Boatline CEO to Quit; Will Stay for Transition; Board to Begin Search

By ALEXIS TONTI

Ending months of uncertainty and speculation, Steamship Authority chief executive officer Fred C. Raskin told boat line governors yesterday in an executive session that he will resign - but not quite yet.

"He agreed to stay with us as long as necessary to effect a smooth transition. He wants us to work diligently to find a replacement, but he also indicated that if it took until the first of the year that would be all right," said Vineyard SSA governor Kathryn A. Roessel.

"I think we're all disappointed, by which I mean that everybody in the room, all of the board members who were present, were disappointed but not surprised. We're also relieved that Fred will be with us for as long as it takes," Ms. Roessel said.

In April Mr. Raskin launched the process that paved the way for his resignation under the complicated terms of his contract.

"The speculation has created a distraction for the organization, and it's a good thing [Mr. Raskin] has taken this step. He has done it in the most professional manner possible to make sure our organization moves forward in a smooth way," said SSA general counsel Steven Sayers.

"His staying on shows his integrity and that he is looking out for the best interests of the SSA, not his personal interests," Mr. Sayers added.

Mr. Raskin issued a statement to the press yesterday afternoon saying he would not comment.

"Fred is not making any statement right now. What he has told me is he would like an opportunity to make an announcement to his employees prior to making any public statement about what his future plans are," said SSA director of marketing and public relations Paula Peters.

The executive session took place after the monthly boat line meeting, held yesterday morning in the Katharine Cornell Theatre in Vineyard Haven.

Nantucket governor Grace Grossman did not attend the meeting because of an injury to her back. She instead participated via phone, but could not vote on any motions.

Discussion during the three-hour meeting was punctuated by the sound of cars honking in support of SSA union workers who were conducting an informational picket outside the theatre.

The governors covered a packed agenda that included changes to ticketing policy, a presentation about vessel and terminal maintenance and an announcement about the launch of the new fast ferry service between New Bedford and Oak Bluffs.

The SSA board also delivered its CEO evaluation for the year. The two-part assessment rated Mr. Raskin specifically with regard to accomplishing the year's goals and then generally for his job skills.

"The majority of the board voted the CEO above average in most categories," said Falmouth governor Robert Marshall. "The most frequent comment was that the CEO's leadership skills were significantly neutralized by the lack of consistency and support from the board."

Against the backdrop of Mr. Raskin's impending announcement, the statement came as something of an olive branch.

Throughout the meeting the interaction between the CEO and the governors was distinctly cordial - a marked difference from the tension, frustration and often heated debate that has characterized SSA meetings in recent months.

Of late Mr. Raskin and the SSA governors clashed openly over issues ranging from new security rules to the now largely defunct advertising program, but in fact they have been mired in conflict over roles and responsibility almost from the outset of his tenure at the boat line.

Mr. Raskin replaced general manager Armand Tiberio, who resigned in September of 2001 after six years on the job. During the search process to find a successor, the boat line board changed the job title from general manager to CEO.

Mr. Raskin was hired in April of 2002 with a five-year contract and an annual salary of $170,000. The contract has been amended twice amid deteriorating relations between the governors and Mr. Raskin.

In April, Mr. Raskin gave written notice to the SSA board, triggering the process that has led to his resignation.

Under the terms of the latest version of the contract, Mr. Raskin's resignation is to take effect 30 days after it is tendered. Ten days after the resignation the boat line is to pay Mr. Raskin a lump sum of $85,000 and continue a group life insurance policy for six more months.

Ms. Roessel said the board renegotiated yesterday with Mr. Raskin for him to stay on at his regular salary rate until a replacement is found.

It is unclear under the new agreement when the severance package kicks in.

Mr. Raskin still must submit a formal letter of resignation.

In the past Mr. Raskin has cited the long commute from his home in Andover as the reason he began to reconsider his position at the SSA. But he also has not shied from a blunt assessment of the problems on the board of governors - problems that were acknowledged again yesterday during the CEO evaluation and ensuing comments.

"The board needs to do a better job at letting whoever is running [the SSA] run it," Barnstable governor and board chairman Robert O'Brien said.

Mr. Raskin immediately echoed the statement: "Just yesterday afternoon we were having a conversation about operations, and I think the board is working very hard to achieve that."

Looking ahead to the impact that Mr. Raskin's departure will have on the SSA, Mr. Sayers said, "People have been missing the major issues facing the authority. The board is much more aligned than they have ever been in the past, I think.

"This has been a distraction that has taken away from the fact that the board's disagreements are only on relatively small matters. While they are important, they are far less important than the issues really facing the authority. I don't see [Mr. Raskin's resignation] affecting the progress of the entire boat line moving forward toward a much more economical and efficient way."

Mr. Sayers added: "The squabbles that everyone has gotten into, that can't help but be depressing. I think everyone recognizes that and hopes we can solve those issues."

Ms. Roessel said yesterday it was premature to comment on the future of the boat line.

"The fact that Fred's departing and the fact that we have to start a search for a replacement is enough for us to process right at the moment," said Ms. Roessel.

In other business, the governors approved the new operating schedules from October 2004 to May 2005 as well as several changes in ticketing policy. The changes will take effect in October with the start of the fall operating schedule. They include:

* The cut-off for vehicles that incur a surcharge for their length will be raised from 16 feet to 17 feet. With the change will come a rate hike amounting to an additional $10 per round trip for vehicles that measure between 17 feet and 20 feet in length.

* The cut-off for vehicles eligible to make preferred space reservations will be raised from 18 feet to 20 feet.

Discussion about the changes drew criticism about the reservation system from SSA governors, port council members and a number of Vineyard residents.

"The one thing we said at the port council was to keep it simple. The whole thing seems very confusing, and it's something to look at," said Barnstable port council member Bob Jones.

"You probably want to scrap it and have someone take a look at the whole thing, like we are starting a new ferry service and how are we going to charge people?" said Tisbury port council member Tom Pachico.

"You are making the rules and regulations so confusing it is impossible for the average person to understand all this, let alone the people who work for us. People are getting angrier and angrier and more confused - it's ridiculous," said Mrs. Grossman.

"We need a panel of folks from MIT to explain this. We're making a monster here," declared Falmouth governor Robert Marshall.