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Unity Gov’t cancelled contract with Thomas family; Accused of misleading public

There has been much speculation regarding the ban on the use of the Virgin Islands (VI) only venue for horse racing, Ellis Thomas Downs in Sea Cows Bay, due to the lack of information provided to the public. This has also resulted in persons making misguided claims and even threats to the Thomas family.

Now, Elaine M. Thomas-Griffith, the daughter of the late Ellis Thomas, has decided to bring some clarity on the matter, in an exclusive interview with Virgin Islands News Online.

Thomas-Griffith said a lot has played out in the media and public over the years regarding the leasing of Ellis Thomas Downs and her family has sought to remain silent to preserve a harmonious relationship with Government.

Thomas family ‘not the public enemy’


However, with confirmed threats being made to the Thomas’ family over the issue, Thomas-Griffith said that is a “line of demarcation” for the family that has been crossed.

She said the Thomas family is not the “public enemy” but simply persons who are landowners and who historically have made their land available for horse racing and, through her late father, have promoted the sport for decades.

In a bombshell disclosure, Thomas-Griffith told Virgin Islands News Online (VINO) that it was recently Government invited the family to a meeting and announced that the leasing agreement between Government and the Thomas’ family was terminated.

The meeting allegedly involved Premier and Minister of Finance Dr the Honourable Natalio D. Wheatley (R7), Minister for Natural Resources and Labour Hon Melvin M. Turnbull (R2) members of the Attorney General’s chambers, and other representatives of government, whose involvement and portfolio involve crown lands.

The three elected representatives; however, excused themselves from the meeting before the announcement was made; however, our newsroom was reliably informed that they were aware of the decision to cancel the agreement with the Thomas family.

Gov’t ‘unilaterally’ made decision to cancel contract


According to Thomas-Griffith, the family expected the meeting would be to discuss issues involving the lease between the family and the Government of the Virgin Islands for the use of Ellis Thomas Downs track.

“When we arrived for that meeting, literally at the inception of the meeting, it was announced to us that our contract was being cancelled on the premise of a technicality, a unilateral statement with no advanced notice to us. I am not at liberty to get into the specific details of the alleged technicality but, suffice it to say, that the pronouncement was made to our family with no warning on the eve of what would be another race day, that the contract was cancelled.”

Thomas-Griffith explained that a contract provides for certain benefits and protections to the land owner as well as certain benefits and protections to the Government as the Lessee; and in actuality, it also provides for certain benefits and protections to the horse owners who use the facilities, as supported through the government.

“When we heard that the contract was cancelled, I asked the question at that table ‘are you certain this is the direction you would like to see this discourse go in?’ Because your position is not going to be one that allows us to continue allowing the use of the property over which the proclamation has come down, that there is no more contract governing the relationship between the parties.

“That is the fact of what allowed us to say if that is the Government’s position as declared when they met with us recently, I can’t see how we go forward from here as much as we want to allow the races to occur as they were expected to on the 18th of this month."

Thomas-Griffith also said no alternative was presented to the family; however, the Thomas family has tried to have conversations with the Premier and the Unity Government around what is the best path forward to address as an interim solution for the horse races to run off on September 18, 2022.

“Because if a contract is terminated it means that the liability and other concerns that were addressed in that document are no longer in place from the perspective of the Government.”

Thomas-Griffith stressed that the family does not agree the government has the “unilateral power, right or authority” to cancel a document that is the contract between two parties.

“But if the government’s position is as they pronounced during the meeting on September 8th and they are no longer willing to stand behind the document; from the familiy’s perspective, our response must be to say to Government that your actions necessitate the discontinued use of a property where there are no protections offered to the family any longer. It is simply an untenable circumstance that the government has caused and that is precisely how these circumstances arose.

“In our response, we said to the government continue to recognise the document, the contract, let’s address whatever irregularities or concerns or technical issues you see as needing to be addressed, let us address the issue of the liability and run the races.”

‘Money not a factor’- Thomas-Griffith


Meanwhile, there have been speculations that the issue might have been about money, including that the Government may have owed money on the lease of the land; however, Premier and Minister of Finance Dr the Hon Natalio D. Wheatley (R7) stated on social media on September 8, 2022, such was not the case.

“The ministry has paid for the year. This is not the problem. More info will be made available in due time,” Premier Wheatley briefly stated.

According to Thomas-Griffith; however, while the issue is indeed not about money, the Premier told a “half truth.”

“Money was not a driving factor in those discussions and I want to make the point, if the public really thought that the races were being cancelled for money why would we then not have attempted to cancel August Tuesday races, the largest racing day over the last five years? We have the power and the right to do so where the government has not been honouring the terms of the agreement between us and them. We possess that right.

"Furthermore, the races set for the 18th were initially to be run on September 4th and there have been no efforts on the part of my family to impede the Government’s access to the property or to allow the Government to grant permission for the Horse Owners Association to have run the race on September 4th had the weather not interrupted that schedule.

She further said there were many other races that the Thomas family allowed to be run off, even though Government was not been honouring its side of the agreement for years.

“This is not about money, it’s about the fundamental premise that government cannot do what it wishes out of its land owners simply because they are called the government, and every landowner in the BVI should stand to have a concern. If government can act as an authoritarian figure with respect to the interests of a private land owner, that is not a position that should be accepted. It has vestiges of colonialism written all over it and we have every right to protect and stand to protect our interests after a proclamation is made that a contract has been cancelled without any consultation by the owner and the other party to that contract.”

Thomas-Griffith said it is a difficult position for a Government to announce that it is cancelling a land owners contract with it for the use of a property and then still expect that it will continue to have access to that property.

Gov’t statement ‘irresponsible’


Meanwhile, Thomas-Griffith said she found the statement by the Government on September 8, 2022, as well as comments by the Premier about the government not owing anything to the family for the year, as irresponsible, unfair and unjust because, according to her, it created in the minds of the public a factual pattern that was not consistent with the truth.

“I will have to tell you that when the Premier said that statement, I looked at that statement and all I could do was shake my head… the statement that the government has paid a certain sum of rent for this year is half truth, and it bears no reflection to the understanding that the government has a contract that provided other provisions that it is not adhering to and as we sit here today has not adhered to for more than six years.

The Unity Government had advised the public that the parcels of land affected by the ban were listed as Parcels 170, 171 and 246, Block 2736B, Sea Cow’s Bay Registration Section.

According to Thomas-Griffith, 6 and a half acres is the property the government leases and that Government pays 30 cents per square footage.

“You heard me right, 30 cents per square footage. There is nowhere, not in the BVI, not in any modern progressive society where anyone leases land at 30 cents per square footage.

“What we are paid is pennies compared to the value of that land,” Thomas-Griffith explained.

She also lamented that discussions with the government to try to find a solution to allow the September 18, horse races to run off as planned have been futile.

“My father being a lifelong horseman, I feel it at my core that the inability of the horse owners to run is an unjust casualty of the present discourse between the government and my family. It’s unjust because I understand how much it costs and the time it takes to prepare those horses and to prepare the supporting team, the trainers the jockeys and the costs involved in that, in order to get ready to entertain the public,” Mrs Thomas-Griffith stated.

Meanwhile, Premier Wheatley when asked to respond to the allegations by Mrs Thomas, said: “I will issue a statement shortly.”

Thomas-Griffith said that the Premier promised since Sunday to issue a statement correcting the record as to the reasons why access to the track was negatively impacted. The Premier promised to confirm that it was the Government’s actions that initiated the Family’s response. As of this moment, such a statement has not been issued.

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