After years of vigorously fighting to keep its meetings and records closed to the public, the West Indian Co., Ltd., board of directors adopted a new, more open policy with regard to its meetings and reporting when it met Feb. 27 and held new elections.
WICO is wholly owned by the Public Finance Authority, an entity within the executive branch of the V.I. government. It operates the busiest cruise pier on St. Thomas.
According to a statement from WICO, from now on WICO will notify the press with the date and time of its meetings with five days advance notice. Also, the board will open its regular sessions to the press and provide a summary of all actions taken in executive sessions.
WICO’s statement says its public relations officer will follow up after each meeting of the board with a press release of all significant actions it has taken.
The move fulfills a recent pledge from Gov. Albert Bryan who said he would direct WICO to open its books.
“WICO is a public entity as determined by the courts and as such it must comply with the Sunshine Act,” Bryan spokesperson Richard Motta said recently in response to a request for clarification of the governor’s position.
This announcement is a step toward fulfilling Bryan’s promise. In the future, holding those open meetings and providing financial documents and meeting transcripts upon request would be substantial further steps toward transparency.
WICO’s move comes on the heals of Bryan appointing six new members to the WICO board in mid-February.
The Feb. 26 meeting convened with members Joseph Boschulte, Jason Charles, Roosevelt David, Pash Daswani, Rick Carrington, Conrad Francois, Enrique Rodriquez, April Newland and Edward Thomas II present.
The board elected Boschulte as the chairman, Charles as vice-chairman and Roosevelt David as secretary.
The agency has long guarded its secrecy by claiming it is not subject to V.I. laws on open records and sunshine in government. But it has grown more insistent of late, refusing in the face of court rulings and heavy government and public criticism. It faced enhanced scrutiny after WICO’s board voted to pay then-Gov. Kenneth Mapp’s rent at the request of Mapp’s chief of staff after the Department of Property and Procurement had turned down Mapp’s request.
In the end, WICO reversed course on paying the governor’s rent and instead Mapp stayed in expensive hotels.
Meanwhile, the government-owned WICO refused to provide meeting minutes to the V.I. Legislature or the V.I. Source in 2015, with WICO legal counsel Adriane Dudley asserting it is not subject to V.I. open records laws. Dudley cited the case of Sprauve v. WICO, which was then pending appeal.
“As a result, because the case is in fact pending appeal now … a decision should be issued literally any day now, in the interest of pending litigation, WICO should not take a public position, in my opinion, contrary to its position in that case,” Dudley said. “I have advised WICO should be treated as a private corporation and not release except when it is pertaining to the government,” she said.
The Open Records Act actually applies to members of the public getting access to records. Its owner should have an unquestioned right to access, being the owner. Regardless, WICO lost that case on the appeal. And a 2016 V.I. Supreme Court also found WICO subject to laws regarding public agencies except where there is legislation specifically exempting it.
Yet in the face of clear court rulings, WICO continued to stonewall, awaiting either a direct court order on specific records or something else its officers cannot ignore without direct legal peril to themselves.
WICO officials have asserted the public entity is struggling financially due to competition for cruise business from the V.I. Port Authority.
WICO has long paid a set fee – a payment in lieu of taxes – of $700,000 per year instead of paying corporate income tax, property tax or gross receipts taxes. But it has fallen millions of dollars behind in its payments. As of 2016 it owed $5.9 million.
WICO used to bring in the vast majority of cruise passengers. From 2003 to 2006, WICO averaged more than 1.65 million passengers, according to WICO, while according to the V.I. Bureau of Economic Research, the territory saw 1.8 million cruise passengers in 2003 and 2 million in 2004.
Between 2007 and 2014, WICO averaged slightly more than 1.2 million passengers annually, a reduction of more than 450,000 passengers from previous years. The whole territory averaged 2.1 million passengers per year in 2013 and 2014, based on BER figures.
So WICO’s share has shrunk to just over half the total. Meanwhile, total cruise traffic has slowly risen from around 1.3 million per year in the 1990s to around 1.9 million per year for the past decade, with a drop to 1.3 million in 2017 and a bigger drop to 1.1 million in 2018 after the hurricanes.
A recent V.I. Source editorial endorsed folding WICO into VIPA to help alleviate those problems and more efficiently oversee the Virgin Islands’ cruise and port facilities.