Friends of Joe Kessler Not Friends of V.I.N.P.

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Editor:

“Let’s be frank,” Friends of the V.I. National Park president Joe Kessler told an historic U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee hearing on St. John July 9 as he testified in opposition to a congressional resolution sponsored by V.I. Delegate to Congress Donna Christensen to allow the National Park Service to lease land to the V.I. government for the construction of a mid-island educational facility.

“Aside from perhaps garnering some community good will and the satisfaction accrued from helping solve a community problem, the NPS has nothing to gain from a land swap – yet authorities are willing to go ahead with it,” Kessler said in support of an abandoned effort to have the V.I. government swap land the NPS wants for land the park service would be willing to give up.

Let’s be frank.

Joe Kessler earns more than $100,000 as president of the non-profit organization — more than 100 percent of the group’s annual membership contributions of $100,340 in 2005, according to the group’s public tax returns.

Whatever Kessler has done to earn such an obscene salary — $96,000 plus a $15,000 in deferred compensation — in his years on St. John, he has done immeasurable damage to the standing of the Friends through this misguided interference in St. John community affairs.

Frankly, Kessler’s actions could be seen as protecting his own ulterior, personal financial interests, although it is just another example of Kessler’s poor stewardship of the St. John organization.

Under Kessler, the organization’s membership dues have decreased from $122,484 in 2002, to $112,775 in 2003, to $104,107 in 2004 before sinking to $100,340 in 2005.

When Kessler testified against the U.S. Department of the Interior entering into a long-term lease with the V.I. government for land for the establishment of a public school campus outside of Cruz Bay, he reaffirmed decades of distrust of the non-profit advocacy group by native St. Johnians.

The Friends of the V.I. National Park has historically been suspect to St. Johnians for being an apologist for the National Park Service. In fact, that is the official role of such groups which are associated with national parks around the U.S. By their charter they are not allowed to act in opposition to the National Park Service.

Kessler’s testimony at the historic hearing destroyed any progress the St. John organization might have made to gain the trust and support of native St. Johnians.

If you wonder who “native” St. Johnians are, they are the descendants of the indigenous people who were going to be depicted in a tourist attraction recreating an island village in Cruz Bay under an early National Park Service plan to move the entire population off St. John to create an all-island park.

Through his convoluted reasoning, Kessler reached the conclusion that the leasing of VINP lands for use for public educational and recreational purposes would “impair”  the park service’s mission to “preserve unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the national park system for the enjoyment, education and inspiration of this and future generations.”

In fact, Kessler was simply reiterating the National Park Service’s opposition to a lease as expressed by the acting VINP Superintendent Martha Bogle.

While normally Kessler’s opinion on a community matter would be irrelevant, in this case he misused his position to confuse debate over a viable solution to the paramount island community issue and committed a gross public disservice.

Kessler’s testimony only served the purpose of sidetracking the deliberations over the NPS land lease by supporting the now-moribund plan for an NPS land swap with the V.I. government as “in our view” the most viable option for finding suitable land for a new mid-island educational facility. It is hard to believe this is the “view” of the board of directors of the organization, especially the few native Virgin Islanders on the governing board.

Granted, this is a board which has endowed Kessler with more than $100,000 in yearly salary and pension to “run” an organization which brings in slightly more than $100,000 per year in dues — with the assistance of a development director who makes $60,000.
A friend in need is a friend indeed.

Tom Oat
Cruz Bay