stability and consistency in the marketing of the territory as a tourism destination. They pointed out that structurally it would be insulated from changes in political administrations. They noted that in Turnbull's administration alone there had been three Tourism commissioners, as well as two acting commissioners who served over extended periods.
Sen. Carlton Dowe, one of the bill's sponsors, said the time had come to let the professionals run the show, and not political appointees like "anybody's aunt or uncle or cousin."
Sen. Celestino A. White Sr. remained vehemently against the idea of an authority, saying it would be harmful to taxi drivers and calling Berry's bill "another example of private indus
try 'trying to take over.'"
Authority-turned-board still doesn't pass "no"
Fast forward six months: Berry said on Nov. 12 that her Tourism Authority bill should reach the Senate floor the following week when the body was to meet in full session to consider the fiscal year 2004 budget. See "Tourism Authority could go to a vote next week".)
Courtesy of the Democratic majority, the bill had undergone a major makeover — now calling for Tourism Board instead of a Tourism Authority, with the board to comprise 13 members — seven government and six business; keeping the Tourism Department in place; assigning the board responsibility for marketing and promotion and giving it control of the Tourism and Advertising Revolving Fund; making the Tourism commissioner a board member but removing the commissioner as chair of the Port Authority board.
The public-sector members now called for on the board would comprise the chief executives of the Economic Development Authority and of WICO, the executive director of the Port Authority, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, the St. John administrator, the Tourism commissioner and one other government appointee. The private-sector members would represent each of the chambers of commerce, each of the hotel associations, Frederiksted economic interests and the taxi industry. The taxi seat would rotate between the two districts, with the first member to come from St. Croix.
Berry said at the time that the massive reworking of the bill did not represent a deal with the administration. "I have not spoken with the governor," she said.
At the Nov. 24 full session, Berry withdrew the bill from consideration. She said she had heard that the governor would not approve the measure, even though it had been modified to conform to his wishes. "We changed it from an authority to a board, "she said. "We changed the composition … I don't know what the governor's objections are, but I will write to him and ask him. There may be something I have missed." And she said she would take Turnbull's reply into consideration before again having the bill placed on the Senate agenda.
She wrote to him two days later.
He replied on Tuesday, the eve of this week's full session.
On Wednesday, on a motion by Berry, the full Senate once again held the bill, this time specifically for amendments to come from the governor. As it turns out, what's to come from the governor is the drafting of yet another, different measure.
Board powers seen as threat to the department
In his letter to Berry on Tuesday, Turnbull laid out chapter and verse, alpha and numeric, of his objections to the proposed Tourism Board. He charged that "all of the powers, duties and responsibilities of the Department of Tourism will be usurped" by the board and/or its executive director, rendering Tourism "virtually powerless with little or no funding." Further, he said, the powers granted the board "greatly infringe upon the authority of the executive branch and the duties and responsibilities of other agencies, departments and instrumentalities."
He said the measure calls for the Tourism Advertising Revolving Fund to be replaced by a Tourism Trust Fund that would be the repository of fees from the sale of tourism posters, calendars and the like; ATM transaction fees; 5 percent of the Casino Revenue Fund; a 5 percent levy on admission to horse races, boxing matches, concerts and the like; 10 percent of the hotel room tax; and a 2.5 percent long-distance telephone surtax levied on carriers.
"I am not in support of all the monies being deposited in this new fund and it being controlled by the board," the governor said.
He said Tourism "will exist in name only and its only function will be to implement the policies and programs established by the board." And "once the policies and programs are implemented," he said, "the board can vote to dissolve the department."
Turnbull said his staff "attempted to amend the bill, but the changes were virtually impossible because the intent of the entire bill is to dismantled the Department of Tourism." So, instead, he wrote, "my staff has begun drafting a measure which we believe will be mutually agreeable to all parties. We will submit this proposal to you in the near future."
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