Steamship Authority Fast Ferry Clash Erupts in Outburst of Personal Attacks
By JULIA WELLS
Gazette Senior Writer
In a barrage of invective and noisy statements to the press, New Bedford city officials lashed out at the Steamship Authority governors from Falmouth and Nantucket this week for their vote to kill a pilot high-speed ferry project between New Bedford and the Vineyard.
Vineyard SSA governor J.B. Riggs Parker joined the Whaling City, taking the gloves off to launch an unprecedented - and personal - verbal assault against the Falmouth governor who is his fellow board member.
At the monthly boat line meeting in Woods Hole last week, Falmouth SSA governor Galen Robbins led the move to reject the high-speed ferry project. He was joined by Nantucket boat line governor Grace Grossman.
Mr. Robbins based his own analysis of the pilot project on a report by boat line treasurer and acting general manager Wayne Lamson that concluded that the project was anchored in shaky assumptions and was a potential minefield of financial problems.
The high-speed ferry project would have replaced the passenger ferry Schamonchi, which the boat line bought early this year.
Last week, Mr. Robbins made it clear that he is not against high-speed ferry service out of New Bedford, but he called for the boat line to develop a plan that is based on valid numbers and a proper market study.
One day later the insults and accusations began to fly.
New Bedford city solicitor George Leontire went on the attack against both Mr. Robbins and Mrs. Grossman, issuing a press release through city Mayor Frederick Kalisz Jr. that carried an array of threats. A columnist in The New Bedford Standard Times labeled Mrs. Grossman Medusa.
The Boston Globe published a rehash of the ferry wars, regurgitating a set of wildly inflated traffic statistics and replaying the cliche of class warfare between New Bedford and the Islands.
The assistant New Bedford city planner released a long letter attacking the Vineyard Gazette's reporting coverage of the boat line battles and its editorial positions opposing the Parker-Leontire campaign to ram the fast ferry plan into place over the objections of the governing board majority. "This battle was fought over numbers," wrote Paul Foley.
In the press release, Mayor Kalisz announced that the city will not allow freight service to run into the city next year, even though the boat line board had just voted to use the SSA to run the service, a decision that New Bedford has promoted for months. Mr. Kalisz said the city will ask acting Gov. Jane Swift to freeze all state and federal spending requests by the SSA. The mayor also announced the city will subpoena both Mr. Robbins and Mrs. Grossman under the guise of its pending lawsuit in federal court against the boat line.
City attorneys filed a notice of deposition for Mr. Robbins this week. "We are still considering what our response will be," said SSA general counsel Steven Sayers yesterday.
In an especially unsavory turn, Mr. Leontire and Mr. Parker took their attacks on Mr. Robbins into his place of employment. Mr. Robbins is a vice president for Fleet Bank in Boston.
Mr. Leontire contacted the bank in a thinly disguised effort to retaliate against Mr. Robbins for voting against the wishes of the city. Among other things, the New Bedford city solicitor reportedly threatened to terminate the city's relationship with the bank.
The attack on Mr. Robbins in his place of employment prompted a forceful response from Cape and Islands Rep. Eric T. Turkington and Falmouth Rep. Matthew Patrick.
"We want you to personally know of our outrage that FleetBoston Financial is being threatened by officials of New Bedford regarding an issue that has nothing to do with Fleet," wrote Mr. Turkington and Mr. Patrick in a letter to Fleet Bank president and chief operating officer Charles K. Gifford.
"We are writing to assure you of our support in resisting this unconscionable if not illegal attempt to force Fleet to influence the actions of a state agency. . . . Your employee, Galen Robbins, is one of three authority voting board members, and he on his own time and without any connection to Fleet has voted his conscience on an issue involving added and costly service to New Bedford," the two state representatives wrote. "For New Bedford officials to demand that Fleet force his resignation from the authority board is repugnant to us and we expect to you," they added.
On Wednesday afternoon, Mr. Leontire fired back a response.
"Under no circumstances have I, or anyone from the city of New Bedford ever communicated to any Fleet official a request that Fleet Bank take any action with respect to Mr. Galen Robbins," Mr. Leontire wrote.
Mr. Leontire did admit that he had made contact with the bank. "The city of New Bedford uses Fleet Bank as one of its lending institutions and did in fact notify Fleet Bank of its intentions to terminate its banking relationship with Fleet," he wrote.
In an op-ed piece that was published in the New Bedford Standard Times on Wednesday, Mr. Parker played backup to Mr. Leontire, attacking Mr. Robbins in calculated terms, first naming him as a Fleet Bank vice president and then accusing him of "either inattention or subterfuge" in connection with his vote on the fast ferry project.
Some public officials on the Vineyard said they are disturbed at Mr. Parker's personal attack on a fellow board member.
"The Vineyard member of the Steamship Authority has acted in a most divisive and antagonistic manner toward the other members of the Steamship Authority, and I find his actions totally unacceptable," said West Tisbury selectman John Alley.
On the Vineyard there is now considerable conflict around Steamship Authority issues in general and around Mr. Parker in particular. Mr. Parker, who is chairman of the board, presides over meetings that have taken on an increasingly rancorous tone.
The Nantucket town counsel now regularly attends the boat line meetings to monitor what he has described as a threatening and bullying tone. Twice in the last two months town counsel Paul DeRensis has called on Mr. Parker to exercise better control over the meetings.
Many public officials who attended last week's board meeting expressed open shock at the unpleasant tone of the meeting.
One Tisbury selectman said this week that Mr. Parker should resign. "Mr. Parker acted less than professionally [last week]. Maybe he should step down," said Tisbury selectman Tristan Israel during the regular selectmen's meeting.
The swirl of events culminated on Wednesday night this week when the Dukes County commission voted 4-3 to accelerate by one month their schedule for reappointing the Vineyard boat line governor.
The county commission decided to vote on the appointment on Dec. 5 instead of waiting until the middle of January. Two members of the commission moved for the accelerated schedule, citing personal conflicts. County commissioner Roger Wey said he will be away for several weeks and commissioner John Alley said he is having surgery in January and expects to be laid up for several weeks. Commissioner Robert Sawyer led the move to make the appointment for the boat line in early December. The county appointment for the Martha's Vineyard Commission is also usually made in December.
County commissioner Leonard Jason Jr., who voted against the change, was visibly perturbed. After the vote he held up a closed fist to Mr. Sawyer and said: "The number of fingers I have up is how many friends you have."
Mr. Parker was appointed by the county commission a year ago to fill the unexpired term of Ronald H. Rappaport, who resigned midway through his third term. The term runs out on Dec. 31.
The position is open to all applicants, and will be advertised.
Given the stormy nature of Mr. Parker's short tenure, it is unclear what lies ahead.
Meanwhile, New Bedford city officials have invited selectmen and county commissioners on the Vineyard, Nantucket, Falmouth and Barnstable to attend a six-hour meeting in New Bedford on Saturday. At press time yesterday it was unclear how many officials planned to attend the meeting. On Wednesday night three members of the county commission said they planned to go.