House Backs New Bedford Vote on SSA Board
Whaling City Wins Most Issues; Two Islands Get Little in Return
By JULIA WELLS
Gazette Senior Writer
BOSTON - Ending a four-year hostile crusade by the city of New Bedford to restructure the Steamship Authority, state legislators finally surrendered this week, approving a bill that meets nearly all the demands of the Whaling City, including an immediate voting seat on the boat line board of governors.
"It isn't the bill I would have written, but it's what we do up there, which is procrastinate as long as we can and then get into a room and talk and put out a compromise," said Cape and Islands Rep. Eric T. Turkington.
It was as succinct an explanation as any of what happened on Beacon Hill this week.
Late Wednesday afternoon House Speaker Thomas Finneran announced that the legislative delegations from New Bedford and the Cape and Islands had agreed to put out a bill that will give immediate voting seats to Barnstable and New Bedford. The bill will also require New Bedford to pay for half of any operating deficit on New Bedford ferry service for three years - although the obligation is capped at $650,000 and does not apply to any losses on the passenger ferry Schamonchi. After three years, the city would be required to pay 25 per cent of any deficit for two years.
The agreement was forged behind closed doors and ended two days of intense sparring on Beacon Hill over boat line issues - both on and off the House floor.
The new bill is a hybrid version of a bill put out by the Joint Committee on Transportation two months ago. Considered a compromise to legislation proposed by the Kass commission, the transportation committee bill would have given a voting seat to Barnstable and a provisional, nonvoting seat to New Bedford for two years. At the end of two years the city would have received a voting seat if ferry service between the city and the Islands was found to be financially viable.
New Bedford legislators rejected that compromise bill.
On Tuesday, New Bedford lost a crucial first round during a debate and roll call vote on an amendment to the bill proposed by Mr. Turkington and Rep. Demetrius Atsalis of Barnstable. The amendment required New Bedford to pay for half of any operating deficit on a ferry run to the Islands.
The debate revealed the deep divisions that have run through the political war with New Bedford around the boat line for the last four years.
"I think the Cape and the Islands all want to see some kind of service out of New Bedford, but it has to be a service that makes sense economically, something that pays its way, not something that is jammed down the throats of the Islands. They are saying they want to play but they don't want to pay," said Mr. Turkington.
"New Bedford is asking for its fair share and a seat at the table. Why should we take 50 per cent of the debt?" said New Bedford Rep. Antonio Cabral.
The Turkington-Atsalis amendment was approved 76-63 in the roll call vote. Mr. Finneran and Rep. Joseph C. Sullivan, cochairman of the transportation committee, were among those voting in favor of the amendment. A small stir followed, and legislators from New Bedford and the Cape and Islands huddled at the podium. Mr. Sullivan and the charismatic Mr. Finneran were at the center of the huddle. Then a series of other amendments by Mr. Turkington were quickly gaveled through and the day ended with a question mark. There had been no vote on the main transportation committee bill, and still to come was an amendment proposed by Rep. William Strauss of Mattapoisett to substitute the entire bill with one that heavily favored New Bedford.
Mr. Strauss took the podium and said the central issue of a vote for New Bedford would be debated and decided in a roll call vote the next day.
But on Wednesday afternoon there was no debate and no roll call vote. Instead the two delegations huddled again behind closed doors for more than two hours, negotiating a new compromise.
At about 3:15 p.m. Mr. Finneran announced that the two sides had reached an agreement in principle. The details emerged later in the day.
The bill was approved in a voice vote by the House yesterday.
The bill includes a provision that allows the Islands to retain control of the board through a weighted vote. The Vineyard and Nantucket would each have a 35 per cent vote, and Falmouth, New Bedford and Barnstable would each have 10 per cent. The five towns would share any operating deficit incurred by the SSA the same way they share the vote.
The bill also requires a binding referendum vote on the Vineyard in November to decide whether to change the way the Vineyard boat line governor is appointed. For 40 years the Vineyard member has been appointed by the Dukes County Commission, but New Bedford now wants the Vineyard member to be appointed by a committee made up of one selectmen from each town and one member of the county commission, because there is currently more support for the New Bedford position among the selectman than there is among members of the county commission.
As part of the deal, New Bedford city officials agreed to drop their lawsuit in federal court against the boat line. The agreement to drop the lawsuit is not part of the House bill, but former city solicitor George Leontire reportedly gave his word on Wednesday afternoon that the lawsuit would be dropped, and drafted a letter to that effect.
The bill includes certain measures that were part of the original transportation committee bill, including:
* A provision to replace the financial advisory board with a seven-member port council made up of one member from every port town.
* A requirement that New Bedford enter into a long-term lease with the boat line for the use of State Pier (New Bedford pulled the plug on the boat line freight program running out of State Pier this year in retaliation against the Vineyard county commissioners for replacing boat line governor J.B. Riggs Parker with Kathryn A. Roessel).
* A requirement that New Bedford assist with relocating the barge operation owned by Ralph Packer in the New Bedford harbor (city officials had threatened to shut out the Packer operation if they did not get the legislation they wanted).
Mr. Turkington said later that his amendment requiring New Bedford to pay for half of any deficit created a strategic disadvantage for the Cape and Islands on the issue of a voting seat for New Bedford.
"You can hardly say that you start paying now, but you get your vote some other day. We were not in a position to logically agree that they were assessed a large chunk of change and that they then could not have a vote," he said.
He said neither side wanted to risk losing a roll call vote on the House floor.
The bill now moves to the state Senate, and if it is approved without changes before the legislature adjourns for summer recess next month and is signed by acting Gov. Jane Swift, it will become law. Any changes will force the bill into joint conference committee.
All three SSA governors said they are unhappy with a bill that portends so much change for the boat line that is the lifeline to the two Islands.
"I was devastated and speechless. It was beyond my comprehension," said Nantucket governor Grace Grossman. "The Islanders must stand together - they must. I am concerned for our fiscal responsibility."
Ms. Roessel agreed. "New Bedford has used up enormous amounts of political capital, and the New Bedford taxpayers are now on the hook for a lot of money subsidizing freight - not to mention the huge amounts of money they have already spent on lawyers on a court case they are going to lose. And what have they really gotten out of it?
"From now on you'll see that the Islands are more together than ever," she declared. "But to look on the bright side, we may now be able to get back to the business of running a boat line."
Falmouth governor and board chairman Galen Robbins noted bluntly that New Bedford is now getting a vote, but not necessarily a boat.
"I think we are probably further away from an alternative port this morning than we were when we woke up yesterday morning," he said. "I think we lost perspective and we forgot about why this all started. What we focused on is what they focused on, which was a vote on the board. They would do anything to get that vote - well, they got it and guess what? There is no boat over there."
Mr. Robbins also said: "And I want to remind you, this is not the city of New Bedford that has waged this fight; it is the administration of New Bedford. For several years now their only goal was to get a member on the board, and they got it. I congratulate them, but in the meantime they lost their perspective. Now the taxpayers of New Bedford will pay for any loss, and the other half will be subsidized by our friends on Martha's Vineyard. Rather than focusing on the merits of service, this just became an issue of a seat on the board and that's unfortunate. But that's politics."
Mr. Robbins echoed the remarks of his colleagues about the need for the two Islands to stay together.
"The enabling act hasn't changed, and it is vitally important that the Islands stick together and unite and be sensitive, as they have been in the past, to the impact of this organization on the mainland communities," he said.
Mr. Sullivan spoke briefly yesterday about the reworked version of his bill.
"I think the cost factor associated with the New Bedford run is important because it requires New Bedford to be serious about the task, and I think the Steamship Authority is given the opportunity operationally to try to discover a program that would incorporate New Bedford," he said. "My hope is that the emotion surrounding this issue will dissipate and that everyone will now try to forge a successful relationship."
Mr. Sullivan concluded: "We await the Senate action. This debate has taken a number of twists and turns, and we wait to see what happens next. This isn't over yet."