Ethics, conflicts of interest aimed at Tourism Council, which pushes back

Thu, 11/12/2020 - 5:45pm
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Amid some good economic tourism figures coming in from the past summer, the members of the Block Island Tourism Council spent the major portion of their meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 10 answering questions about conflicts of interest, the salary and sales commission payments to Director Jessica Willi, and other matters that were posed primarily by residents Ed and Diane Hayde.

The meeting was at times tense, with Hayde offering what he considered to be a myriad of issues and conflicts of members by the board, with board members pushing back in equal measure. Hayde also suggested that the board members should resign, a request that was ignored by the board.

There is also an ongoing inquiry initiated by Board member Steve Filippi, who has requested information from other board members through an Access to Public Records Act request. When asked after the meeting the reason behind the request, Filippi said that he would be waiting for a response from the Attorney General’s office.

Ed and Diane Hayde submitted inquiries to the council the day of the Nov. 10 meeting.

In his letter, Hayde wrote that there are three “basic fundamentals of the legal duties of each board member being: Duty of Care; Duty of Loyalty; and Duty of Obedience.” Hayde wrote that at-large member Zena Clark “violated these standards by having first right of refusal for the back cover of the Tourism magazine, and pointing the key words “Block Island Tourism” to her business’ website.”

Clark responded with her own letter to Hayde’s comment. “Regarding the Block Island [Tourism] Magazine ad. The Block Island Times manages the advertising sales for the magazine. When they lost the original advertiser for the back page they came to Block Island Reservations and asked if we wanted to purchase the ad. We accepted. Block Island Reservations agreed to this ad when approached. The ad sales had nothing to do with any decision made by the Tourism Council board or director. I do not believe this to be a violation of any kind.”

Hayde also addressed his thoughts on Willi’s compensation package.

“Why has the Board chosen to bypass customary compensation levels to award increases in compensation to the Director to its current $100K+level?” asked Hayde in his letter. He added in his letter that compensation packages under the title Director of Tourism can range from $43,000 to $66,000 annually. Hayde said his figures came from Payscale.com.

Council President Dave Houseman’s response to Hayde was that “while Payscale. com is a good resource, they don’t have the database to pull from other organizations. According to Destinations International salary survey, an average-based salary for an Executive Director in an organization with a budget less than $750,000 is $61,000 to $103,000… our Director’s salary base fits into this middle range.”

Clark said she had also spent the day conducting her own research on salaries.

“I did speak to [Louise Bishop] who heads up the South County Tourism division, and she said that her payroll makes up about 40 percent of her budget, and 30 to 40 percent is common in most regions,” said Clark.

“To be perfectly honest, I don’t care what other board members are making throughout the state. We have dollars that come here, we have to make smart decisions… The number one reason businesses fail is that they overpay on salary,” said Hayde.

Filippi asked if Houseman was speaking for himself or the entire board, stating that he didn’t feel Houseman was speaking for him.

Member John Cullen added that Hayde’s letter had been received by the council the same day of the meeting, “with not a lot of time to respond. I think David’s role and responsibility as the president — he spent this day researching, and stating a fact of his research on an average salary in that position.”

Hayde also addressed in his letter that the “Attorney General is investigating BITC for its failure to comply with a Freedom of Information Act request. What are you refusing to provide?”

“As of now, the Attorney General’s office is investigating a complaint... Without getting into details on the ongoing litigation, the Tourism Council maintains that there was no violation. Once the AG has ruled on this we will have a full report,” said Houseman.

The Block Island Times reached out to Tourism Director Jessica Willi regarding the litigation:

“This is an ongoing litigation — different from a lawsuit. I can say that Steve Filippi (through his lawyers) requested documents from the Tourism Council through an [Access to Public Records Act] request,” Willi said after the meeting. “Mr. Filippi was not satisfied with the response to that request so he filed a complaint with the Attorney General’s office that alleges a violation of the APRA. The AG’s office has not yet ruled on that complaint as their office is apparently very backed up. I fully expect that ruling to come back as ‘No Violation’ but we have to wait for the office to make a ruling.”

During the meeting, Hayde said that there was a “board member suing the board.”

“At this time no one is suing anyone... but Mr. Hayde does like to take liberties with his ‘facts.’ Very little of what he stated was true fact, and most was his opinion,” wrote Willi in an email.

After the meeting, Filippi said: “There was a Freedom of Information Act request filed, and the Tourism Council will not turn over the requested information. Why? Who knows. But why would a Tourism Council not turn over their requested information?”

Hayde also questioned why Clark, in a letter that was published in The Block Island Times, stated that Jessica Willi “does not have a lease on Capt. Nick’s,” when Hayde said that in a previous email Willi said that she and her husband Chris Willi were taking over the business. 

Clark responded to Hayde’s question, stating “I’m the one that wrote the letter that Jess’s name is not on the lease... There is no deception here. To be clear, there’s only one name on the lease: Chris Willi.”

Hayde asked if there “was a Tourism Council Board member working at Captain Nick’s under the Willis’ supervision?”

“Yes — the same board member for seven years, and she works under Mr. Willi’s supervision. We do not agree it’s an ethics violation,” answered Houseman.

Vice-President Logan Mott Chase said she has worked for On-Island Entertainment “on and off” since 2014, worked 11 shifts at Capt. Nick’s this summer, and noted she does not work “under Jess Willi’s supervision. I called the Ethics Commission as well and there was no conflict.”

“If you want to work at Capt. Nick’s, then don’t be on the board. It’s not appropriate,” said Hayde.

Later in the meeting, Hayde said, “I believe everyone on that board should resign their position. You have a board member suing the rest of the board, people not complying for basic requests, and the Attorney General is involved. There is a duty to be professional. You’re not being professional. I think everybody would appreciate for you to resign your positions. We can get new people that can commit their focus to getting the job done out here, and put all of this business behind us… At the end of the day, it seems like a lot of money is going out that could be used for a lot better things.”

Clark and Cullen also went on to address Hayde’s comments, and felt his comments were more personal and opinionated jabs, rather than facts.

“Each of us is involved heavily with tourism. We were chosen for our involvement with tourism… I feel like we answered the questions that are being asked and answered with facts. But Mr. Hayde comes back around and doesn’t believe the facts. It feels like we go in circles unfortunately. We are trying to be as transparent as possible,” said Clark.

“I have to say, the lengthy statement that Mr. Hayde made was a little bit outrageous. Mr. Hayde is stating all these things as a fact, but he [has been commenting] with ‘sounds to me... it seems like... my understanding is…’ Those are not facts,” said Cullen. “I’m just personally offended and I feel like this is a witch hunt. We are not ashamed. I am proud of the work that we have done, and we have to find a way to get through it.”

Filippi said he felt “the harder the questions, the better, and we’ll answer them the best we can. I don’t take anything personally and I appreciate it.”

Near the end of the meeting, Willi shared some positive economic news: Hotel tax revenue for the month of August “came in very slightly down — again, surprising — from the previous August.” Hotel tax for August 2020 was $92,152 while August 2019 was $92,774.

“Not as big a dip as we thought,” said Willi. While South County also did well for the month, “everybody else in the state was down 50 to 70 percent. Massive, massive drops, but it seems like Block Island did okay for tourism dollars.”