BTIA - Democracy in Action

By Marguerite Bevis

The front pages of almost every Belize paper carried the story that BTIA (Belize Tourism Industry Association) had called an extraordinary meeting on November 23 for the purpose of asking President Murray Arnold to resign. An unprecedented occurrence. A sad day for BTIA, indeed.

Why did the Board ask for a vote of no confidence? That was the question on everyone's mind as the meeting began. The Board reported a lack of communication, unilateral decision making, and improper behaviour in meetings. Perhaps the membership wanted specifics, but the Board was justifiably reluctant to go into detail. After all, a man's reputation was at stake, and the Board did not want to make things worse than they already were.

One of the most important functions of BTIA is to be the lobbying voice of the industry. The subject of the lobby is determined by the membership at the local level, then carried to the National Board, and delegated to the lobbying committee. Other important functions include marketing and membership services, such as training.

The National Lobbying Committee had determined that the most important issue to be addressed was high taxes. The industry is suffering from extremely high taxation monthly even when tourism is down. These are times when an employer may subsidize his workers, keeping them employed when no one is walking in the door. He can do that or let them go and then his valuable trained staff is working for his neighbor. There were other issues, I am sure, but the major one was that taxes are too high and need to be lowered. (If the guys at the top would only play some "Sim City" they could figure it out. Well... maybe.

The President informed his Board at an early meeting that he had taken the liberty of meeting with the Prime Minister and not to worry, he was taking care of everything. Oh really, says the Board. That's nice, but the committee would like to go along too. How about not doing that again unless the rest of the Board is informed and the committee is invited.

Next board meeting, the President informed the Board he had met with the Prime Minister, not once, but twice, and with every single Cabinet Minister as well. All by himself. After he had been reprimanded the month before by the Board about that very thing. According to the Constitution no member is to speak to Government on behalf of the association without Board approval. When asked what was said at his meeting with the Prime Minister, the Board was informed it was "privy information."

This is when things started to boil. Tempers flared. People resigned. People walked out. Meetings were non-productive and draining.The President seemed oblivious and unconcerned about the position of majority of the Board. He would just sit there and say nothing. And nothing got done.

Several Board members said they would resign if they could not pass a vote of no confidence at the November 13 meeting. At that meeting, the Board was presented with the treasurer's report which showed that the President did betray the fiduciary trust of the Association by using the BTIA credit card for a local cash withdrawal from his local bank. The President, in customary autocratic style, felt that it was his privilege to use the Association's credit facilities not bothering to seek approval from an elected board, or even to inform them.

The vote for no confidence passed 10 - 0, with one abstaining. The President refused to step down stating that the membership had elected him and membership would have to remove him.

This was unfortunate because no one wanted to humiliate the man, and they told him so. The Board was concerned about the association, and the negative impact of negative press. The Board agreed to call a closed meeting of financial members only. No press. No observers. Press members would come as members, but no cameras or other equipment. No one wanted to harm the man. They only wanted him out because the Board could not function due to his leadership style.

It is important to realize that a private organization has every right to hold a private meeting of financial members only.

At the general meeting, the membership voted to allow the press and members of the Belize Tourist Board to stay as observers in light of the fact that statements had already been leaked to the press and it would be better to allow them to view the facts for themselves rather than via gossip.

Mr. Arnold's leadership style was that of unilateral decision making and lobbying. He stated at the meeting that he was responsible for the hotel tax staying at 7% when it was due to go up to 10%. The President and his supporters indicated that he personally lobbied the Prime Minister and all the Ministers of Cabinet alone, and that it was only done for the good of the industry because he personally had nothing to gain since he (the president) does not own a tourism business.

This statement was contradictory, since it is precisely because he represents the membership of a diversified industry and is not the proprietor or manager of a tourism business that it is imperative that he consult with sector heads to be sensitized to their needs and the constraints within their businesses. For him to have believed that single-handedly he did what no one else could have done, was an insult to the intelligence of the members who worked tirelessly in their lobby efforts in repealing the hotel tax and vat taxes.

Mr. Arnold's leadership style was also to turn the blame away from himself and on to others. This was demonstrated in the newspapers and during the extraordinary meeting on November 23. In Amandala, Arnold's camp named three "foreigners," Theresa Parkey, Judy duPlooy, and Wade Bevier, because they are all members of the Belize Hotel Association (BHA). He neglected to mention the other "Belizean-born" Board members who also voted no confidence. Arnold's supporters proposed a "counter-resolution" asking the entire Board to step down. The Arnold camp declared that this was a dysfunctional board and should be dissolved.

Not from where I sat. I saw a brave group of dedicated, honest people who were standing up for the democratic process, at risk of public disfavor. It couldn't have been easy for them to sit there in front of the membership and say what they did.

An extraordinary meeting is set for the purpose of addressing only the resolution/s on the agenda. In this case the motion was to take a vote of "no confidence" in the President. I personally found this second resolution irregular, but legal counsel was obtained, and the membership was advised it was acceptable.

What had the Board done to be asked to resign? The majority, through democratic process, had questioned the President who refused to cooperate with majority Board decisions, including the vote of no confidence. No director has ever been asked to resign in the history of BTIA, as far as I am aware, and I think you should have a pretty darn good reason to ask anyone to resign. The Board was a good one with dedicated, enthusiastic members representing every destination, and seemingly, every interest. How demoralizing to be asked to step down because the Board as a majority had no confidence in the President.

What had occurred happened because of the checks and balances in a democratic system. BTIA has always been transparent in every detail. Minutes of meetings and financial reports are available at every general meeting. The President or Chairperson is not to be the sole authority for the organization, the membership, represented by the Board of Directors is, and therein is safety. "Where no counsel is, the people fall: but in the multitude of counsellers there is safety." (Proverbs 11:14.)

One thing that really disturbed me was the way the President and his supporters turned the whole thing into a "locals against foreigners thing." Amandala stated that Channel 7, in their news report described the dispute as polarizing the BTIA between "born Belizeans" and "naturalized Belizeans." Then on the front page of Amandala, December 1, "BTIA foreigners force prez to walk the plank."

It wasn't anything of the kind. The Board includes some foreigners, but is primarily "Belizean-born" as if that makes the "naturalized Belizeans" second class citizens. Don't get me started on that one! That is such a non-constitutional, antagonistic statement.

The Board consists of six people not born in Belize and fourteen "born Belizeans." Of those twenty members (one is the President), sixteen voted no confidence, of them only five were not born Belizeans. This was not a racial issue. It was not a foreigner issue. It was not because of personal interests. The Board rebelled against a dictatorial style of leadership in a democratic organization.

The Arnold camp, through Amandala, targeted BHA (Belize Hotel Association) as the "power base" of special interests within BTIA, because at one time almost a quarter of the 19 member BTIA Board were active in the Belize Hotel Association. This is true. Hoteliers do make up the majority of BTIA, and therefore there are quite a few hoteliers on the Board. This is a Tourist Industry Association, and when it was conceived, there were primarily hoteliers. During the past ten years, the association has grown to encompass the needs of every sector of the industry. One of the ironies of the day was the way the proxies were handled. Proxies have been a sore point with membership for several years since at one meeting one person held 23 proxies and a minority of the membership present decided the elections. By the next year, a resolution had passed that no member could hold more than three proxies. When Mr. Arnold was elected President of BTIA, he won because of the proxy vote. Before the AGM (Annual General Meeting), no other candidate had declared to run for President. At the meeting, two other candidates were nominated from the floor, but all the proxies had already been voted and Mr. Arnold won the election by a narrow margin.

Now at this particular meeting, Mr. President wanted to remove proxies, and he even declared in The Observer, "We are dissuading the use of proxies," said Arnold, "since it is impractical to expect someone to make a judgement, to make a vote, without being aware of what the specific issues on both sides of the question might be." This is one time I can agree with him. Proxies are dangerous to the system when their use is abused. While there are legitimate times and uses of the proxy, it should not be used as a power base to control the vote. A resolution will be proposed that limits every member to holding no more than one proxy. In that case, there would never be a situation in which there more members absent than present.

Active membership, people who take the time to go the meetings, are informed enough to make decisions for the association. Inactive people have little interest in what the association does. When inactive people are the majority, should they be allowed to control the vote from an uninformed position?

An interesting thing at the end of the day, when the first resolution asking for a vote of "no confidence" passed, and the second resolution asking the Board to step down failed, there was not an attitude of victory in the air, it was more like a funeral. I found myself with tears running down my face as the ballots were being counted, my heart grieved that the association had come to this.

Faces were long, and rather than head together for a place to commune together, the majority of the people just got in their cars and drove home.

BTIA suffered a painful blow having to go through that ordeal which could have been so easily and painlessly avoided if the President had only resigned when the Board voted no confidence. Some of the damage may be difficult to heal, but heal it must. The Board must now move forward with new leadership, hopefully a fresh face from outside the present Board. At the next general meeting, many decisions will be made about the future of BTIA's leadership. Amendments to the constitution will be proposed and voted on. The organization will go on. BTIA has demonstrated that Democracy will prevail and the Board and the membership must now move forward.

Marguerite F. Bevis
Co-Owner, Mountain Equestrian Trails, Ltd.
A small Belizean owned jungle lodge.

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