Vineyard Commissioners Clash

By ALEXIS TONTI

A week after an array of county officials criticized Steamship Authority governor Kathryn A. Roessel for her role in the latest controversies surrounding the boat line, Dukes County commissioner Nelson Smith rebuked the same officials for their remarks and defended Ms. Roessel.

Last Wednesday Ms. Roessel came under fire, first for her position on the Nantucket proposal to split the boat line, and later in the same meeting for a new Authority policy that has eliminated excursion fares for Island governments, including towns and the county.

This week Mr. Smith asked his fellow commissioners to declare whether they support Ms. Roessel in her role as representative to the Steamship Authority.

Mr. Smith also reprimanded commission chairman John Alley for not reining in last week's discussion when criticism was leveled at Ms. Roessel personally.

"We need to keep things on topic, to conduct ourselves professionally and not make off-the-cuff remarks about our appointed representatives," said Mr. Smith.

At the outset, Mr. Smith acknowledged that he has a personal relationship with Ms. Roessel, but said he was speaking as a county commissioner and a citizen.

The county commissioners affirmed their support for Ms. Roessel, but maintained their right to differ with the Vineyard representative on SSA issues.

Commissioners Paul Strauss, Leslie Leland and Roger Wey did not attend the Wednesday meeting.

Discussion at last week's county meeting centered on a letter Ms. Roessel wrote to clarify her position on the proposal by SSA governor Grace Grossman to split the boat line. In the letter, Ms. Roessel said the proposal should not be taken seriously and suggested that the people of Nantucket have never had the public interest in the Steamship Authority that the Vineyard does.

In a letter to the county, Mr. Smith on Wednesday defended Ms. Roessel's stand on the Nantucket debate and took issue with Mr. Alley's characterization of her letter as "arrogant and inaccurate."

Mr. Smith praised Ms. Roessel for being open to community input and for her working relationship with other SSA representatives.

Reading his letter into the record, Mr. Smith said: "There were legitimate concerns expressed [last week] concerning SSA rates for the county, particularly as they relate to the current fiscal year. However, off-topic remarks and an accusatory attitude by some county representatives should have been avoided and reflect poorly on those involved. Chairman Alley could have done a better job of controlling the discussion."

In a separate letter addressed directly to register of deeds Dianne Powers, Mr. Smith called on her to apologize to the county commissioners and to Ms. Roessel for comments made last Wednesday.

At that time Ms. Powers, sheriff Michael McCormack and county treasurer Noreen Flanders sharply criticized the new policy that prohibits local governments from using low-cost excursion fares for travel on official business.

County officials said no one was told about the new fare structure, which has hit towns and county government midway through their fiscal year when there is no extra money in the budget for added travel expenses.

"Your personal remarks made to Cassie Roessel were totally inappropriate and unprofessional. You should have confined your comments to the genuine issues at hand and left your personal prejudices and snide comments for discussion outside of the meeting," Mr. Smith said Wednesday.

"I will not apologize for trying to defend taxpayer dollars," Ms. Powers said. "And I am very disappointed an elected official has decided to take a very personal issue public."

Several commissioners questioned why Mr. Smith held his comments a week and whether the county meeting was an appropriate forum for his concerns.

"It goes back to the fact I have a relationship with Cassie," said Mr. Smith. "I didn't want to speak out of anger. I wanted to digest what happened and address it appropriately, not off the cuff."

Chairman Alley voiced his support for Ms. Roessel but restated his difference of opinion on how to handle the controversy with Nantucket.

"I wish you had been more diplomatic and expressed your opinions to Dianne Powers personally and not made a surprise presentation at a public meeting," said Mr. Alley. "My differences of opinion with Cassie were not a blindside surprise. I told you both what I was going to say prior to the meeting, and as a matter of common courtesy you should have done the same."

"The meeting was difficult to contain," said commissioner Robert Sawyer. "I happen to know, [Chairman Alley] did try to cut it off. And if he didn't stop the discussion soon enough, that's an opinion.

"We have a marvelous representative in Cassie Roessel. There may be issues where we disagree with her … but it is my conviction that her driving force is whatever is in the best interests of her constituent community," said Mr. Sawyer.

"I'm not thrilled with her, but as long as she is our representative I'm going to support her," said commissioner Leonard Jason Jr. "I believe she was correct in her letter, and I supported her in that."