Islandwide Public Forum Set to Discuss Battle on SSA Policy

By JULIA WELLS

An all-Island public forum was announced this week amid a perceived growing disconnection between the Vineyard community and its elected leaders over Steamship Authority affairs.

The forum - planned for Wednesday, Jan. 23, at 7:30 p.m. at the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School performing arts center - was called by by Warren Doty, a Chilmark selectman; Robert Sawyer, a member of the Dukes County Commission, and Nora Nevin, a Tisbury resident. All three were active two years ago in the Vineyard Lifeline Coalition, an Island group that banded together to oppose any dramatic change in the boat line legislation.

Today the coalition is all but dead, and a group of Vineyard selectmen has taken dramatic action - urging the state legislature to adopt a major overhaul of SSA legislation that would dilute Island control on the board of governors and create permanent voting seats for Barnstable and New Bedford.

A majority of Vineyard selectmen support the legislative change, although sentiment is not unanimous. Public officials who favor a change are still seething over last month's 4-3 vote by the Dukes County Commission to replace Vineyard boat line governor J.B. Riggs Parker with Kathryn Roessel.

The same officials are pushing for a change in the way the Vineyard boat line governor is appointed.

The selectmen want their proposal tacked onto what is known as the Kass legislation - pending legislation that grew out of a state task force appointed last year to study boat line issues. Headed by retired state appeals court judge Rudolph Kass, the task force recommended expanding the boat line's board of governors by adding voting seats for New Bedford and Barnstable.

Last week saw the unveiling of two surprise amendments to the Kass legislation, which has been stalled in committee for several months. These amendments would:

* Create a nonvoting seat on the SSA board for New Bedford that would automatically become a voting seat after two years.

* Increase the share of any boat line deficit borne by the Vineyard and Nantucket, and decrease the share of Falmouth, New Bedford and Barnstable.

The pending legislation calls for the deficit share (and corresponding weighted vote) to be 30 per cent for the Vineyard, 25 per cent for Nantucket and 15 per cent apiece for the other three towns. Under the new proposal, the Vineyard's share would be 40 per cent, Nantucket's would be 30 per cent and the other three communities would have their shares reduced to 10 per cent each.

The two new amendments were not included in a resolution adopted by selectmen in five of the six Vineyard towns last month, nor have they been the subject of any public discussion on the Island. The amendments did not come up during a discussion about SSA affairs at a meeting of the All-Island Selectmen's Association last week.

But a group of Vineyard officials is now urging the legislature to adopt all three amendments. The move to change the boat line legislation in the absence of any public process has begun to stir concern among Island residents about their own elected leaders.

"What messages do we, as a community, want to send our state legislators?" said an announcement about the impending forum this week.

The co-chairman of the joint committee on transportation admitted that he has gotten conflicting signals from the Vineyard about the boat line legislation.

"The message I have received from the Island has been mixed," Joseph Sullivan told the Gazette in his office at the State House on Tuesday. A Braintree Democrat, Mr. Sullivan co-chairs the transportation committee with Sen. Robert Havern of Arlington.

Mr. Sullivan said he, too, was considering calling a public meeting on the Vineyard, acting on the advice of Cape and Islands Rep. Eric T. Turkington.

"Eric Turkington has suggested a full airing of the views of Islanders, and I am mulling that and thinking about a visit to the Island in January," Mr. Sullivan said. "We're trying to work our way through this and eliminate the emotion.

"We need to have a strategy that best serves the Islands as well as addressing some of the mainland interests," he added.

On Tuesday, Cape and Islands Sen. Robert O'Leary also expressed mild consternation at the hostility and flurry of conflicting signals among elected officials on the Vineyard.

"This is not an issue of high principle for the legislature, this is a very local issue," said Mr. O'Leary.

The freshman senator has proposed a compromise measure to create a voting seat for Barnstable, and a nonvoting seat for New Bedford. At the end of two years, expanded ferry service from New Bedford would be evaluated by the boat line board and, if the service was found to be viable, the board then would vote on whether to create a full voting seat for New Bedford.

Mr. O'Leary's compromise measure was endorsed in an editorial in the Cape Cod Times this week, but, in another example of the recent hostility, officials in New Bedford, Falmouth and the Vineyard openly derided both Mr. O'Leary and his proposal.

"They are calling me meddlesome, but this my job. I may be new to the job, but I am not new to these communities and I believe that we need to move cautiously on all of this," Mr. O'Leary said from his office on Beacon Hill.

Meanwhile, Nantucket selectmen yesterday added their collective voice to the growing cacophony around boat line affairs.

"In a letter you received from West Tisbury selectman Cynthia Mitchell dated Jan. 2, 2002, she asserts that the new proposed amendments to the Steamship Authority enabling legislation . . . are consistent with ‘formal recommendations of our All-Island Selectmen's Association, including a joint recommendation with Nantucket selectmen,' " wrote Timothy M. Soverino, chairman of the Nantucket selectmen, in a letter to Mr. Sullivan yesterday.

"We are not aware of any support by us of the proposed amendments, and in fact respectfully request that the amendments and proposals of the Kass commission not be adopted. We respectfully suggest that before any amendments to the SSA enabling statute, originating with West Tisbury, be considered, the same should be referred to the SSA board of governors for its evaluation," Mr. Soverino wrote.

Mr. Sullivan expressed some trepidation about hasty action on legislation to overhaul the structure of the boat line, adding that he does not favor using the legislature as a way to change the Vineyard boat line appointment.

"I am very cautious about statutory adjustments, and that is why I have asked the Steamship Authority to set a direction on their own," he said. "There are long-term ramifications that need to be fully measured here."