Island's Boat Line Representative Urges County Board to Focus on Large Issues

By ALEXIS TONTI

Growing tensions at the Steamship Authority were exposed this week as the Vineyard boat line governor delivered an impassioned speech defending authority management and describing dysfunction among the board of governors.

After a lengthy discussion at a Dukes County Commission meeting Wednesday evening, during which commissioners fired questions at Vineyard SSA governor Kathryn A. Roessel, Ms. Roessel launched into an emotional speech in support of SSA chief executive officer Fred C. Raskin and his efforts to combat revenue shortfalls.

"I feel Mr. Raskin is under attack from a lot of directions, but I want you to take a look at the totality of what he is doing," Ms. Roessel told the commissioners.

She added: "We don't have a board [of governors] that is functioning very well right now - half the board has checked out."

In recent months the commissioners have pointedly questioned boat line priorities and taken aim at SSA managers for issuing rash decisions about security, pricing and advertising policies.

Ms. Roessel attended the meeting Wednesday to discuss advertising policy, but the commissioners opened the conversation with fresh criticism on other fronts.

The commissioners asked about the possibility of reinstituting guaranteed standby and questioned a developing plan - eventually held for further discussion after yesterday's monthly boat line meeting - to move to a ticketless reservation policy.

The proposed policy would require passengers to present a reservation confirmation number at the terminal on the day of sailing in order to receive their tickets.

Several county leaders related stories about Islanders who already have been told by SSA agents that they will not be receiving tickets in the mail this summer, and asked why no one had been informed.

"How can the Steamship Authority implement a policy that impacts such a broad range of people without advance notice, without even your knowing about it?" asked commissioner Robert Sawyer.

"People don't know these policies exist or how they work, and management doesn't know half the time either. There's a real communication need here," said commissioner Paul Strauss, adding: "We need to meet with you more frequently."

"But half the time I can't help you because I don't know about the policies," said Ms. Roessel.

Commissioner Roger Wey asked Ms. Roessel to revisit a plan that calls for guaranteed weekend standby to begin this summer for 15 cars per day.

"Fifteen cars is nothing. In Woods Hole, 15 cars can show up in half an hour. What happens to people who show up thinking they can get over? It will be chaos. If you limit it, you might as well not have it," said Mr. Wey.

The lengthy discussion prompted Ms. Roessel to urge county leaders to redirect their efforts to help shape SSA policy.

"I am delighted that you are getting involved, and I have always relied on the collective wisdom of this group, but please, help me deal with the really big issues facing the authority - not standby or advertising or what price you pay when you travel on county business. We have multi-million-dollar situations to deal with that are much more important," said Ms. Roessel.

Talk turned to whether the commissioners wanted SSA management to abandon the marketing program. Amid a flurry of questions and comments about why the program has derailed, Ms. Roessel spoke in support of Mr. Raskin's efforts to raise revenue.

The Vineyard boat line governor acknowledged the avalanche of criticism that has been aimed at SSA management in recent months, but stressed that Mr. Raskin's economic skills will see the authority through difficult financial times.

"I have done everything in my power to hang on to the CEO. I have been holding onto this guy with my fingernails ever since [he started]. And people ask, why am I still supporting him?" said Ms. Roessel.

"There are some really big rocks we have to think about, and it has nothing to do with reinstituting standby or advertising policies. So much energy has been misplaced at board meetings talking about how many dogs should be on the Flying Cloud. . . .

"We would make half a million in advertising in our dreams, but without the privatization of the Schamonchi this Island will pay millions of dollars unnecessarily. He and his administration have found a creative solution, a business-like solution [to increasing revenue]. It's smart," she said.

Since last summer SSA management has been at work on a complicated plan to turn the passenger ferry Schamonchi over to a private carrier. The plan is now close to completion and must be reviewed by the state auditor to ensure it complies with the Pacheco Act, the state anti-privatization law.

"They have done an incredible amount of work to get through the Pacheco Act, and without that ticket prices will go to the moon," said Ms. Roessel.

She then urged county commissioners to meet with Mr. Raskin and SSA general counsel Steven Sayers to discuss union negotiations and the plan to privatize the passenger ferry Schamonchi, which she characterized as the most serious issues facing the authority today.

Returning to the subject of advertising, Ms. Roessel told the county commissioners that a modest program with clear parameters would be a good step forward.

"I think it's a bad idea to abandon [the program]. It didn't get rolled out correctly, but I don't think that is any reason to throw the baby out with the bath water," she said.

Ms. Roessel presented the commissioners with a revised advertising policy for the Island and its mainland ports, but the commissioners dissuaded Ms. Roessel from splitting with Nantucket on the issue.

The commissioners then voted to recommend that the authority put the advertising program on hold until it develops a comprehensive plan that is acceptable to all communities.

Subsequently, at yesterday's boat line meeting the advertising plan was all but scrapped, with the board of governors approving only two minor initiatives [see separate story].

As the two-hour discussion wound down, Ms. Roessel urged the commissioners to send a letter to the state auditor on the subject of the Schamonchi route.

"It's crunch time, and it wouldn't hurt to weigh in with the auditor general. If this [privatization] initiative fails, nobody will be running service to New Bedford. The Steamship Authority can't afford to do it, and your fares will go through the roof," she said.

But the commissioners voted against the motion, with the majority saying they did not have enough information on the plan to comment.