SSA Hears from Public

Invite more public participation. That was the message to the Steamship Authority board of governors last week from a small gathering of Vineyard residents.

"I would like to encourage you to reconsider your policy of only permitting public comment at the end of your meetings. Your business is concluded, you have taken your votes - you don't even need us here," said Oak Bluffs resident Robert Iadicicco.

"We have to find a better way," said West Tisbury resident and Vineyard businessman Steve Bernier.

The comments came during the monthly boat line meeting held on the Vineyard last week. A number of residents who attended the meeting expressed frustration at the SSA policy of allowing no public comment until the end of the meeting.

The frustration began to show during discussion on an early agenda item: a proposal to develop a pilot high-speed passenger ferry service between New Bedford and the Vineyard. Some members of the audience asked for permission to speak on the issue, but SSA board chairman J.B. Riggs Parker said he would hold fast to the policy of reserving public comment until the end.

The meeting went on for two more hours, and then finally it came time for the public to speak. But by that time some who had attended the meeting had left, and others urged the boat line to come up with a different method for public comment.

"We lost our harbor master. He was here earlier but he had to leave, and now we don't have the benefit of hearing his comments," said Tisbury resident Susan Grilli. Ms. Grilli spoke out against the proposal to run high-speed ferry service from New Bedford.

One resident who attended the meeting suggested that some limited public comment be allowed on each agenda item before the board takes a vote.

Mr. Parker acknowledged the problem, but he said it is difficult to conduct the business portion of the SSA meetings when the meetings are punctuated by long public statements.

"These are our business meetings, and we need to conduct our business," Mr. Parker said. He also said he does not like to limit public comment. "I will not cut people off," Mr. Parker said.

"Mr. Parker, you have already cut me out of the process, by letting me speak only at the end after you have already had your discussion and taken your vote," returned Mr. Bernier.

Mr. Iadicicco told Mr. Parker that he should not be afraid to limit some comment. "You are the chairman, use your gavel," he said.

Steamship Authority meetings have historically been structured to allow public comment at the end of the meeting, but the structure also used to be accompanied by a clear outline on the agenda. Elected officials were called upon first for public comment, followed by members of the general public. Questions from the press were always taken last.

In recent years the outline has disappeared, with the end of the meetings labeled only as "public comment." This period of the meeting has become a kind of prolonged free-for-all, with comments from the public and public officials mingling with questions from the press.

Mr. Parker said he would consider the request to change the format.

In other business last week, boat line treasurer Wayne Lamson reported that operating losses for the first five months of the year were $8.1 million, some $498,000 over budget. Operating losses for the same period last year were $6.4 million, Mr. Lamson said. Higher losses can be traced to unbudgeted expenses, including expenses associated with the purchase of the New Bedford passenger ferry Schamonchi, Mr. Lamson said.

The unexpected expenses led Mr. Lamson to ask for a rare mid-season fare increase last month. The increase went into effect June 1. Last week Mr. Lamson said that even with the fare increase, he expects net operating profits will be down at the boat line this year. Mr. Parker asked Mr. Lamson to predict a final number, but Mr. Lamson said it is too early for such predictions.

"It certainly keeps us sober to hear where we are financially. We don't have a lot of room to make mistakes," said Mr. Parker.

Mr. Parker will travel to Washington, D.C. today along with SSA general manager Armand Tiberio to lobby Sen. Edward M. Kennedy to support the boat line's application for $2 million in federal grant money to build a new high-speed passenger ferry for the New Bedford-Vineyard run. Barnstable board member Robert O'Brien will join the group as well.

Also traveling to Washington this week for the same purpose will be New Bedford city solicitor George Leontire and New Bedford mayor Frederick M. Kalisz.

Mr. Parker and Mr. Tiberio have become closely aligned with the interests of New Bedford in recent months, much to the delight of city officials and the Whaling City newspaper of record. "The Great Ferry War between New Bedford and the Islands seems to be at an end," declared a triumphant editorial in The New Bedford Standard Times over the weekend.

The editorial also reflected the growing air of disrespect now being fostered among SSA board members toward Nantucket in general and Nantucket SSA governor Grace Grossman in particular. Mrs. Grossman is the sole woman on the board and also the lone voice of fiscal moderation when it comes to expanded ferry service to the Islands.

The New Bedford Standard Times editorial called Mrs. Grossman "shrill" and "a farcical example."

Nantucket insult humor recently made its way onto the floor of the Massachusetts Senate. At a recent hearing, New Bedford Sen. Mark Montigny was presented with a joke cap labeled SS Montigny in honor of his own battles to win ferry service from New Bedford.

"If this ship were named the SS Montigny from New Bedford to the Vineyard, I would accept it graciously. If it's the ship going to Nantucket, I'd graciously decline. I'd rather spend my time on a life raft off the Deer Island pipeline," Mr. Montigny quipped.

At the boat line meeting last week, Mr. Leontire countered recent reports that New Bedford would commit money to build a new ferry.

Tisbury selectman Tom Pachico said recently that Mr. Leontire made the promise during a meeting with the Tisbury selectmen in New Bedford.

Called on last week to confirm the report, Mr. Leontire had a slightly different story.

"What I said actually was that New Bedford would be willing to work to help raise money for a boat," Mr. Leontire said. He said New Bedford city officials had asked Senator Kennedy to put the $2 million into the federal budget as a line-item expense. This would be a better way to secure the money, Mr. Leontire said, because the federal discretionary grant program for ferry boats has limited funds for distribution nationwide.

"Yes, we are very good at getting money to help with these things," Mr. Leontire said.

Mr. Pachico stood by his own report.

"George, you did say that you would build a boat. You didn't say that you would help - you said that you have powerful ways and powerful connections with Senator Mark Montigny, and you said that you would pay to build a boat," Mr. Pachico said.