Magens Bay Authority and Legislature at Odds Over ‘Unconstitutional’ Bill

The view looking east from Magens Bay features turquoise waters and lush vegetation. (Source photo by Shaun A. Pennington)

The Senate Rules and Judiciary Committee began their Thursday morning hearing with a contentious debate over legislation that proposes to change the composition of the Magens Bay Authority Board of Directors, legislation the Authority’s legal counsel said was already deemed unconstitutional once before.

“You can [try] to shoehorn this in by squeezing and pressuring, but when it’s already been determined that it is unconstitutional, it’s a losing proposition,” said Mark Hodge, legal counsel for the Authority.

Despite that feedback, the committee advanced the bill, which, if signed into law, would grant authority to the president of the Legislature to appoint a member to the board, require specific professional backgrounds for four members, remove the governor as a board member, reduce members’ terms to three years and increase the quorum size needed to four. However, an amendment accepted by the committee removed the authority of the president of the Legislature to appoint a member to the board, Sen. Janelle Sarauw said after the meeting.

Sarauw, who proposed the bill, said the board is supposed to be free from political influence, “but I don’t think that’s the case on the board today.”

“I’m going to ruffle a few feathers today. It is OK to sit in discomfort, but I think the time has come for us to address the composition of the Magens Bay Authority,” Sarauw said.

Many of the reasons given as the intent of the bill have to do with adding cultural flare and local cuisine options to Magens Bay.

“The board needs some greater grassroots representation. The board needs to look at Magens Bay as a top ten beach and to culturize the beach, along with the Smith Bay Beach,” Sarauw said. “It is not an attack on any board member or personal attack, but it is for the greater good.”

While Sarauw may not have intended to make it a personal attack, the testifiers thought it was exactly that.

“If senators are worried about vendors not having more local foods, the vendor is already accommodating that by adding those foods to the menu. And if that is the case, what is the point of this legislation,” Hodge questioned.

“It is to remove the board members. And that is why it is unconstitutional. It is specifically designed to restructure and remove the board members. And when I pointed out that it was unconstitutional, pointed it out in the V.I. Code … Sen. Sarauw said only a judge can decide that not some attorney hired to represent the board. The Attorney General of the Virgin Islands was not hired by the board … she made that determination the last time they tried to do this, and they failed,” Hodge said.

He said if the bill is truly about adding more local cuisine and culture at Magens Bay, “The bill that has been submitted doesn’t include anything that addresses that.”

Aside from what Sarauw said she sees as a “missing cultural component” to Magens Bay, she aired additional grievances at the hearing. She said the concessions have remained with the same family for more than 30 years with no bidding process, three-quarters of the board members are from the “Gov. John de Jongh era” and make for a “self-perpetuating board,” and nothing has been done to address the problem of runoff into Magens Bay.

“It’s time for a change,” Sarauw said.

Magens Bay Authority Board Chairperson Katina Coulianos said the bill stems from a “lack of knowledge of the history and operations of the Authority and its board, compounded by misinformation, politics and speculation.”

Coulianos said the board is well-functioning, has achieved diversity of representation, and already has extensive expertise. “This proposed change of the legislation is superfluous.”

While the community has speculated that the Authority is composed of friends and family, Coulianos said, “Nothing could be further from the truth.” She added the bylaws and policies prevent conflict of interest in procurement for materials and services, and the awarding of concessions.

Coulianos said no employees of the Magens Bay Authority are related to the members of the board, nor are board members related to each other.

Though the concessions have been operated by a family for decades, this is not a matter of board favoritism, Hodge said. The longevity of a single business is precisely what was intended.

“I want to touch on the vendor there for 30 years; this is not unusual. The V.I. Port Authority has the same V.I. Taxi Association there now, an exclusive taxi franchise, that it had 50 years ago. It has the same restaurant inside the airport that it had decades ago. This is how franchises work,” Hodge said. “You do not set it up so that it is a continual round-robin so that nobody can actually have a business there.”

While testifiers furnished responses to many of the senator’s concerns, the idea that the Authority needs to find a solution for runoff into Magens Bay baffled them.

“The watershed plan is really DPNR’s responsibility. Not everything that goes on in the periphery of Magens Bay is in the Magens Bay Authority’s hands to change,” Coulinaos said.

The committee’s decision to advance the legislation after listening to testifiers puzzled Hodge.

“The idea that the structure of the board needs to change because time has passed, I don’t know where that is coming from, I really don’t,” Hodge said. He said he does not understand why, among the numerous suggestions regarding what the Authority should be doing, ideas like a museum on Magens Bay were proposed.

Hodge called it a peculiar line of thinking to conclude that tourists come to Magens Bay not to swim at the beautiful beach or get a tan, but “actually want to go to a museum and have a cultural bit.”

Hodge said if this is what senators are looking for then why stop there. “Where’s the little museum at Brewer’s Beach? Why aren’t we throwing a cotillion at Brewer’s Beach?”

Sens. Sarauw, Myron Jackson, Novelle Francis Jr., Steven Payne Sr. and Javan James Sr. were present for the hearing. Sens. Alicia Barnes and Kenneth Gittens were absent.