June 12, 2006 – Tourism Commissioner Pamela Richards, chairwoman of the Caribbean Tourism Organization, will not attend the organization's premier conference this week in New York. Gov. Charles W. Turnbull has denied Richards' travel request.
The conference is a highlight of Caribbean Week in New York, which is being celebrated with myriad events throughout the city. Tourism officials – both in the territory and in the states – have expressed shock at the governor's decision.
There is speculation that Turnbull's action may have been prompted by political considerations over the exempt or permanent status of Tourism Department employees.
Turnbull has scheduled a meeting with Richards for Tuesday.
The CTO has headquarters on Barbados, with marketing operations in New York, London and Toronto. It is the Caribbean's tourism development agency and comprises a membership of more than 30 governments and many private sector companies.
Beverly Nicholson, president of the V.I. Hotel and Tourism Association, was incredulous Monday. "It's tragic," she said. "It is very unfortunate that this has happened. It is not just about our destination; it's about the entire region."
Nicholson said the conference is a significant event highlighting Caribbean Tourism. "There will be events all week celebrating New York's Caribbean Week. There will be strategic sessions for development of tourism in the region. It puts our destination in a bad light."
In a different vein, Nicholson continued, "I'm certain the conference is within her [Richards'] budget. It had to be approved last year, so it couldn't be a budget issue at all. If she had come to the private sector, we would have reached out to see how we could accomplish getting her to the conference.
"We need to be seen in a positive light. Being the chairman, Richards needs to be active in formulating policy for the region. How can this [situation] impact positively?"
Joseph Aubain, Chamber of Commerce executive director, said Monday he was not aware of the situation. However, he said he agreed with Nicholson's remarks. "I concur with the Hotel Association," Aubain said. "She is our chief tourism official and this is something she needs to be at."
Richards was unavailable for comment. Brad Nugent, her executive assistant, confirmed Monday that the commissioner will not be attending the Caribbean Week event. "She does have a meeting scheduled with the governor for Tuesday," he said. "She has no comment beyond that."
Vincent Vanderpool-Wallace, CTO secretary-general and CEO, said he was stunned at the news. Speaking from his New York office, Vanderpool-Wallace said Monday, "It's quite a shock to us. That's as simply as I can put it."
He said Richards' absence will create major difficulties for the organization. "We understand that the governor has set a meeting [with Richards] for the middle of this week, but it is really putting quite a strain on our planning for the conference.
"With Richards as chair of the board, we have a whole series of programs to discuss with her. She was preparing to put matters up for ratification. A lot of discussion has gone to get these matters understood and ratified. The USVI really has been one of the stellar performers in a number of areas. Chairwoman Richards has not only provided guidance, she serves as an example of how things should be done."
"It is really debilitating," Vanderpool-Wallace continued. "This is the hard part – we have only two board meetings a year, and we understand how difficult it is to get everyone together. There is no substitute for getting together in person. There are some substantial meetings this week, major shifts as to how we are doing business in the Caribbean. This is a crucial event."
He said he is holding out hope that Richards may get to the conference by Wednesday. "We are hoping she could be excused, or if the time could be changed. There are, of course, other members of the V.I. here, but they are not day-to-day management. Richards has a dual role, representing the Caribbean, as well as the USVI; the others really are focusing on the USVI to extract the maximum benefits.
"In fact," Vanderpool-Wallace continued, "I think the executive committee has written to the chairman to see if there is any way she can be excused. The key meetings are Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. We would be grateful to the governor and to the Virgin Islands. It would make a tremendous difference. She has done an outstanding job in the Caribbean. This is debilitating. There is no question about it."
According to a report in the Avis, it is "rumored" that Turnbull wanted Richards to change the status of certain employees from unclassified/exempt positions to classified/permanent positions, which would mean that the employees would stay in their posts regardless of who is in office. Turnbull's term ends this year.
In a related matter, a source in the Education Department said last week that the governor was trying to move Horace Brooks, father of Turnbull's special assistant of the same name, from an unclassified to a classified supervisory position in the maintenance department.
Several years ago, Turnbull attempted to give Brooks a $65,000 contract for summer maintenance work, but it was quashed when it became public.
Repeated calls to James O 'Bryan, Turnbull's spokesman, went unreturned Monday.
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