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Charlotte Amalie
Wednesday, July 24, 2024


May 6, 2002 – In the last two weeks, three of the highest-profile public officials in the territory have made headlines by the announcement of their immediate or imminent departure. For only one, Port Authority executive director Gordon Finch, was it a self-made decision.
On April 30, the executive director of the Water and Power Authority, Joseph R. Thomas Jr., tendered his resignation one year into his two-year contract, in what was announced as an "amicable separation" from the WAPA board.
Later that same day, Education Commissioner Ruby Simmonds was summarily fired by Gov. Charles W. Turnbull after he got word that the territory's appeal of the loss of accreditation for three of its four high schools had been denied.
On April 23, VIPA's Finch surprised his board with the announcement that he would be stepping down at the end of this year.
"We tried to talk him out of it," board member Iver Stridiron, the attorney general, said afterward.
Thomas's departure was widely anticipated and Simmonds's took few by surprise. Finch's wasn't expected, and yet there was some handwriting on the wall.
With 11 years on the job, Finch is retiring, not resigning. In an interview, he declined to comment on the specific reasons that led him to decide to leave now. "There are some that are personal and some not personal," he said. But he intimated that politics had a fair amount to do with it.
When Finch became executive director of the Port Authority in September of 1991, he brought both government and business experience to the position. He had served as Public Works commissioner under Gov. Cyril E. King in 1974-79 and was an engineering consultant in private practice on St. Thomas for the 12 years after that.
He has headed the Port Authority's day-to-day management through three administrations. That of Gov. Alexander A. Farrelly, who brought him aboard, was "without a doubt the most supportive," he said.
The most significant change from one administration to the next has been "change in the makeup of the board and the support you get from the board," he said. "I have seen the level of support for the executive director change significantly from one administration to the next, significantly affecting the Port Authority and the operations of it."
The board is, for better or worse, a political animal. Its chair by law is the Tourism commissioner, a political appointee of whom no further qualifications are required. In the first two years of the Turnbull administration, a series of individuals held the position in an acting capacity; the governor last year named Pamela Richards permanently to the post.
There also are three other ex-officio members of the VIPA board — the attorney general, the Public Works commissioner and the Small Business Development Agency director.
In Finch's view, "the Tourism commissioner is the one position in the government that should be an ex-officio member of the Port Authority board. I do not, however, believe the head of the Tourism Department should be named by law as chair of the board. I believe the chair and the vice chair should be elected by the board."
That's how it works on most of the government's independent authorities and other bodies. The two district boards of the Hospitals and Health Facilities Corp. elect their own chairs; so do the boards of WAPA and the Economic Development Authority. The West Indian Co. board itself is appointed by the Public Finance Authority, which recommends a chair, but the WICO board has final say. The PFA's own five-member board has the governor as ex-officio chair and two other ex-officio members — the Finance commissioner and the director of the Office of Management and Budget. The Housing Authority has the Housing, Parks and Recreation commissioner as its ex-officio chair.
Finch's views in this regard are not prejudiced by painful conflict with or within his board. On the contrary, all indications have been that the board and the executive director have had a mutually supportive — and productive — relationship.
Paying police for cruise ship security
Finch announced his retirement plans on the morning of April 23. Later that day, Carnival Cruise Lines officials confirmed that they were taking St. Croix off the map for their cruise itineraries.
"I think the government of the Virgin Islands was given signs and substantial notices that Carnival was concerned about the crime problem," Finch said in the interview. "I'd been aware of their concerns since 1999, and other government officials had been as well."
But the Port Authority took the unique step of doing something to address the concerns: "When we were told the police couldn't pay overtime, I went to bat and got the board to approve those expenses," Finch said. "The commissioner of Police said he had no funds. I'm not blaming the police or the police commissioner."
The upshot: "From January, the board agreed to pay the overtime for the police in their function on St. Croix of providing extra protection on cruise ship days, including Harbour Nights. That began on Jan. 2, to continue through the end of season in May."
As for what else could or should have been done, Finch said, "The government could have been a little more proactive in making the problem publicly known and engendering support from the community in terms of being the watchdogs of crime. What they did was too little too late."
Clashes over Crown Bay
The biggest bone of contention for Finch and the VIPA board in the current administration has been the development of Crown Bay. Beginning in 1999, over the course of more than two years, a public-private task force worked with cruise industry representatives to produce a Long-Term Agreement with the Florida-Caribbean Cruise Association and its 13 member lines aimed at increasing the volume of passengers visiting the territory. One provision of the agreement, signed by the governor last fall, called for VIPA to select a cruise line or lines "to undertake seaside and land-based projects that would commit to the incremental passenger flow" that would enable VIPA to finance the expansion of the Crown Bay dock.
Last August, VIPA signed a letter of intent with Carnival Corp. and Royal Caribbean Cruises for the two corporate entities to invest $31 million in expanding the dock and developing an adjacent shopping area. The plan prompted loud opposition from the business community, which feared the loss of customers downtown and at Havensight Mall, and from WICO, which saw it as giving the two cruise lines control of the harbor.
In March, Turnbull, Finch and WICO chief executive Edward Thomas all were in Miami Beach attending the annual Seatrade convention. From there, the governor issued a press release to the V.I. media stating that he would "instruct" the Port Authority to call off the deal with Carnival and Royal Caribbean. The release also said he had "instructed" WICO and VIPA "to work together on the rapid expansion and development of the Crown Bay port facilities in order to accommodate the growing needs of the cruise lines."
Finch said he learned indirectly of the governor's intent to take that action. "I first became aware the Friday before," he said, when Turnbull "met with my board on St. Thomas and basically indicated to them that he had made that decision." He added, "I was not at the board meeting … and I was not invited to the meeting."
Capital improvement projects
Since the governor's announcement, the VIPA board has voted not to work jointly with WICO on developing Crown Bay but to proceed in doing so on its own. Finch said the board's decision doesn't necessarily mean the matter has been laid to rest. "There will be melee all the way up to the construction and beyond," he said. "But the pr
oject has the full support of the Port Authority, and we are going to be in construction by fall of this year. The dock and the land site business will be in operation by the start of the next cruise ship year — by October 2003."
He anticipates "huge, simultaneous capital improvement projects under way" at three sites next year. "My hope is that just about the same time we are going forward with the Crown Bay projects, we have contracts to do the Enighed and Red Hook projects," he said.
For the Enighed commercial port on St. John and the Red Hook marine terminal on St. Thomas, "We fully expect approval to be secured from the Federal Highway Administration within a month," he said. "That would be the signal for the government of the Virgin Islands to go to the bond market to sell the GARVEE bonds," which rely on guaranteed federal highway funds earmarked for the territory in years to come. "Our agreement with the government is that once those bonds are sold, we can go to seek bids — and have assurance that the project will be funded independent of whether the government will be able to fund the project through GARVEE bonds."
As for St. Croix, he said the timeline for implementing recommendations of an economic viability study that VIPA commissioned is uncertain. "The huge investment in Crown Bay has clouded the picture in terms of how much of that initiative is going to be moving forward in the short term," he said. "The next executive director will make the determination of when to go to that initiative."
VIPA's biggest priority for St. Croix in terms of its potential economic effect, he said, "is the development of a commercial park." He said the project won't interface with the research and technology park to be developed by the University of the Virgin Islands on St. Croix. "Unfortunately, no," he said. "We had hoped that it might, but they are independent initiatives."
Although the big projects for the immediate future are on St. Thomas and St. John, Finch said, "we have spent an awful lot of money on St. Croix in my tenure — $16 million on expansion of the airport runway, and next, $3.5 million to construct a new air traffic-control tower."
Looking back, and ahead
Finch said the two things he's proudest of in his 11 years as Port Authority executive director are the establishment of financial viability and the development of VIPA's infrastructure.
As for things he would like to see done differently, with no hint of humor he said he would "change the law that allows for another public agency to own a public dock." That conflicting authority of VIPA and WICO is "good for no one, including the two agencies," he said.
He also would "ask that the Legislature change few things in the law that established the Port Authority, to include the composition of the board." In general, "there are a number of things in Port Authority operations that still need fine tuning," he added. "I would put a little more emphasis on those things I would have control over."
He offered no suggestion as to a successor. "I gave early notice so they can make that determination," he said, referring to the VIPA board. He added that "there is expertise within" the Port Authority.
A St. Croix resident, Finch has been commuting to St. Thomas all these years, usually four days a week, keeping St. Croix as his Friday office day. While he said that the idea of fast-ferry service between the two islands "is viable, even for commuting employees," he added that for him, "The only way to go is to fly."
Finch said he finalized his decision to leave the week before the April 23 board meeting at which he announced his intention. "I'm going to be doing a little bit of consulting, but I'm looking at a lot of changes, at a new course of my life," he said. "I'm going to do the things that I want to do. That's as far as my planning has gone."

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