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Charlotte Amalie
Friday, June 21, 2024
HomeCommentaryOpen forumOpen Forum: The Game of Feigned Surprise in Public Sector Decision Making

Open Forum: The Game of Feigned Surprise in Public Sector Decision Making

An artist drawing of the proposed Paul E. Joseph Stadium. (Submitted drawing)
An artist’s drawing of the proposed Paul E. Joseph Stadium. (Submitted drawing)

I used to be annoyed when elected officials, public servants and contractors on public projects act surprised at things that should be obvious. Silly, obvious things, like finding water in a hole dug in a swamp or finding hard rock on land being excavated on St. John or St. Thomas.

Each such surprise resulted in project delays and increased costs, which led me to conclude that it was all a game, with the feigned surprise served up as a distraction to the public. Once I arrived at the conclusion that it was a game, I began to watch the spectacle with more detachment and amusement.

The Paul E. Joseph Stadium on St. Croix is one of the exceptions where amusement was replaced by disgust. The premise that the stadium would be the anchor for sports tourism on St. Croix was always a stretch. Why not simply build a facility to meet our needs? I did not understand the basis for thinking that the U.S. Virgin Islands could out-compete larger sporting destinations, especially given our precarious financial position and inability to maintain large facilities. Even if you assume a feasibility assessment was done, and the idea was sound, why that problematic location?

My feeling of disgust started when, after the $17.5 million was appropriated, the contractors announced that they would check the bearing capacity of the site by dumping truckloads of soil on the site. I assumed they were joking. Who is stupid enough to design and build a large concrete building on a filled-in swamp without first conducting a geotechnical survey? Everyone knows that the site is partial fill, barely above sea level, close to a watercourse, and floods periodically. The Legislature of the Virgin Islands should have pulled the funding at that juncture. But that would have violated the rules of the game.

The aforementioned announcement signaled to me that not enough work had gone into the geotechnical and flood analyses. I assumed that I was witnessing incompetence driven by corruption. However, I was not privy to the project documents, so I kept silent. The recent media report that the project was permitted in phases to allow for completion of the design process explains what I failed to realize earlier, that the project is just another inning in the game.

Why approve elements of a project before completion of the design process when the site is located on fill material, periodically floods, and will become increasingly vulnerable to the effects of sea-level rise and flooding from extreme rainfall events?

Even if legislators were not informed of the phased permitting process, and the associated cost and time implications, some of them live on St. Croix. They know the site floods.  Could the rainfall event of November 2010 that flooded Frederiksted have been forgotten by 2015? One would think that legislators would have insisted on more information before appropriating the initial $17.5 million. If not then, certainly before appropriating the additional $8.2 million in August 2020.

Legislators are now feigning surprise at the fact that the site is in a floodplain and requires additional permitting, that the millions spent and appropriated will not complete the project, and that the project is taking such a long time to show ‘something’.

That is the game. The waste can be overlooked if something, anything, can be shown to the public. The question is, why the game and why does the public play along?

I urge the current president of the legislature to show something else to the public. Show us that the Legislature of the Virgin Islands can, and intends to be, a good steward of public resources. Show us by requesting an audit by the Office of the Virgin Islands Inspector General of the entire process of project development, permitting, procurement, and contract management for the Paul E. Joseph Stadium.

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 1982 and has functioned as a consultant in several projects and public policy initiatives in the U.S. Virgin Islands since relocating to the territory more than two decades ago.

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