A bitterly divided Dukes County Commission shuffled the power structure of the Steamship Authority governing board this week in a surprise vote to replace J.B. Riggs Parker, the embattled Vineyard boat line governor. The majority of the commission turned instead to a newcomer to the Vineyard political scene - Kathryn A. Roessel, a Tisbury resident and retired attorney.
The vote was 4-3 to appoint Ms. Roessel.
"Whoever you appoint needs to have a real commitment to represent the interests of this Island. I think the other two Steamship Authority governors have a real commitment to their constituencies and I think the people of Martha's Vineyard deserve the same," she said in an interview with the county commission during a special meeting on Wednesday night at the regional high school library.
Ms. Roessel will join the board on Jan 1. when Mr. Parker's term runs out.
The vote rocked the old guard political network on the Vineyard, which strongly supported the reappointment of Mr. Parker. But it also came amid an impassioned call from other elected officials to heal the political wounds of recent months.
Appointment of a new Vineyard SSA governor drew an outburst from New Bedford city solicitor George Leontire, who ranted and raved in a series of comments to the regional print press immediately following the vote. Mr. Leontire told one newspaper the county commissioners were insane, and he announced to another that New Bedford will pull the plug on plans for freight and fast ferry passenger service between New Bedford and the Vineyard next summer.
Mr. Leontire did not return telephone calls from the Gazette yesterday.
The city solicitor has developed a close alliance with Mr. Parker during the last year.
In a brief statement yesterday Ms. Roessel reacted to the bombastic remarks from New Bedford.
"I hope that New Bedford won't jump to conclusions about me before they meet me and talk to me, and I would hope that they will come to realize that I am somebody they can work with," she said.
The county commission meeting on Wednesday carried the clear imprint of a call for change. In addition to the vote on the SSA appointment, the commission also voted 4-3 to appoint Roger Wey to the Martha's Vineyard Commission for the coming year in place of the incumbent appointed member Dan Flynn.
The vote will remove Mr. Flynn from the MVC before a key vote on a controversial golf club project that is now under review.
Mr. Parker had no comment last night after the commission voted to end his tenure as SSA governor, although several Vineyard selectmen were openly shocked and angry. "I can't believe this," said Edgartown selectman Fred B. Morgan Jr.
Mr. Parker has been the Vineyard boat line governor for 13 months. He replaced former governor Ronald H. Rappaport, who resigned midway through his third term.
Mr. Parker's tenure has been stormy and marked by deteriorating relations among the three members of the boat line board.
The SSA appointment process was marked by a swirl of political maneuvering on the Vineyard in the weeks and days leading up to the vote. On the one side, Mr. Parker's supporters lined up, and selectmen in five of the six Vineyard towns threw their support to Mr. Parker.
"It's been a tough year and Riggs has made some real accomplishments. To curtail his assignment now I think would be a real travesty for the Island of Martha's Vineyard," said Mr. Morgan on Wednesday night.
"I think we need to continue with the experience, the vision, the plans, the goals," said Oak Bluffs selectman Todd Rebello.
"I support him wholeheartedly," said Robert Murphy, an Oak Bluffs resident who has been a member of the financial advisory board for the SSA for 23 years.
There was another view from residents and elected officials who were troubled at the divisive tone that has settled over the boat line board, especially the rift between the two Islands.
"In his year as our Steamship Authority representative, Mr. Parker has led the Island and the lifeline coalition away from the concept of Island unity and he has fostered anti-Nantucket rhetoric. He has de facto turned our Island vote over to New Bedford and has used the politics of fear to do so," declared Tisbury selectman Tristan Israel. Mr. Israel also criticized Mr. Parker for not stepping in when New Bedford officials tried to attack Falmouth boat line governor Galen Robbins in his place of employment.
"I am ashamed as an Islander that our representative at best by his silence condoned these actions," Mr. Israel said.
"We need a change. We need to know that the board is functioning," said Russell Smith, an Aquinnah resident who is the Vineyard legislative liaison.
The commission interviewed three candidates, including Mr. Parker, Ms. Roessel and Clarence A. (Trip) Barnes 3rd, a well-known Tisbury resident who owns a trucking company.
Two county commissioners - E.B. Collins and John Alley - had also put their names in for the appointment but they later withdrew.
Mr. Parker pointed to his own record of accomplishments, including the purchase of the New Bedford passenger ferry Schamonchi and the recent decision to launch a trial high-speed passenger ferry service between New Bedford and the Vineyard next summer.
"I entered an embattled political arena," Mr. Parker said. "Past adversaries have indeed become valuable allies," he added. Mr. Parker said the fast ferry project "is a business plan which is doomed to succeed and I think we need to embrace it."
Ms. Roessel underscored the need for the Vineyard boat line member to work cooperatively with the other two members.
"I am not saying that everyone has to agree or vote the same, but they have to work together and they have to keep in mind the core mission of the boat line," she said.
Ms. Roessel did not shy away when quizzed about her views on the fast ferry project. "That is a horse that's out of the barn," she said. "This is a trial service and I think the important question now for the board is to define what constitutes a success. And if it fails, what is the exit strategy? If we decide to send this aluminum ferry back to the island that it came from, we better know what we're going to do next."
Mr. Barnes said the boat line needs to get back in touch with the community.
All three candidates cited the selection of a new chief executive officer as a top priority.
In the end the appointment went to Ms. Roessel with a bare majority.
County commissioner Robert Sawyer praised each of the candidates.
"I am very grateful that we have the choice we have tonight," Mr. Sawyer began. He continued:
"Trip, you have brought an important Island voice to this process. Riggs, while we may disagree on some things, this community should be grateful for your commitment. But my vote is based on the fact that I would like to see a fresh approach." Mr. Sawyer voted for Ms. Roessel. Also voting for Ms. Roessel were commissioners Roger Wey, John Alley and E.B. Collins. Commissioners Leonard Jason Jr., Daniel Flynn and Les Leland voted for Mr. Parker.
Following the vote Mr. Parker shook Ms. Roessel's hand.
Yesterday the other two boat line members reacted to the news.
"I think this is the process working and I look forward to working with Kathryn," said Mr. Robbins. The Falmouth boat line member did not deny the divisive politics of recent weeks. "I think this is a sign that we can work our way back to civility, and I think this change represents an opportunity for us to regroup and start managing the group as a team without the divisiveness and without the rancor," he said. He added: "We have a lot of work to do in 2002."
"I believe this is the beginning of a challenging time and it's a new era for the Steamship Authority. First and foremost, I think we must cement relations with our Vineyard neighbors as well as our port communities," said Nantucket governor Grace Grossman.
An attorney who formerly worked for the city of New York and later in the entertainment industry, Ms. Roessel now works part time for the Vineyard Conservation Society.
This marks the first time in the history of the 41-year-old boat line that two women will serve on the board.
Wayne Lamson, the acting general manager of the SSA, praised Mr. Parker and also welcomed Ms. Roessel. He said the transition will be somewhat unusual since there will be one more boat line meeting (on Dec. 20) before Mr. Parker leaves the board.
"That has never happened before," Mr. Lamson said.
He concluded: "We're in the middle of a transition. Certainly Riggs did a good job overall representing the Vineyard, and I look forward to working with the new member in January."