V.I. lawmakers clashed with the Magens Bay Authority on Thursday over a measure seeking to change the composition of its Board of Directors, with senators claiming the board’s self-perpetuating membership has left it resistant to change and out of sync with the community.
Bill 33-0374, which unanimously passed the Senate Rules and Judiciary Committee and now moves to the full Senate body, strips away a longstanding policy of the board that allows members to serve indefinite six-year terms, and get appointed and reappointed by the board itself.
The bill reduces terms to three years and requires members to be appointed and reappointed by the governor. The bill also requires members to have certain backgrounds and areas of expertise, like environmental conservation, hospitality and small business.
The goal, according to bill sponsor Sen. Janelle Sarauw, is to diversify and open up a board, which, for years, has been viewed as an isolated and exclusive club, one with little urgency to enhance the cultural and historical aspects of the territory. The senator pointed to the Magens Bay concession, which has been operated by the same entity for more than 30 years, and how the board continues to drag its feet in finding new vendors who could provide more local Caribbean food. She also pointed to the dearth of attractions at the beach that could showcase the territory’s culture, arts and history.
“If the board was open to change, there would be no need for this legislation today,” Sarauw said.
While other lawmakers agreed, Magens Bay Authority Chairperson Katina Coulianos was adamantly opposed, insisting the bill was not in keeping with the original intent of philanthropist Arthur Fairchild, who deeded Magens Bay to the territory in 1946. “He did not want it to be subject to political influence and interference, which is why there is a limit on positions held by government officials and why appointments are not made by politicians,” said Coulianos, referring to the bill’s call to have the governor choose members. “Short terms lead to lack of continuity, and political appointments lead to self-interest, not the interest of the people.”
Coulianos added that board members, while currently selected by word of mouth and board recommendations, are already diverse in trade and well qualified. Further, she said getting rid of the “self-perpetuating feature” could subject the board to the same fate as other boards in the territory, where members are appointed at a snail’s pace or not at all. “The net result will be poor leadership and a physical decline in all Magens Bay properties and the deterioration of this product and resource which the government so often relies on to promote the Virgin Islands,” she said.
Attorney Mark Hodge, who represents the Magens Bay Authority, went one step further, calling the bill in question “unconstitutional.”
Citing an annotation in the V.I. Code, Hodge said a previous V.I. attorney general issued a formal opinion that when property is donated for charitable purposes, and includes the formation of a board, there is a constitutional bar on the Legislature or any entity from unilaterally modifying the composition and continuity of that board.
“This legislation attempts to change the board, which is exactly what the grant does not permit,” he said. “It’s an unconstitutional effort and it’s been tried before and failed.”
Sarauw pushed back that the Legislature has the authority to nullify an opinion with new legislation enacted into law.
Sens. Steven Payne Sr. and Kurt Vialet said the argument about political appointments didn’t hold water, since even current members were former government officials or had close affiliations with administrations.
“The board already reeks of politics,” Vialet said.
Voting in favor of the bill were Sarauw, Payne and Sens. Novelle Francis Jr., Myron Jackson and Javan James Sr.
Sarauw said she will bring an amendment to session that will require the governor to appoint one member with expertise in environmental conservation, agroforestry or forestry; one member from the hospitality sector; one member from the small business sector; one private citizen; and a proxy appointment. The final two members will be private citizens appointed by the board through an interview process.
Current board members will be able to serve the remainder of their terms following the bill’s passage.
— Contact A.J. Rao at 340-714-9104 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.