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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Friday, June 20, 2003

Tourism Authority prohibits criticism

By Kelly Yamanouchi
Advertiser Staff Writer

In spite of public criticism of the Hawai'i Tourism Authority recently, you probably won't hear the Hawai'i Visitors & Convention Bureau taking any swipes.

That's because HVCB could be fined $25,000 for each violation of a "standards of conduct" contract clause that says the tourism authority can prohibit criticism of its decisions by HVCB. HVCB is the tourism authority's primary marketing contractor.

The marketing contract signed earlier this year states: "While HTA recognizes that citizens have certain freedoms to speak and express their opinions on matters of public concern, the parties understand and agree that this right does not, on the other hand ... guarantee absolute free speech."

The contract does not prohibit the visitors bureau from reporting something believed to be of misconduct or illegal, but reads, "HVCB recognizes and agrees that HTA has a legitimate right and need to prohibit its contractor HVCB from advocating to others against, and criticizing to others, policy decisions of HTA, once HTA has made those decisions."

HVCB, which gets nearly all of its money from HTA, agreed that it will not use public money to support or advocate positions against the authority.


"We don't want the government's money being spent to deal with lobbying efforts that might be contrary to an HTA or to the government's position," said Rex Johnson, executive director of the tourism authority.

Johnson said he does not intend to enforce the $25,000 fine, but said it is meant as a warning.

Brent White, legal director of the ACLU of Hawai'i, said HVCB is in a position to know what's happening within the tourism authority and could "alert the public to any problems or improprieties within the HTA."

"We should be concerned that the HTA is seeking to muzzle its critics," White said. "I believe it's in the interest of taxpayers to have as much information as possible about the way that our government is operating."


However, HVCB president Tony Vericella did not criticize the tourism authority's decision to put the clause in the contract.

"I think it has emerged in the last year into more of a collaborative partnership," Vericella said. "It's just simply a portion of the contract that says there's going to be a healthy relationship."

He said HVCB staff who oversee departments and marketing are aware of the contract language and there will be more meetings and discussions with employees.

The new contract was signed after some at the tourism authority became frustrated with efforts to lobby against transfer of the convention center marketing contract from HVCB to Philadelphia-based SMG. In spite of the lobbying, the contract transferred to SMG on Jan. 1.