New Bedford SSA Maneuvers Fail
By JULIA WELLS
Gazette Senior Writer
The Falmouth Steamship Authority governor checked the city of New Bedford in its own game of ferry chess yesterday, refusing to honor an 11th-hour request from the Whaling City to extend a trial high-speed ferry project, after the city solicitor abruptly pulled the plug on the project two weeks ago.
"I was committed to this program, and we had a unanimous vote of this board. It was the city of New Bedford that pulled out. The city ended it, and now there is no proposal to extend," declared Galen Robbins, the Falmouth member of the boat line board.
"It was put up or shut up time. New Bedford didn't put up. It's that simple," said Steven Tornovish, the Nantucket member of the financial advisory board. "I think they got cold feet and were looking for a way out," he added.
The comments came during the monthly boat line meeting in Woods Hole yesterday morning.
It was the last SSA meeting for J.B. Riggs Parker, the controversial Vineyard boat line governor who was not reappointed by the Dukes County Commission in a close vote three weeks ago.
It was also the latest curtain call in an ongoing political drama that has been staged around the Steamship Authority by New Bedford city officials and Mr. Parker in recent months.
At the center of the drama is the trial high-speed ferry project. After weeks of back and forth debate, in November the SSA board voted unanimously to approve the trial high-speed project between New Bedford and the Vineyard next summer. The SSA had planned to lease a high-speed ferry from a shipyard in the state of Washington and run it in place of the passenger ferry Schamonchi. The vote was accompanied by a set of 13 conditions that called for a hefty financial commitment from the city to support the program.
New Bedford officials and SSA managers were in the final stages of completing the agreements for the project early this month when the Dukes County Commission voted 4-3 to replace Mr. Parker with Kathryn Roessel, a Tisbury resident and retired attorney who applied for the position.
Mr. Parker's term expires at the end of this month.
Immediately after the vote, New Bedford city solicitor George Leontire canceled the fast ferry project, accusing the boat line of bad faith and saying he no longer had any confidence that the program would be set up to succeed.
Mr. Leontire also told the boat line that he would refuse to allow an ongoing freight program to run in and out of the State Pier in New Bedford this summer, and he said the city would redouble its efforts against the SSA in federal court.
Then last week came a new twist. Assisted by Mr. Leontire, a group of Vineyard selectmen and county commissioners who were angered at the vote to replace Mr. Parker decided to press for legislation to change the way the boat line governor is appointed. The proposed legislation calls for creating an appointing authority made up of one county commissioner and one selectman from each town. In an undisguised attempt to reinstate Mr. Parker, the legislation also calls for overturning the current Vineyard appointment.
Two days ago, New Bedford mayor Frederick M. Kalisz wrote a letter to SSA acting general manager Wayne Lamson requesting an extension on the trial fast ferry project until Jan. 15. "This will allow time for the affected communities to fully air their concerns and give the legislature the opportunity to finalize its position on these matters," the mayor wrote.
Mr. Kalisz also said the city had negotiated with the Nichols Brothers shipyard for an extension of the lease on the high-speed ferry that the SSA had planned to lease for the project.
At the meeting yesterday Robert O'Brien, a member of the boat line board from Barnstable who does not vote, moved to approve the extension.
"We've come a long way and it would be a shame to throw this down the drain," Mr. O'Brien said.
Mr. Parker also spoke in support of the extension. "I favor the extension because I believe it is good for Martha's Vineyard if this can succeed. I believe we can make this happen," he said.
Mr. Robbins anchored his position in an eight-page staff summary from Mr. Lamson.
Mr. Lamson recommended that the boat line make immediate plans to run the Schamonchi again this summer, and he also said the boat line doubts that New Bedford can really shut down the freight program that operates out of the State Pier, which is controlled by the state Department of Environmental Management. He also noted that the city had threatened to sever its ongoing negotiations to help Ralph Packer relocate his barge operation inside the city harbor, but Mr. Lamson found that there was nothing in the record to support the threats.
He recommended that the boat line shift its attention toward developing a new long-range plan for next year.
"The events of the past few weeks have dramatically revealed the risks inherent in any arrangement where the authority must rely upon others in developing and maintaining a stable transportation network on which the Islands' economies, and the mainland communities' traffic relief, so dearly depend," he wrote.
Mr. Robbins recounted the events that had taken place between the unanimous vote in November on the fast ferry project and yesterday. He reiterated his own commitment to the project.
"I just want it understood: I was committed to the program. I was on board despite what is out there today in terms of remarks about the program being set up to fail and bad faith. I have a fiduciary responsibility to this authority and I would never set something up to fail. I was certain that we could have put the deal together. We had a deal. We voted on the 15th. We said the deal was final. Then the deal changed, and suddenly now we have a new condition that was undisclosed. This other condition is something that this board did not agree on," Mr. Robbins said.
Robert Murphy, the Vineyard member of the SSA financial advisory board, spoke in favor of the extension.
"It seems to me that we have no patience for New Bedford, and we are shortchanging the Island of Martha's Vineyard," he said.
The comment drew a testy response from Mr. Robbins.
"We have been extremely patient - extremely patient with the city of New Bedford for the last three months. I will not sit here and say that we have not been patient with New Bedford," he said.
Nantucket SSA governor Grace Grossman did not attend the meeting for health reasons. Mrs. Grossman participated in the discussion by speaker phone, but she could not vote.
In the end the motion failed for lack of a majority vote on either side. Mr. Parker voted in favor of the motion and Mr. Robbins abstained. Mrs. Grossman said if she could vote she would also abstain.
Mr. Robbins said he abstained because in his view there was no proposal on the table.
"It's got to stop. There is no deal on the table. It was taken off the table on Dec. 5. Enough said," he said.
The meeting took place against the backdrop of a swirl of hostile politics on the Vineyard, as a group of Vineyard selectmen went to work to push the legislation aimed at overturning the appointment of Ms. Roessel.
A small group of selectmen traveled to Boston yesterday to meet with Rep. Joseph Sullivan, a Braintree democrat who is chairman of the Joint Committee on Transportation. They also met with New Bedford Sen. Mark Montigny and Senate President Thomas Birmingham. Todd Rebello, an Oak Bluffs selectman who led the delegation, said the group also met with the editorial board of the Boston Globe. In addition to Mr. Rebello, the group included Dukes County commissioners Dan Flynn and Leonard Jason Jr., and West Tisbury selectman John Early.
A slightly different group, led by West Tisbury selectman Cynthia Mitchell and Edgartown selectman Arthur Smadbeck, had a face-to-face meeting with Cape and Islands Rep. Eric T. Turkington, asking him to push the legislation.
Vineyard selectmen also published a lengthy position paper on SSA affairs that is published in today's Gazette.
On other fronts, the Nantucket selectmen took their own stand this week, issuing a staunch defense of SSA governor Grace Grossman, who has been the subject of a series of personal attacks in recent weeks.
"Rather than playing the blame game, as others are determined to do, Grace Grossman continues to keep her eye on the ball, serving the authority and the people of Nantucket with distinction," wrote the selectmen in a letter addressed to The New Bedford Standard Times.
Yesterday Nantucket town counsel Paul DeRensis served Mr. Parker, Mr. Leontire and Mr. Lamson with a formal public records request under the Massachusetts Public Records Law for all their records in connection with the high-speed ferry project.
Also yesterday Mr. Lamson reported that the boat line has received a request from the state Inspector General for all the records surrounding the high-speed ferry project.
Mr. Rebello, Woods Hole resident Frank Shepherd and Mr. O'Brien thanked Mr. Parker for his service.
In carefully worded remarks, Mr. Robbins also commended Mr. Parker for his hard work and wished him well. Last month Mr. Parker joined Mr. Leontire in a vicious personal attack against Mr. Robbins.
Mr. Parker, in turn, thanked Mr. O'Brien, Mr. Murphy, Mr. Lamson and "all the hard working men and women of the Steamship Authority who keep the boats running."