New SSA Governor Faces New Bedford Outburst

By JULIA WELLS

Steamship Authority freight service between New Bedford and Martha's Vineyard remained in limbo yesterday as New Bedford city solicitor George Leontire reviled a newly constituted boat line board of governors with a fresh burst of insults and accusations.

"We now have Winken, Blinken and Nod up there now," Mr. Leontire bellowed at the governors before he was called out of order by board chairman and Falmouth governor Galen Robbins.

The outburst came during the monthly boat line meeting held in Woods Hole yesterday morning. It was the first meeting for Kathryn Roessel, who was appointed last month as the new Vineyard SSA governor. Ms. Roessel was welcomed by both her fellow board members and a few members of the public who crowded the meeting room to watch the latest piece of SSA theatre unfold.

Apart from Mr. Leontire's outburst, the meeting was in fact marked by a distinctly new tone as Mr. Robbins took over as chairman, announcing at the outset that he would ask the board to formally adopt Robert's Rules of Order at its next meeting. Mr. Robbins also drew applause when he announced that he would allow public comment before the board voted on each agenda item, abandoning a practice adopted by former board chairman J.B. Riggs Parker of not allowing such comment.

Mr. Leontire attacked Nantucket boat line governor Grace Grossman after she noted for the record that the freight program is now in jeopardy because of New Bedford's decision to end the program.

The decision by New Bedford followed a 4-3 vote by the Dukes County Commission last month to replace Mr. Parker with Ms. Roessel. Following the vote, Mr. Leontire announced that the city would pull the plug on a pending deal to run a trial high-speed passenger program between New Bedford and the Vineyard next summer, and also on the freight program.

The SSA board voted three months ago to replace a two-year seasonal pilot program with a program using an SSA freight boat.

"It wasn't the SSA that cancelled it, it was New Bedford," said Mrs. Grossman.

Mr. Leontire responded. "The fact of the matter is you did - de facto - and I'll tell you how," he said. "We only said we would do it as a part of an overall transportation plan and you killed the transportation plan. You killed it with your back-room deals," he said.

At that point Mr. Robbins cut Mr. Leontire off, but the city solicitor continued, his voice rising. Mr. Robbins cut him off again. "That's enough - you're all done, Mr. Leontire, you're all done," he said.

Acting general manager Wayne Lamson confirmed that the status of the freight program is unclear.

"Mr. Leontire's actions as representative of both the city of New Bedford and the Harbor Development Commission have created a difficult situation for the authority," Mr. Lamson wrote in a staff summary for the board.

After Mr. Leontire announced last month that the city would not allow freight service to run into the state pier there, the SSA wrote to the state Department of Environmental Management (DEM) asking for a meeting to resolve the situation. The DEM replied, writing that despite Mr. Leontire's public statements, the Harbor Development Commission had not taken any formal action on the matter.

DEM owns the State Pier, and the HDC has a management contract with DEM for the use of the pier.

The boat line then wrote to the HDC formally requesting their permission to use the state pier for the freight program. At a meeting last week the HDC referred the matter to its counsel, who is Mr. Leontire.

Yesterday Mr. Leontire said the city has decided to study the matter of ferry service between New Bedford and the Vineyard until next August.

"The city of New Bedford has no intention of allowing you to deal with the city in your request for freight in this piecemeal manner. We will now begin to study the viability of a relationship between New Bedford and the Steamship Authority," he said.

In the end, SSA governors voted to refer the matter to their own counsel.

Chilmark selectman Warren Doty urged New Bedford to stick with the freight program.

"We've worked very hard for three years to put this together, and I would like to urge the New Bedford Harbor Development Commission to say yes to this program," said Mr. Doty.

Tisbury selectman Tom Pachico said it is time for New Bedford to fish or cut bait.

"Mr. Leontire keeps saying how viable a port New Bedford is," he said. "Well, it is, geographically, but politically it doesn't seem to be viable because New Bedford wants to call all the shots.

"New Bedford has to make up its mind and make up its mind soon if it wants to be a player," Mr. Pachico added.

In other business yesterday Ms. Roessel was asked to field a complicated piece of old business that is suddenly new business again, centering on the Blacksmith Shop Road property in Falmouth.

The 40-acre property has a long and controversial history. It was bought in 1988 for $1.3 million by the SSA, which planned to develop it as a parking lot. But the plan turned sour amid fierce opposition in the town of Falmouth and the later revelation that then Falmouth board member James H. Smith had a business relationship with the seller of the property.

The boat line still owns the property, and yesterday the subject of what to do with it came back onto the table. SSA general counsel Steven Sayers outlined a possible new plan to convey the property to the town of Falmouth.

It is still a complicated deal: among other things, the SSA board had to take a vote to allow Mr. Lamson to participate in the issue because he is a member of the Falmouth finance committee.

Mr. Sayers recommended four other actions:

* That the board affirm its earlier decision to sell the property.

* That the board agree that its first preference is to sell the property to the town of Falmouth.

* That the board consult with the state inspector general about the appropriate guidelines for disposing of the property, including the possibility of selling it to the town of Falmouth for less than market value.

* That the SSA obtain a current appraisal of the property.

Ms. Roessel said the appraisal should be the first priority, and agreed that the boat line should consult the inspector general, but added that she was uncomfortable going any further than that.

"Before we announce that we are ready to convey it, let's get an appraisal," she said, adding: "I think as a public agency we should err on the side of caution - after all it is the ratepayers who paid for this property."

Robert Murphy, the Vineyard member of the financial advisory board, agreed.

"We have an appreciated asset. I don't see the rush of disposing of the property at this point," he said.

But Mr. Robbins argued that it was time to take more action.

"All we are saying is we want to move this process along," he said.

In the end the vote was 2-1 in favor of adopting all five recommendations, with Mrs. Grossman and Mr. Robbins voting yes and Ms. Roessel voting no.

At the end of the meeting Vineyard businessman Steve Bernier thanked the board for allowing public comment during the meeting.

"What we dealt with and what we got done - much better job today," he said.