Task Force Reports

By JULIA WELLS and RICHARD RESTON

The governor's task force that has been studying the complicated issues surrounding ferry service to the two Islands will this morning recommend sweeping change on the Steamship Authority board of governors, including voting seats for New Bedford and Barnstable, the Gazette has learned.

The task force report is due to be released at 11 a.m. today, following delivery of the report to the office of acting Gov. Jane M. Swift. The final report has been in the hands of task force members since the middle of the week, but the Hon. Rudolph Kass, a retired state appeals court judge who headed the task force, decided to keep the report under wraps until today.

Judge Kass is the author of the report.

Apart from the recommendation that the board of governors be expanded from three to five members, the Kass report is noticeably soft on recommendations, the Gazette has learned.

The report ducks any specific recommendations on operational issues, or on the complicated subject of freight traffic on boat line ferries to the two Islands.

Currently the SSA governing board is made up of members from the Vineyard, Nantucket and Falmouth. The 41-year-old boat line operates without state and federal subsidy, and any deficit is paid by taxpayers in the three ports. The Vineyard pays 50 per cent of any deficit, Nantucket pays 40 per cent and Falmouth pays 10 per cent.

The Kass report recommends adding voting seats for New Bedford and Barnstable, but it allows for the two Islands to retain voting control by recommending that the weight of the votes correspond directly with the share of any deficit.

The report calls for New Bedford, Barnstable and Falmouth to each pay 15 per cent of any deficit. The Vineyard and Nantucket would share the remaining 55 per cent, with 30 per cent assigned to the Vineyard and 25 per cent assigned to Nantucket. The uneven proportion translates to a 55 per cent vote for the two Islands, allowing the Island members to have a majority vote on the board.

The Kass report underscores the importance of keeping control of the Steamship Authority in the hands of the two Islands.

The report also recommends that Barnstable be stripped of its veto power over SSA capital spending projects, in exchange for assuming responsibility for a share of any deficit. Currently Barnstable has veto power over boat line capital expenditures of over $50,000. The veto power was included in the last amendment to the SSA enabling act, about ten years ago, when Barnstable was also given a nonvoting seat on the board of governors.

A third section of the report calls for the development of New Bedford as a port, expounding in broad language on subjects like regional planning, but avoiding key details such as who would take on the financial responsibility for such development. There is further language about the need for New Bedford to work with the Steamship Authority, but absent any real recommendations, the meaning is ambiguous.

The long-awaited Kass report lands today amid an atmosphere of strained relations among SSA board members and political chaos around the boat line, where so many events are happening at once it is increasingly difficult to track them. Among other things, a complicated and ambitious new service model is now under discussion on a number of levels, and the boat line is a defendant in a massive lawsuit in federal court with an assortment of players. The plaintiff is the city of New Bedford.

The 11-member task force was appointed by Gov. Paul Cellucci late last year in an attempt to broker a compromise in the heated dispute over whether to open up ferry service between New Bedford and the two Islands.

The dispute escalated to a peak when New Bedford city officials became actively engaged in an attempt at a hostile takeover of the public boat line.

"One has the sense that New Bedford and the Islands were screaming at each other and it wasn't working very well," Judge Kass told the Gazette in an interview after the task force was assembled.

The task force included one member from each Island, one from the Cape, two from New Bedford, five ex-officio members from an array of state offices, and Mr. Kass.

The task force held four public hearings in February - one on the Vineyard, one on Nantucket, one in New Bedford and one on Cape Cod.

Dan Flynn, a member of the Dukes County Commission and also the Martha's Vineyard Commission, announced at an MVC meeting last week that he had in front of him a draft of the Kass report, but he said he could not share it with the group or discuss the contents.

Mr. Flynn told the commission that the report was written by Judge Kass.

Reached at his office in Cambridge this week, Judge Kass refused to talk about the contents of the report, but he did praise the process.

"I was really very impressed by the task force. I think people worked collaboratively and maturely without polarization. It was a real pleasure," he said, adding: "We might wind up making our share of mistakes, because we are human beings, but on the whole I was very pleased."

Judge Kass also said the public hearings were productive. "The hearings were more productive than I dared think," he said.

The retired jurist also admitted that it is unclear where the task force report will lead, especially in light of the change in Massachusetts governor. Gov. Paul Cellucci has left office to become the U.S. ambassador to Canada; Lieut. Gov. Jane Swift took over as acting governor this week.

The recommendations in the report cannot take effect without an act of the state legislature.

"We're between administrations now, and this is not going to be on the top of Governor Swift's list," Mr. Kass said.

Cape and Islands Rep. Eric T. Turkington was a little more blunt.

"This is an advisory group to a departed governor," Mr. Turkington said early this week. The longtime representative continued: "There is no more engaging parlor game than redesigning the Steamship Authority governing board. We've all played this game for years. And now nine players who have no previous involvement in this issue are offering their version of the parlor game.

"We appreciate their input, and what I want to hear now is more input from the real players and the people who live in these ports. We want to see what the people who are affected by this have to say."