Mayor Of All Trades

March 1st, 2005
by Thomas Tomczyk

[private] Alton Cooper, 35, is not a typical Bay Islands Mayor. Not just because he wears cowboy boots and drives an off-road motorcycle to work. He is articulate, charismatic and accessible. He has overseen some of the more rapid developments Utila has ever seen. The island that had once lagged behind in the department, has surpassed Guanaja and JSG and is catching-up to Roatan. Not in scale perhaps, but certainly in the quality of life.

Mayor Cooper was raised and educated in Utila. He became a ship’s mate working abroad and came back in 1993 to become the first Utilian to be certified as a SCUBA diving instructor. He founded his own dive shop a year later and worked in real estate for a few years, before, in 2001, he was elected Mayor. A father of three, Mayor Cooper has been married to his wife Lisa for 16 years. He has easily won the nomination from the National Party to run again in the 2004 mayoral race.

v3-3-Interview-Alton Cooper

Bay Islands Voice: How has Utila’s budget evolved over the last couple years?
Mayor Alton Cooper: I’ve been working around the Lps. 5 or 5.3 million every year since I’ve been in office. (…) Since the early 90s, our budget has been around Lps. 5 million; in the last administration it had fallen to around Lps. 3 million. But, there was a situation before where the prior municipalities had a huge advantage as far as the dominos planos. (…)
B.I.V: It looks like you compensated from the lack of revenue from the dominos planos in other ways?
A.C.: Yes, well we’ve definitely tried to get the people in the habit of paying their taxes, collecting water bills. If someone goes a long while without paying their water, of course we cut their line and there’s a fine. And I think a lot of people too are confident that I am using their tax money appropriately and so there’s been willingness for the people of Utila to come ahead and pay their taxes.
B.I.V: Is it good to be Mayor?
A.C.: Yes, it’s good in the sense that the decisions you make can really make a difference. There is a huge responsibility for one thing. You sacrifice your family a bit. This is a full-time job. Your business suffers a bit. (…) I have been Mayor for about three years. The first year and a half or so is not necessarily lost, but you’re learning the laws and the way things work. You’re trying to make the necessary contacts with the different national organizations.
B.I.V: At one point, you were a bit hesitant to run again?
A.C.: There was a lack of support from the family. It’s difficult for the wife and for Mom and Dad. They asked that I not get involved in this anymore and I turned away. But, a lot of the people around me just came forward and said “We’re depending on you”. And I am going to go ahead and do it again. Whatever I do, I put my heart and soul into it. (…) I think most people appreciate what I’ve done. I’ve made some mistakes; there’s no two ways about it. But, I’ve also learned from those mistakes. I think what I will be able to accomplish over the next four years will definitely be worth running.
B.I.V: Why does Utila has the lowest voter registration of the entire department?
A.C.: Within those 1,600 registered voters, there are many people who aren’t on the island. On any given day on Utila, you could find about 8,000 people. It’s a floating population, a transient population. There’s only about 2,500 permanent inhabitants between Utila and Eastern Harbour. But again, there’s a lot of people from the mainland over here working and there’s a lot of tourism.
B.I.V: In the 2001 election, only 800 people voted. Have there been any attempts raise voter registration?
A.C.: We went ahead and did a campaign a few months ago and we managed to do 50 vote transfers. Only about 26 or so came through. (…) It’s not easy.
B.I.V: What would you consider as your major accomplishment while in office?
A.C.: There have been several. One would be a water cistern: 75,000 gallon water cistern. The fact that I am running water lines to Utila cays and the acquisition of a desalination plant. This plant is worth $2 million. With that, our problems should be solved as far as water. It comes with a 500 kilowatt generator. I’ve accomplished to get the properties necessary to build a visitor’s centre. We are also building a health center. (…) I’ve managed to get computers in our schools. (…)I think the water and the desalination plants would be my greatest accomplishments.
B.I.V: What is your biggest failure as a Mayor? What weren’t you able to accomplish?
A.C.: I think the one thing that I didn’t accomplish was getting the bars out of town. As far as loud music and discos and everything. I tried to implement an ordinance and tried to give the bars a certain amount of time to get out of town and establish their business somewhere else. That was definitely unsuccessful. I think in order for this to happen the municipality is going to have to acquire the land to donate to these people. The fact is that properties are just too expensive. (…) It’s difficult for neighbors to have to put up with this all the time.
B.I.V: What are the major concerns right now for the population on the Utila cays?
A.C.: The major concerns for these people are health and education, education being priority. As far as health, they would like a nurse or someone down there, someone to give them immediate treatment. I think they’re happy, but the kids down there can only do to school until sixth grade and then they have to come up here to attend school after that.
B.I.V: What can you offer this population?
A.C.: The only solution to the problems at the cays is a road. Right now, we have power lines to the cays and this was something that my administration was able to accomplish. We are in the process of running water lines to the Utila cays. I will do everything possible in the next four years to build a road to that area. I think where the road would go is far enough back away from the beach and it would cause minimum damage to the environment. (…) I would hope that construction would start within a couple of years, about 2007.
B.I.V: Do you see Utila growing as a tourist destination for backpacking tourists or maybe for a spectrum from backpacker up? What’s your vision?
A.C.: I am hoping that this island will continue to be a backpacker destination. For one, our inhabitants really benefit from this type of tourist. A lot of other places don’t really appreciate backpackers. We do. We do appreciate them very much. These people, they come to Utila. They need a place to sleep, eat; they go out to the bars. They buy souvenirs just like anyone else. Really, you don’t need to spend your money on a lot of advertising to attract this type of tourist. It’s just word of mouth. You don’t really need a huge investment in terms of hotels or whatever to be able to accommodate these backpackers. However, I do think that different parts of the island will open up, such as the north side. The areas will be able to cater to upper-class or middle-class tourists. That’s my vision. [/private]

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