Draft Legislation on Boat Line Break-Up Prompts Furor and Charges of Bad Faith

By JULIA WELLS and ALEXIS TONTI

An underground group that wants Nantucket to break away from the Steamship Authority is now circulating draft legislation on Beacon Hill to establish a commission to study splitting the public boat line in two.

The group is led by Nantucket SSA governor Grace Grossman, a well-entrenched Democrat with powerful connections in the state house.

Dropped into the public arena like a small bomb five days before the Fourth of July, the news about the draft legislation was made public by outgoing SSA chief executive officer Fred C. Raskin Wednesday afternoon.

"The efforts of Mrs. Grossman and her committee have gone beyond good faith inquiry. There is active lobbying under way and the interests of the authority's customers are being trampled," Mr. Raskin wrote in a tough letter circulated to regional newspapers.

Structured as an amendment to the SSA enabling act, the proposed legislation would have the study commission issue a report by Sept. 1 on the feasibility of breaking the boat line into two entities and setting up a system for separate accounting.

"[These] efforts are about to wreak significant harm to the authority's ability to raise needed funds for the Islander replacement, improvements at the Oak Bluffs terminal and the ultimate replacement for the Flying Cloud," warned Mr. Raskin in his letter.

Barnstable governor and board chairman Robert O'Brien confirmed yesterday that he shared the draft legislation with Mr. Raskin after it had been leaked to him by a source he would not name.

"I'm rather upset about this, as we all should be. It's destructive and it's sneaky," Mr. O'Brien said yesterday.

Mrs. Grossman disavowed any knowledge of the draft legislation.

"I have no idea, I haven't seen anything, this didn't come from me and it didn't come from the committee [on Nantucket which has been officially studying the proposed split]," Mrs. Grossman said yesterday.

But it is understood that in fact Mrs. Grossman did see the draft before it went out and that the language was written by Thomas Kiley, a Boston attorney who has been hired to lead the Nantucket committee. Mr. Kiley was out of town and unavailable for comment.

The Nantucket committee has hired former Cape and Islands Sen. Henri Rauschenbach as a lobbyist. It is understood that Mr. Rauschenbach saw the draft legislation and did not approve of it. It is also understood that the draft was circulated for discussion among members of the Nantucket committee, which includes several truckers who work on Nantucket and in Barnstable.

The Nantucket movement to split the SSA in two began late last year. In February at a public meeting more than 450 Nantucket residents voted without dissent to launch a formal study of whether to secede from the boat line which has been their lifeline for over four decades.

There has been growing dissatisfaction on Nantucket in the last year over rising fares, declining quality of service and a perceived arrogant attitude from senior management.

The study committee promised to report back to the Nantucket selectmen in a public meeting at some future date, and then disappeared from sight.

At the monthly boat line meeting on the Vineyard last week Mrs. Grossman was asked for an update from the study committee. She said there was nothing to report.

In his letter Wednesday Mr. Raskin called that response disingenuous.

Mr. O'Brien said Jack Murphy, the boat line's longtime Beacon Hill lobbyist, confirmed the existence of the draft legislation.

"We verified this with Jack Murphy - this was for real, it wasn't somebody's dream that they threw out there. He confirmed that there is such a proposal," Mr. O'Brien said.

Vineyard boat line governor Kathryn A. Roessel expressed open confusion.

"I just spoke to Grace and she tells me that she hasn't seen the proposed legislation and she doesn't know who wrote it, but I hope whoever is behind it will come forward and explain themselves," Ms. Roessel said yesterday, adding:

"Before we can know how to respond I think we need to get to the bottom of the mystery as to who wrote this proposed amendment and who if anybody is intending to attach it to other legislation. That is the only way we can know where to focus our efforts."

Mrs. Grossman contradicted herself.

"I have not seen this," she began. She also said:

"It didn't come from me and it didn't come from the committee, but we did ask to have a study done."

The Nantucket governor openly endorsed the concept of a split.

"From the bottom of my heart, from what I see and hear it's the best idea I've ever heard," she said.

Both members of the Cape and Islands delegation said the news about the draft legislation caught them by surprise.

"I've never seen any language," said Sen. Robert O'Leary.

"I haven't heard a word," said Rep. Eric T. Turkington.

Mrs. Grossman's own teammate, port council member Flint Ranney, said he too was caught unawares.

"Everyone at the port council meeting was surprised. I was surprised, and, frankly, wondering where this might lead," he said. Mr. Ranney, who is also a member of Mrs. Grossman's committee, said he first learned the news from the Inquirer & Mirror, a weekly newspaper published on Nantucket.

Mr. Ranney said the move two years ago to change the enabling legislation by adding New Bedford as a port still resonates.

"It completely changed the Steamship Authority and in the end made it more likely that the Vineyard and Nantucket have separate interests, which they did not before. Now the Vineyard's main interest is with Woods Hole and New Bedford, while Nantucket's is with Hyannis. Now they have separate interests and separate demands. In my opinion, they took what wasn't broken and broke it," he said.

Mr. O'Leary and Mr. Turkington both said with three weeks left in session on Beacon Hill before summer recess, there is little chance that any legislation will reach the floor.

"People can file bills, but I can promise you nothing is going to get passed," Mr. Turkington said.

Both said they would not support the legislation.

"I think if there is going to be a breakup the only criteria that even justifies looking at it is, number one, that all the communities involved think it's a good idea to look at it," said Mr. O'Leary. "Beyond that is whether it's going to create some financial advantage - and your instincts are that it's going to be a negative. Finally, what gets left out of this is the people who ride these boats. Are their interests served?" he added.

"I would be against any arrangement that would have a negative impact on the people who pay the bills, which is the Islanders," Mr. Turkington said.

In his letter Mr. Raskin, who announced last week that he will resign after two years on the job, lambasted Mrs. Grossman for keeping her colleagues in the dark.

"I would have hoped with my recent resignation the Nantucket board member would have made an effort to work cooperatively with the rest of the board to improve the authority, not dismantle it," he wrote.

A copy of the letter is published on the Commentary Page in today's Gazette.

Mr. O'Brien said the next step is unclear.

"I'm not sure where it goes. We've got to discuss this at the next meeting. Fred has gotten a start and we will pursue it . . . . This has a fundamental effect on all of the towns, not just Nantucket," he said, concluding:

"We need some damage control as quickly as we can."