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HomeNewsLocal newsSt. Croix and St. Thomas at Odds on Horse Racing Commission

St. Croix and St. Thomas at Odds on Horse Racing Commission

Dr. Laura Palminteri tells senators Tuesday that owners of race horses in the territory are in 'a difficult place.' (Photo by Barry Leerdam for the Legislature of the Virgin Islands)
Dr. Laura Palminteri talks to Senators in April 2019 about horse racing. (File photo by Barry Leerdam for the Legislature of the Virgin Islands)

The V.I. Horse Racing Commission voted Friday to change its leadership, with all St. Thomas members voting to put Dr. Laura Palminteri in charge and all St. Croix members voting to keep Jay Watson as chair.

At the time, Watson expressed no concern over the change. But over the weekend, he and the St. Croix members issued a letter stating the change is invalid because it did not follow Robert’s Rules of Order. The history of the board’s actions and a look at Robert’s Rules suggest the St. Croix may have a point, potentially plunging the board into a leadership crisis with two factions claiming to lead the board.

Meanwhile, horse racing in the territory may still be years away, despite assurances from former Gov. Kenneth Mapp and casino operator VIGL in 2016 that the territory’s two tracks would be renovated very quickly.

The territory’s two district horse racing commissions were merged into one in December 2017 as part of a Mapp-proposed plan to better regulate and capitalize on the sport. An anti-doping law governing medication of race horses was also approved. Additionally, VIGL pledged to invest $27 million in the two tracks and subsidize larger purses in exchange for license to run slot machine parlors at both tracks.

When the board initially met, it made Palminteri the chair. But that meeting was later ruled to be improperly called. In a subsequent meeting with more members approved by the Legislature to the commission, Watson was selected as chair. Three St. Croix members voted for Watson and two St. Thomas members voted to keep Palminteri. At the time, there were not any bylaws or rules for the new, unified commission.

At a Feb., 8, 2019 meeting, the commission voted to adopt Robert’s Rules of Order for conducting its business. On Friday, Aug. 30, the Commission, now with four St. Thomas members and three St. Croix members, voted to replace Watson with Palminteri. St. Thomas members Palminteri, Hugo Hodge Jr., Sheldon Turnbull and Shane Benjamin voted for the change. St. Croix members Watson, Ronald Phillips and Henry Schjang voted no. One St. Croix seat remains empty.

On Monday, Watson, Phillips and Schjang issued a letter declaring the change null and void, saying Robert’s Rules of Order requires a two-thirds vote to remove a chair or to suspend the rules. Online references to Robert’s Rules confirm this.

Reached Tuesday for comment, Hodge, who joined the board in August, said he favored Palminteri because of her “knowledge of the industry, access to other like-minded racing officials that she can get sample rules and regulations from and all the other things we need.”

Hodge said Palminteri’s medical expertise was invaluable too, “particularly on the anti-doping side. Being a veterinarian, she has a wider knowledge base than all of us.”

Asked about the issue of Robert’s Rules, Hodge said Watson was also selected by fewer than a two-thirds majority, so if this action was invalid, so was Watson’s selection.

“It was surprising to see (Watson’s) letter because, at the meeting, he made a public statement that the chair was no big deal, and, in his opinion, there was no benefit to being the chair,” Hodge said.

Asked Tuesday evening whether his own election was valid, Watson said he was installed as chair before the commission voted to adopt Robert’s Rules, so the two-thirds vote rule did not apply to him.

“This isn’t a personal thing. It’s a follow-the-rules thing,” Watson said. But he also said the St. Thomas members “had a nefarious intention.”

Horse Racing Commission nominee Jay Watson. (Photo provided by Jay Watson)

Asked what that “nefarious intention” was, Watson said the St. Thomas members wanted to resume horse racing as soon as possible, even if rules and regulations and track improvements were not in place.

Watson said he objected to Palminteri being on the commission at all, while she continued to give medical services to race horses. He said it was a conflict of interest to take money from the same people being regulated by the commission.

This potential conflict came up during Palminteri’s nomination hearings before the Legislature.

At the time, Palminteri said she was the only veterinarian in the territory who specialized in equine issues. But she said she would give up the position at the race track if there was another veterinarian who could take it.

With no races scheduled anytime soon and the tracks closed, there are no horses at the tracks to provide services to.

Hodge and Watson both said getting rules, regulations, policies and procedures in place soon was paramount.

Both expressed frustration with the pace of action by VIGL in getting permits for its racetrack improvements. Watson said only St. Croix members pressed VIGL officials about the issue at Friday’s meeting.

Hodge said VIGL officials were talking about possibly being ready in 2022, and he asked if that meant no races until 2022. According to Hodge, VIGL officials answered that, hypothetically, races could be held before all the work on the tracks is finished.

Asked whether the commission could function if a majority opposed him as chair, Watson said he was the properly elected chair. He said he would call a meeting by the end of the month. Asked what he would do if Palminteri called a meeting, he said he did not know and suggested any meetings called by Palminteri might lack a quorum.

“If she calls a meeting, I don’t know what I will do. I know if I call a meeting, I’ll be there,” he said.

Watson said VIGL’s delays in getting permits was the real story, not this leadership dispute.

Watson also said VIGL officials told the commission they were waiting for Coastal Zone Management and Department of Planning and Natural Resources building permits, while CZM officials said they are waiting for VIGL to submit their permit documents.

Meanwhile, while both sides say they want the commission to get down to the work of creating rules and regulations and preparing for races, that work may wait for this dispute to be settled.

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