That question was asked of me several years ago by a Virgin Islander when one of our elected officials made local headlines for allegedly deriving personal benefits from the public purse beyond the benefits package established for the position he occupied.
My answer was yes, we can. I then, naively, suggested ways in which persons of integrity could be encouraged to serve as leaders. I describe my response as naive because I have come to realise that translation of the concept of honesty or integrity to practice is highly variable in the U.S. Virgin Islands, as apparently in many other communities around the world.
Hold on. Don’t go looking for your pitchforks just yet. Before forming an opinion, read all the way to the end.
I know that there are persons of integrity working throughout the public, private, and civic sectors. In fact, having worked in the three sectors, I am aware that most persons are honest, hardworking persons. From my earliest days in the public sector, I imagined finding a way to identify that two-thirds of workers (yes, I needed a number), protect them, improve their pay packages with the funds saved by removing the ones that display futility, and empower them. Sadly, I have not identified a solution, even in dreaming.
Even if it was possible to do what I just described, the result would not necessarily protect us from behaviour that undermines the public trust. Not all corruption is graft. Some is just slow degradation of principles, processes, and systems. Let me use three examples to illustrate the point.
First, most honest, hardworking people will assist, expedite, find workarounds for bottlenecks, and so much more in order to make the system work. Their desire to do good and be productive can be used to undermine systems, a little at a time. At the system level, the community hears and sees the cumulative effect in the statements and actions by senior officials to bypass systems and rules in the name of efficiency or exigency. The result of bypassing instead of fixing systems is increased potential for incompetence, ignorance, stupidity, and corruption to undermine system integrity and public confidence.
Second, we are not a community that understands, much less celebrates, public service. That is also true of the private sector. However, public service is very different, in that, the objective of serving the public is not merely to maintain salary security. That objective is applicable whether someone is employed in another social sector or is self-employed. The primary objective of public service should be to improve the well-being of your community, all of it. One of the main reasons given for our attitude to service is that our colonial history has embedded in our collective psyche a perception that service is somewhat demeaning. Whether that is true or not, it is time to articulate and practice the standards we expect. Without a deep personal commitment to public service, the downside of articulating and practicing honesty and integrity often becomes too burdensome for some persons.
Third, there is consistent call in our community for better decision making by public boards and commissions, and more so by the boards of directors of public and semi-independent organizations. Many of the substantive decisions of such boards demonstrate a lack of understanding of duty to the public that the institution is supposed to serve. It does not matter if the individual motive is fear of loss of group acceptance, cowardice, lack of understanding of the concept of stewardship, or inadequate information or knowledge. Many substantive decisions leave the public questioning the integrity of the boards and the feasibility of achieving intended outcomes. This also highlights the link between individual and collective integrity.
A case in point is the recent announcement that the Virgin Islands Port Authority (VIPA) is about to enter negotiations with a private firm to lease land adjacent to the Henry E. Rohlsen Airport. The media reports of the meeting noted the concerns of VIPA board members regarding the information presented on the project. Despite expressions of concern, the board approved the negotiation of the lease agreement. Do VIPA board members honestly believe that information not presented to them to authorize the negotiations will be presented to them afterwards? Is the VIPA in such dire financial straits that one thousand dollars per month for the performance period of three years is enough for VIPA board members to overcome their concerns?
The private firm was subsequently identified as Global Solutions VI LLC. An online search, which included the website of the Office of the Lieutenant Governor (U.S. Virgin Islands), showed that the firm was registered in the U.S. Virgin Islands in August 2020, has 2 employees, and generated 2020 revenues under sixty thousand dollars. That is the publicly-available information on the firm negotiating to lease 10 acres from the Virgin Islands Port Authority (VIPA) to build a 120-room hotel. There is no indication that the firm has previous experience in hotel or other real estate development.
Discussion of the feasibility of a 120-room hotel, located away from other tourism infrastructure, off the public transportation route (think workers and visitors), and with the historically low volume of air traffic to St. Croix, requires a separate article. There is also the matter of a 120-room hotel built on leased property. What would be an appropriate length of time to allow the developer to achieve the projected rate of return on the investment before the land is returned to the Virgin Islands Port Authority? The VIPA board of directors probably should reconsider its decision to approve the land lease and a hotel project at that location.
The other questions relate to the perception of zero harm to the Virgin Islands Port Authority (VIPA). The fact that a VIPA executive can make definitive statements about how airtight the non-existent contact will be is cause enough for concern. What if the assumption that building the hotel will bring additional tourist traffic to St. Croix is incorrect? Several hotels were approved for St. Croix that were not built. So, if the assumption of increased tourist traffic based on building the hotel does not hold, will the VIPA have any legal exposure or other harm?
Another potential source of harm is if the project constrains future development options for the airport, particularly in the context of reducing the vulnerability of the airport. Much of the footprint of the existing terminal building is on land that is only a few feet above sea level. Not only will storm surge cross the main road under intense storm events, sea level rise will negatively affect the site and airport operations. Will it be necessary to relocate some facilities? If so, where to? This leads to the larger question of the development plans for the Henry E. Rohlsen Airport. How does the 400-acre plot, including the 10-acre plot that is the focus of the proposed lease, fit into that development plan, particularly under adverse conditions imposed by sea level rise, flooding from intense rainfall events, and intense storms? What therefore is the basis for the statement that the project generates no harm to the VIPA?
Is there potential for harm to the U.S. Virgin Islands from the proposed land lease and hotel project? The Government of the U.S. Virgin Islands has initiated preparation of an economic development plan and a tourism master plan. How does the Virgin Islands Port Authority’s (VIPA) hotel project fit into a comprehensive economic development strategy? Did the VIPA board of directors take into consideration the needs of the community in terms of how the project constrains or amplifies the potential benefits of other public initiatives? Does the duty of care of members of boards of public institutions extend beyond the institutions to the shareholders; that is, the public? If so, can the VIPA board members honestly say their duty of care to the community has been satisfactorily discharged in this instance?
The prior discussion implies that corrupting influences take varied and subtle forms. One of the reasons why such subtle forms is overlooked or accepted is because of the prevalence of practices that erode personal honesty and institutional integrity. The fear of loss of group acceptance, loss of access to benefits and opportunities, and even job security. The clan relationships and social networks that influence information sharing, access, and protection of employment.
Can we find an honest man? I still believe we can. I also believe that an end to the question will come only when the community articulates honesty and integrity as desirable attributes, when these attributes are celebrated, when persons displaying these attributes are actively selected and protected, when these attributes become integral elements of our individual code of conduct.
Editor’s note: Lloyd Gardner is an environmental planning consultant, the principal of Environmental Support Services, LLC and president of the non-profit Foundation for Development Planning Inc. He has been involved in environmental management in the Caribbean since joining the Government of Jamaica in 1982. Since joining the private sector as an environmental planning consultant in 1992, Gardner has provided consulting services to a wide range of regional and international private, intergovernmental, civil society, bilateral and multilateral organizations.