Less than two months after the Virgin Islands Party government came to power in February 2019, Cabinet revoked the membership of the Climate Change Trust Fund Board — a move the Commission of Inquiry later declared to be unlawful.
Now, the new cross-party National Unity Government says it wants to right the wrong. Last Thursday, Natural Resources and Labour Minister Mitch Turnbull, who was appointed to his position in early May, apologised to the former board members, and invited them to return to their positions.
“It is now incumbent upon me as the minister for natural resources and labour, with whom responsibility for climate change rests, to offer a sincere apology on behalf of the government of the Virgin Islands to each member of the Virgin Islands Climate Change Trust Fund Board who was duly appointed and serving and whose member ship was wrongfully revoked on April 24, 2019,” Mr. Turnbull said in a statement broadcast on Facebook.
He added that the board made important progress before it was disbanded, and he echoed the COI report’s finding that the revocation set back that work “several years.”
“As the [COI] commissioner summarised in his report, ‘Any momentum that the board had in obtaining international funding — or, indeed, any funding at all — has been lost,” the minister said. “A great disservice has been done to the people of this territory and a great wrong to the members who served faithfully on the trust fund board with the highest levels of commitment, enthusiasm and integrity.”
Mr. Turnbull — who also acknowledged that the revocation was unlawful — extended his apology to Chairman Edward Childs; Deputy Chairman John Klein; Dr. Katherine Smith; Dr. Shannon Gore; Shelly Bend; and Ronnie Lett some.
He also stressed the importance of the trust fund, a regional first that was established by the VI Climate Change Trust Fund Act, 2015. The fund’s independent board, he explained, is charged with raising, managing, and disbursing money to build the territory’s resilience to climate change impacts and to reduce its carbon emissions.
“The fund is our best hope for protecting our low-lying coastal communities from sea level rise and stronger storm surge by restoring and protecting our coral reefs and mangroves,” the minister said. “The fund is also our ticket to funding our transition to energy independence and security, while being an example to the world through large-scale conversion to clean, green, renewable energy.”
The board members were appointed in July 2017 under the former National Democratic Party-led government, and they got to work with the help of donations from their own pockets even though a tourist levy that was supposed to help finance their activities never reached the fund.
However, less than two months after the VIP came to power in the February 2019 general election, all six private sector board members received letters from newly appointed Premier Andrew Fahie seeking their voluntary resignations, Mr. Childs told the COI during a public hearing last September.
Board members, however, worried that the collective loss of their experience could be detrimental to the body’s future success, according to the former chairman. So instead of resigning as requested by the premier, they wrote back and asked him for a meeting, but they never received a response, he said.
Not long afterward, a public announcement from the Cabinet Office confirmed the members’ termination.
Mr. Fahie said at the time that Cabinet revoked the memberships because of a new “policy” limiting board terms to mirror the “lifespan” of the government in power.
The Climate Change Trust Fund Act, however, does not appear to give Cabinet that power. Under the law, the minister responsible for the trust fund can revoke a board member’s appointment for one of five reasons: misconduct; lack of at tendance; an undeclared conflict of interest; not fulfilling the conditions of an appointment; or acting detrimentally against the trust.
Mr. Childs told the COI last September that none of those five reasons applied to him — or, to his knowledge, any of the other members. COI Commissioner Sir Gary Hickinbottom agreed, condemning the former government’s decision in his report this year.
“There can be little doubt that [Mr. Fahie], and the Cabinet following him, wished to have ‘his own’ men and women appointed to the CCTF Board,” Sir Gary stated in his report. “He has made his dis content known as to the position of the CCTF fund being independent of executive government.”
Sir Gary added that the approach to the removal of the fund’s board members “raises deep concerns about the lengths to which the executive will go to manipulate the membership of statutory boards.”
Since the CCTF board seeks funding from international climate change bodies, good governance and independence are required under its enabling legislation, the COI report noted. The report added that elected officials dismantled the board even though they knew the move was unlawful.
“On the evidence, it is clear that (and I find that), on the attorney general’s advice, the premier accepted that he and Cabinet appreciated the decision to revoke would be unlawful, but they proceeded with it anyway, keeping their fingers crossed that nobody challenged it by way of judicial review,” Sir Gary wrote.
After Cabinet revoked the board memberships in 2019, Mr. Fahie promised repeatedly that new members would be appointed soon. But that never happened.
On March 1, however, the Gazette published a job advertisement seeking to bring back the board.“The severity of the impacts of climate change dictates early action on this issue to reduce our inherent vulnerability to natural disasters and external shocks, improve environmental management and the physical planning process and encourage the diversification of our tourism sector and energy port folio, ultimately increasing our security and long-term viability,” the advertisement noted.
But the window for applications and nominations closed March 29, and government did not announce any appointments. Then in late April, Mr. Fahie was arrested in Miami on drug-conspiracy charges, leading to the formation of the new cross-party government, in which Mr. Turnbull replaced former Natural Resources, Labour and Immigration Minister Vincent Wheatley.
Mr. Childs also told the COI last year that the fund needed money. Since 2017, tourists have been paying a $10 environmental levy, 40 percent of which initially was intended to go to the trust fund to facilitate operations like setting up a secretariat; hiring a CEO; and seeking outside investments, Mr. Childs told the COI last September.
But the money never reached the fund, Mr. Childs said, explaining that legislative changes were needed because the laws creating the trust and the levy “didn’t talk to each other.”
In December 2018, he added, Cabinet decided a way forward, but the decision never passed the House of Assembly. “So we never actually benefited from those funds,” Mr. Childs said.
Finance officials have previously told the Beacon that the eco-levy earnings had not been tapped by other entities either for the same reason.
SFC questions about levy Questions about the environmental levy arose again late last year during the Standing Finance Committee deliberations, according to a report on the closed-door proceedings.
Mr. Wheatley, then the NRLI minister, asked if the levy could be used to defray the cost of beach maintenance, and NRLI acting Permanent Secretary Joseph Smith-Abbott reportedly responded, “The short answer is yes.”
“The levy is intended to as sist in the maintenance of tourism sites and overall environmental issues,” Mr. Smith Abbott said, according to the report. “However, the ministry does not have access to the levy nor the other entities that would reasonably have the ability to access it.”
The SFC report added that Junior Minister for Trade and Economic Development Shereen Flax-Charles called the levy “a thorn in everyone’s sides who is supposed to be benefitting from those funds.”
She reportedly said that repeat visitors who pay into the fund have been questioning how the money is used.
“They come three or four times a year and they are not seeing where their monies are utilised, and persons who come regularly will notice a change,” the report states, paraphrasing Ms. Flax-Charles. “She remembered when the fund was created and asked why is it difficult for the ministries and departments to have access to the funds.”
Then-Acting Deputy Financial Secretary Jeremiah Frett reportedly told the SFC at the time that he could not give a definitive timeline for re instating the Climate Change Trust Fund board, according to the SFC report.
Mr. Turnbull did not directly address the funding is sues in his speech last Thursday, but he did list ways the money could be spent.
“The trust fund, as established, can support actions by the government, private sector and civil society, including on the-ground projects, capacity building, education, research, studies, introduction of innovative technologies, changes in legislation, policy/strategy development and establishment of incentive programmes,” he said. “In real terms, the [fund] provides a vehicle to access large-scale international financing to ensure the Virgin Islands can survive in a changing climate that is hotter and drier with more extreme weather events, rising seas and new diseases.”