Question Four Fails By a Wide Margin

Five of Six Island Towns Reject Plan to Give Selectmen Appointing Power Over Vineyard Steamship Governor

By JONATHAN BURKE

Perhaps sensing outside meddling, perhaps seeking to maintain an established power structure, Islanders Tuesday voted to keep the power to appoint the Vineyard Steamship Authority (SSA) governor with the Dukes County Commission.

Fifty-seven percent of 6,481 voting Vineyarders defeated ballot Question 4 which would have placed the appointment power in a selectmen-controlled board.

The vote completes the political fallout following Kathryn Roessel's appointment to the SSA board last December. A large majority of Island selectmen endorsed the reappointment of J.B. Riggs Parker who supported New Bedford's bid to launch SSA fast-ferry service to the Island. Initial legislative proposals would have given a selectmen-controlled board retroactive authority to unseat Ms. Roessel.

This week, Todd Rebello, chairman of the Oak Bluffs selectmen and one of the lead proponents for change in appointing procedure, said the voters had made their decision. Mr. Rebello played down the measure's defeat.

"I don't think the Island selectmen had strong feelings about that part of the question," he said of the SSA legislation that produced Question 4. He said he was pleased the SSA legislation calls for the creation of a port town advisory council on which Oak Bluffs will have a seat.

But opponents of Question 4 had much to celebrate in victory.

"I think people recognize that this wasn't a question that originated here. This was a question that was imposed on us by New Bedford," said Richard Knabel, an outspoken West Tisbury opponent of Question 4.

Mr. Knabel said there exists a "disconnect" between the selectmen who supported Question 4 and their constituents.

"Some people were deeply offended by what happened a year ago. After Cassie Roessel was appointed, the selectmen took a resolution around which was going to rescind her appointment ex post facto, and then change the method of appointment of the SSA governor.

"There's a disconnect. They're out of touch, or they feel that they don't need to be in touch," he said.

More broadly, Mr. Knabel said the outcome of Question 4, plus the outcome of the county commission races which bring Paul Strauss, of Oak Bluffs, and Nelson Smith, of Edgartown, to the table, "validate the existence of the county commission." Both Mr. Strauss and Mr. Smith campaigned for the defeat of Question 4.

County commissioner John Alley agreed with Mr. Knabel's sentiments.

"We didn't ask to change the appointment procedures. It came from someplace else. One of the things that you could read into this is that the majority of Islanders would like to offer changes in the legislation rather than having it imposed up on them," Mr. Alley said.

"I'm very pleased with the results of yesterday's vote on Question 4. The election is over. The people have spoken loud and clear. Now is the time for us to pull together in the best interests of the citizens of the Island," he said.

Island state representatives also argued that Question 4 legislation was foisted upon Vineyard voters.

"It was aggressively advocated by the New Bedford legislators and that's unusual. It's very unusual for legislators from one community to aggressively promote a ballot question in another community," said state Sen. Robert O'Leary.

"It was not my issue. It was something that was foisted on the Island by others, and I'm glad that the voters have definitively put it to rest. There will be plenty of steamship issues ahead, but this won't be one of them," said Cape and Islands Rep. Eric Turkington.

Representative Turkington said the measure came out of New Bedford, reportedly at the urging of the then city solicitor George Leontire, who was the Whaling city's pointman on SSA issues.

"It was not my issue," countered Mr. Leontire Wednesday morning. Mr. Leontire said New Bedford supported the SSA legislation, which included Question 4. But he claimed Question 4 was a local selectmen's initiative. He said he had no problem with the county commission retaining power to appoint the Vineyard SSA member.

County commissioner Leonard Jason Jr., also building inspector for Edgartown and Chilmark, campaigned aggressively on the Vineyard and in Boston for Question 4 approval.

"You mean, do I like to lose?" he responded when asked about the defeat of Question 4. "I think it is a missed opportunity. But the people have decided. I've lost before."

Mr. Jason said the measure was not about Kathryn Roessel, but about change. "I thought it was about being more inclusive," he said.

Mr. Jason rejected any notion that the Island vote was a vote against New Bedford. He said New Bedford was not involved in the creation of Question 4.

Of the six Island towns, only Aquinnah favored Question 4. The measure was narrowly defeated in Chilmark, 285 to 249. The margin was wider in Edgartown, 821 to 660, and wider yet in Oak Bluffs, 951 to 693. Tisbury voted against the measure 855 to 629 and West Tisbury defeated the initiative 721 to 452.