Letter critiquing Tourism Council elicits responses

Fri, 10/16/2020 - 2:30pm
Category: 

A letter sent to the Block Island Tourism Council President Steve Filippi by resident Ed Hayde questioning policies and oversight methods of the Tourism Council was also copied to The Block Island Times. The Times then reached out to the members of the Council for their responses, which they chose to do in letter form.

To the Editor:

“When a man assumes a public trust, he should consider himself a public property.”

This quote by Thomas Jefferson speaks to concerns that have lingered for years involving the Block Island Tourism Council (BITC). It is the recent actions of the Board of Directors, BITC Executive Director Jessica Willi, as well as the appearance of impropriety, that compels this letter.

BITC is funded by tax dollars generated by tourist activity here on Block Island. Consistently, nearly $300,000 each year is returned to the BITC to promote tourism here as well as address issues that arise from the growth in tourism. Currently, the Executive Director’s compensation package consumes approximately one-third of that budget for what the Director portrays as a full-time position to promote Block Island as a destination for tourists. Based on the BITC budget, the Director has enjoyed a 44 percent increase in total annual compensation since fiscal year 2014 to its current level of $100,465 total compensation. By what criteria and calculation has the BITC Board of Directors used to justify awarding such an increase, considering the absence of commensurate inflows? The prudent and thoughtful use of these resources is critical to developing a new direction for how Block Island wishes to manage its tourist industry in this new era. COVID-19 has changed our world and it is imperative that we, as a community, recognize this pivot point in the tourism industry. Please explain how the Board has arrived at the increases described above.

It is my understanding that all Tourism Directors throughout the state have taken reduced compensation and instituted cuts to their operations in 2020 in an effort to offset COVID-19 related losses. Has Director Willi reduced her compensation? It appears that she has not. If not, then why not?

In addition, what is the BITC plan to address the current Attorney General’s investigation, as well as the pending litigation involving business practices of the current Board?

The members of the Tourism Council’s Board of Directors all have two-year term limits, yet most have been Board members upwards of 10 years. It certainly appears to be a rather cozy relationship as opposed to one of oversight of the Director. Officers are voted in from within the ranks of current Board members, essentially “recycling” Board members through the ranks, year after year after year… and the Board members remain on the Board until they choose to resign or until the Town Council removes them. Bringing on “new blood” to the Board can bring fresh perspectives to Block Island’s tourism vision. Why is this not being done? BITC members are appointed by the Town Council, of which Director Willi’s husband is a member.

Please note, BITC Board members have a responsibility to provide supervision. To me, this is a conflicted situation. Do you agree? Reason can only guide us to drawing the conclusion that this process of “recycling” has caused stagnation of thought and direction on the Board and, as a result, to Block Island’s business model. This has also created an appearance that is unprofessional and invites the image of the BITC Board of Directors essentially “rubber stamping” whatever the Director proposes. This approach is not providing the critical oversight and check to balance the Director’s actions. The duration of the members’ tenure deserves closer examination. Will you pursue this?

This concern is only compounded by Director Willi’s recent acquisition of Capt. Nick’s Rock-n-Roll Bar and the subsequent employment of a BITC Board member at that establishment. Does the BITC Board of Directors and Director Willi recognize the conflicts of interest that presently exist with this arrangement and how they are inappropriate?

In my opinion, the BITC Board of Directors is derelict in their duties to provide supervision over the Director, speaking directly to allowing these obvious conflicts of interest to occur and continue, as well as generous increases to the Director’s compensation package.

Additionally, this then calls into question the judgement and/or motivation of the BITC Board of Directors. Are other BITC expenditures made using the same flawed calculations and criteria as were used to determine compensation for Director Willi? Perhaps a case of willful blindness? Please advise. I believe the BITC Board members have been at their posts for far too long. These are all clearly red flags that should be addressed. This, along with the apparent violations of the Rhode Island Open Meetings Act and the current Attorney General’s investigation, I will urge our Town Council to consider the removal of the entire BITC Board of Directors immediately.

Ethical, transparent operation of our Tourism Council, free of conflicts of interest, should be the hallmark of such an essential entity for this island. These concepts should be universally desired attributes of a publicly funded entity. There is a litany of things that these resources could be used for. A more strategic approach to deploying these public funds should be pursued. We should seize the opportunity to take corrective measures today. Restoring the public trust and developing a new vision for Block Island’s tourism industry can only happen with sweeping changes.

Removal of the current Block Island Tourism Council Board of Directors as well as the Executive Director of the Tourism Council is a positive first step in the right direction.

Thank you,
Ed Hayde, High Street

 

The Block Island Times reached out to the members of the Tourism Council for their reaction to the questions posed by Mr. Hayde in his letter:

To the Editor:

After reading Mr. Hayde’s letter, I was deeply disturbed by the alleged improprieties at The Block Island Tourism Council. Block Island deserves a Tourism Council free of any conflicts of interest.

In the name of honesty and full transparency, the Block Island Tourism Council will discuss Mr. Hayde’s letter in an open session at our Nov. 10 meeting. We are asking all members of the community to participate.

Thank you for your patience during these difficult times.

Steven C. Filippi
President, Block Island Tourism Council

 

To the Editor:

This letter and its questions are for the Tourism Council Board. As Executive Director, I believe I should wait for a meeting to have this letter addressed, and I look forward to that time. In the meantime, should any members of the public have any questions or concerns for me, I can be reached at the office at (401) 466-5200, cell phone: (401) 486-9660 or by email at bitourism@ yahoo.com.

Jessica Willi
Executive Director, B.I. Tourism Council

 

To the Editor:

I appreciate the opportunity to respond to Mr. Hayde’s letter that was recently sent to the President of the Tourism Council, as well as The Block Island Times, The Town Council and the Town Manager. We do not have time to meet as a board to form a uniform response but I personally felt that a response was needed.

I feel fortunate to have been a part of this organization for the last six years. I believe in its mission and the path that we have followed as stewards of the Council. Our meetings are open to the public and we welcome anyone who wishes to join us.

Unfortunately, Mr. Hayde has chosen to submit a letter regarding his frustrations rather than discuss them with us in person. I learned long ago that communication is the key to the success of any relationship and many of his concerns could have easily been addressed by coming to us directly.

I can only speak for myself but our intention as a Board has always been to promote Block Island in a manner which fulfills the mission laid out to us. We are fortunate to have Jessica Willi as our Executive Director. Her skills as a one person office rivals what our mainland councils are accomplishing with a much larger team. She is highly respected by her peers and by Tourism members throughout the State.

The idea that we as an organization are acting inappropriately is not only hurtful, it is incorrect. I look forward to having an opportunity to discuss Mr. Hayde’s concerns at a future Tourism Council meeting.

Sincerely,
Julie Fuller, Corn Neck Road

 

To the Editor:

I am writing in response to the letter submitted by Ed Hayde which essentially criticizes the motives and ethics of the Block Island Tourism Council.

The Tourism Council members are a group of hard working individuals volunteering for a cause we are each deeply passionate about. The Director is our single employee who carries out the tasks that several employees are hired for in other Tourism Divisions.

We have a Director Review subcommittee that carefully reviews job performance every year and brings findings to the entire board for approval. Every decision we have made regarding compensation has been approved unanimously throughout my tenure. We draft a letter each year providing feedback on job performance describing the accomplishments from the year in review and giving suggestions for the year to come. The compensation percentage is proportionately comparable to other Tourism Divisions throughout the state.

Mr. Hayde accuses the Director of a conflict of interest regarding a board member who held a part time position at Captain Nick’s. From what I understand, the Tourism Council director does not hold the lease on said business. It is my opinion that she has done nothing unethical in this situation. In full disclosure, I will point out that my son holds a summer position renting kayaks for our Director’s husband. Would this also be considered a conflict of interest? We live on an island with roughly 1,000 residents, of which a very small percentage are willing to commit to volunteer positions on the many boards with seats needing to be filled. I would assume that many residents and board members have paths that cross in some form or another between volunteer and professional work. There has been no wrongdoing in this case.

In closing, I hope that in the near future the Tourism Council can disclose to the public the details of the pending litigation referred to by Mr. Hayde. However, by advice of counsel this is not a topic I can speak to at this time.

I would invite anyone with questions regarding the Tourism Council, our mission, and how we carry out that mission to please attend meetings. I am confident in the work we do for Block Island as a whole.

Sincerely,
Zena Clark, Beacon Hill Road

 

To the Editor:

I proudly volunteer on the Block Island Tourism Council, and was dismayed to be in receipt of Mr. Hayde’s letter to Steven Filippi regarding our board dated Oct. 7, 2020.

It is sadly filled with false allegations and presents many opinions as fact. We are a board of earnest volunteers who endeavor to serve our community and do so in an open and transparent way. I soundly reject any assertion that we do otherwise.

I look forward to addressing at length Mr. Hayde’s concerns at one of our upcoming meetings, as space does not permit me to do so here in its entirety.

The only issue I would like to address in this graciously provided forum is any negative allegations against the professional performance and payment of our Executive Director.

Executive Director Jessica Willi is compensated commensurate with her regional and state peers, and that is a fact that we annually review by communicating with other equivalent organizations.

Executive Director Willi’s job performance is exceptional in every way. She routinely performs to the highest of standards the tasks typically executed by multiple staff members in other offices. From displaying public relations savvy, advocating tirelessly for Block Island at the state level, following ever-changing industry best practices to engaging in forensic level accounting, Executive Director Willi consistently impresses us with her accomplishments and exceeds expectations.

The past half dozen votes on approving the Executive Director’s compensation package have been unanimous. That alone speaks volumes; as it is rare to have board members all agree on one issue.

Looking forward to addressing Mr. Hayde’s concerns, as we have several times in the past, at our meetings where we always welcome all members of the community.

Best,
Logan Mott Chase

 

To the Editor:

I write to you today to respond to Ed Hayde’s letter regarding the Block Island Tourism Council.

I think it is important for the community to know that Mr. Hayde’s letter is filled with inaccuracies while other parts of it are frankly, just not true.

I am offended by Mr Hayde’s suggestion that the Tourism Council Executive Director, Jessica Willi, has performed her duties or behaved in an unprofessional or unethical way. Block Island is lucky to have Jessica at the helm of its marketing body. I invite anyone to look at the job Jessica did just this past summer. During the most challenging time in most of our lives, Jessica worked extremely hard to keep the message about visiting Block Island focused on safety, social distancing, and respect for the Island. I was impressed with how Jessica, as the Director of The Tourism Council, handled the pandemic and its effects on our Island.

I was also dismayed to see Mr. Hayde’s attack on both myself, and my colleagues who serve on the Tourism Council. To insinuate that the entire board has been “derelict in our duties” is simply false. We are a group of volunteers. All of us have our own business to run, jobs to go to and families to raise. We serve our community, along with every other volunteer on every other board and commission on Block Island out of a belief that giving of ourselves will help to ensure that everyone who lives here will have a better quality of life. It has been an honor for me to serve as a member of the Tourism Council with every member of our board both past and present.

If Mr. Hayde really wants to be a part of a positive change for Block Island, I invite him to attend our meetings and actually have a conversation with the board rather than attack us with a letter filled with untruths.

Sincerely,

John Cullen, Connecticut Ave