Tourism Director suggests legal action over comments

Thu, 04/11/2019 - 6:30pm

Tourism Council Director Jessica Willi recommended the Tourism Board take legal action for what Willi felt were slanderous statements made by the former President of the Block Island Chamber of Commerce about her and members of the Tourism Council.

The suggestion came during the Director’s Report at the Tourism Council’s meeting on Tuesday, April 9. After Willi completed her full report, none of the Board members had any comment on the matter.

The issue began when former Chamber President Diane Hayde stood and read a statement at a Town Council meeting on Monday, April 1, during which she stated that the Tourism Council was centered on “nepotism” and “self-serving” practices rather than acting as an organization that served the entire island community.

Hayde, who is an owner of the Sheffield House, later said she was speaking as a business owner and not as the President of the Chamber. A day after her remarks she resigned her post at the Chamber.

Willi made her announcement after several comments were made by members of the Tourism Board and Chamber Director Cindy Lasser expressing hope that a new era of cooperation between the two organizations was about to begin.

Willi, appearing slightly hesitant, then said “I really feel as though I need to make a statement.” Willi said she “felt personally attacked… my integrity and job performance were attacked.” After mentioning some specifics, she said she felt the council should consider legal action.

Hayde, when reached for comment after the meeting, said she felt it was too bad she couldn’t express her opinion without the threat of a lawsuit.

“I’m shocked that people can’t speak up,” she said.

“I didn’t slander her. I didn’t say anything negative about her personally. I did not say anything disparaging to her personally,” Hayde said, referencing Willi.

Hayde added that her comments reflected what others on the island were thinking about the Tourism Council. “I’m not the only one out there,” she said.

She said that given the Tourism Council is funded by tax dollars, it should represent the entire island.

“I do not feel there is good representation of the entire island,” Hayde said.

Part of Willi’s concern stemmed specifically from the fact that Hayde said comments Willi had made at an earlier meeting about how room reselling companies such as airbnb collect taxes were not accurate.

Willi had stated that hotel taxes collected by such room resellers as airbnb did not come back to the Tourism Council, but are rather budgeted for the state’s CommerceRI department.

The Tourism Council is wholly funded by a portion of the hotel taxes that are collected on Block Island.

Hayde said she had called both the state Division of Taxation and airbnb, and she was told that Willi’s characterization of how the hotel tax was collected and redistributed was not correct. “This brings me to believe that perhaps this issue regarding tax [disbursement] may be created to stifle the growth of airbnb,” Hayde said in her initial remarks.

Willi has said at previous meetings and during a conversation with The Block Island Times that she understood why renters on Block Island used the services of airbnb and had no complaint with businesses such s airbnb. At the meeting on April 9, Willi called Hayde’s comments “absurd.”

Hayde, however, “We need to know what’s going on. That’s what islanders want to know.”

When reached after the meeting, Council Chair Steve Filippi said he would not recommend hiring an attormey to the rest of the board

Willi, when asked by The Times after the meeting why she was not undertaking legal action herself if she was the one who felt personally attacked, said “I’m not saying I’m not” but added “that’s the last I’m going to say on the matter.”