BOSTON - Cape and Islands state Rep. Eric T. Turkington was in no mood to mince words Tuesday at a committee hearing on Beacon Hill as he openly challenged both the author and the findings of the special governor's task force report calling for an overhaul of the Steamship Authority board of governors.
Gov. Jane M. Swift is poised to file legislation that would enact the Kass report recommendations, just six months after former Gov. Paul Cellucci appointed the 11-member task force to forge a compromise in the dispute over whether to open ferry service between New Bedford and the two Islands.
But on its first foray into the legislative arena, the report took a beating at the hands of Rep. Turkington, a member of the joint transportation committee which waded into the complicated world of SSA politics on Tuesday.
"In the governor's executive order, there were a lot of things you were asked to do, but there was not one word in there about reorganizing the membership of the board. Yet it's the first thing you do," Representative Turkington said. "What I want to know is, what makes you think your task force has the jurisdiction to reorganize the board?"
The question was aimed at the Hon. Rudolph Kass, the retired state appeals court judge who headed the task force and wrote the six-page report which recommended, among other things, giving voting seats on the Steamship board to both New Bedford and Barnstable.
Currently, representatives from the Vineyard, Falmouth and Nantucket make up the SSA governing board. And clearly, this week's hearing in front of the joint transportation committee will not be the last.
Tuesday's debate ranged over familiar turf, returning often to the same two-pronged question: Can a New Bedford port divert traffic from the Cape and achieve that goal without bankrupting the Steamship Authority? While SSA issues ate up most of three hours, no one left the committee room with any firm answer.
What observers did get was an illuminating and even colorful interchange between Rep. Turkington and Judge Kass. It all started slowly as Rep. Turkington patiently waited for committee co-chairman Rep. Joseph C. Sullivan to question Judge Kass about which months were profitable for the SSA. When his turn came, it was clear the two men were ready to spar.
"It's a very complicated issue, and I thank you for the report, for its timeliness, brevity and clarity," Rep. Turkington began.
"You left out whether it was right or not," the judge immediately responded.
When the legislator questioned the task force's latitude in remapping SSA board membership, the judge, as in the past, fell back on Shakespeare, arguing that leaving New Bedford out of the mix would be like staging a play of Hamlet without Hamlet. "It's an important thing to face up to," he said.
But Mr. Turkington again hammered on Judge Kass, pointing out that the task force report was tantamount to a lawyer handing in a brief on a topic wholly different from the one requested. Judge Kass parried back, faulting Rep. Turkington's analogy. "What a court does and what a legislative [group] can do are not quite the same," he said. "You can take a broader view of the subject."
Next, the representative slammed the task force recommendation for its formula of weighted votes on a five-member board. Under that formula, while the two Islands would retain voting control, Barnstable, Falmouth and New Bedford would have equal votes. And under the Kass plan, voting weight is directly linked to financial responsibility for any SSA deficit.
The 41-year-old boat line operates without state or federal subsidy, and any deficit is paid by taxpayers in the port communities. If the task force plan were enacted, the Vineyard and Nantucket would hold a majority vote on the board, shouldering 55 per cent of any deficit, 30 per cent assigned to the Vineyard and 25 per cent to Nantucket. The three remaining ports would each share in 15 per cent of any deficit with a corresponding vote weight.
What upset Mr. Turkington was that the votes don't match impact on the ports. "In New Bedford, there are no Steamship facilities, and prior to April, there was no boat there," he said. "But Hyannis has been a year-round port since 1988 with a $10 million facility. Falmouth has been year-round since the SSA began with headquarters there, 25 trips a day and 80 per cent of Steamship traffic. Given the discrepancies in impact, how did you come up with equal votes [for these three]?"
Judge Kass again defended the role of New Bedford, if not for its present role then for its past and future one.
"We didn't want to fractionate. We tended toward simplicity and to look at the port of New Bedford over time as important," he said. "They might just as well have voice. It's very difficult to speak with three-quarters of a voice." Then, as his own rejoinder, he added, "I read Moby Dick, and you used to get to Nantucket from New Bedford."
Finally, Mr. Turkington questioned whether the task force membership itself truly reflected the population who would be most affected by any changes recommended.
"I want to delve into the make-up of your task force," he said. "Nantucket has 20 per cent of the traffic on the SSA. Martha's Vineyard and Falmouth deal with 80 per cent. They each had one rep. New Bedford, with almost no SSA traffic, had two representatives. There were also four state employees on the (task force), three of whom are major contributors to the governor. Do you think that has anything to do with the recommendations we're faced with?"
Judge Kass, in response, reverted to a quote. "Justice [Oliver Wendell] Holmes once said, 'It makes the heart ache to give your best and have people judge not only the results but also your motives.' "
When SSA general manager Armand Tiberio came forward to testify in front of the committee, both Representatives Turkington and Sullivan pressed the top official for answers and insight into the problem.
Mr. Sullivan asked point-blank, "In the report from Judge Kass, what points can you embrace or reject?"
Mr. Tiberio tried ducking the question, saying that neither he nor the SSA board has taken a formal position. Then Representative Sullivan asked simply what's been learned from the pilot program to bring freight to the Vineyard from New Bedford aboard the Minnesota Seabulk.
The program loses money, Mr. Tiberio replied. With a $1.5 million price tag, it generated only $300,000 in revenue. And as for traffic on the Cape, the program diverted only about 2,000 trucks between May and September.
"I don't believe one could find concrete evidence that on a given day there's been substantial improvement [in traffic on the Cape]." Mr. Tiberio said. "But we have an obligation to look at a third port in order to be efficient. We need to come to some resolution over how much traffic we can handle and when to move it to another mainland port. Can it be a relief valve? Then, on the financial side, it's bleak."
Mr. Turkington boiled that financial picture down in the simplest terms. "If you do the numbers with 2,000 trucks, that's $700 a truck," he said. "Falmouth wants this to work, but $700 a truck is not a success. Where do you think we can go with this?"
Mr. Tiberio alluded to the authority's recent interest in high-speed ferries when he said, "Are we using the right equipment to do the job in New Bedford?"
As soon as Governor Swift files legislation, the committee will hold another hearing. Rep. Sullivan said the committee would likely meet next somewhere on the Cape.