One state senator, one state representative, one Steamship Authority governor and a band of Nantucket residents and town officials spoke out yesterday in favor of a voting seat for the town of Barnstable on the boat line board — but not for New Bedford.
"My job is to make sure Barnstable gets a vote. But New Bedford has to be proven to be viable before it can get a vote. Now, they should not be on the board at all," said Barnstable Rep. Demetrius Atsalis.
"Barnstable should become a voting member, but it seems to me to place New Bedford on the board is really putting the cart before the horse," said Cape and Islands Sen. Robert O'Leary.
"I'm in favor of a Barnstable voting seat, but New Bedford at this point is not an official port and therefore is not eligible for an official seat on the Steamship Authority," said Nantucket boat line governor Grace Grossman.
New Bedford city solicitor George Leontire predictably had another view.
"We can't prove ourselves without a seat at the table. We want to make this work, and we've paid our dues too — we have had people out of work on the docks for 40 years," Mr. Leontire said.
The remarks came during a public hearing yesterday morning in the Barnstable town hall on a legislative bill to expand the Steamship Authority board of governors from three to five members. If the bill is approved in its present form, a voting member from New Bedford and a voting member from Barnstable will be added to the board. The two Islands would keep control through a weighted vote.
The hearing was hosted by the joint committee on transportation. The legislation was filed by acting Gov. Jane Swift and was crafted directly out of a recent report by a state task force that was appointed early this year to study ferry issues for the Cape and Islands.
The task force was led by the Hon. Rudolph Kass, a retired state appellate court judge.
Judge Kass was one of the early speakers at the hearing yesterday morning and transportation committee co-chairman Joseph C. Sullivan noted that Judge Kass had also been sent as a representative for the governor.
"I don't know how you became part of the Cellucci-Swift administration," Mr. Sullivan said to Judge Kass. The remark was delivered in humor but it also marked the beginning of an extended grilling of Judge Kass about the reasoning that led to the legislation.
Mr. Sullivan asked Judge Kass to reconcile the task force report — which essentially concluded that the boat line functions well — and the recommendation for such change on the boat line board, especially a seat for New Bedford.
Judge Kass said the task force decided that a voting seat on the board for New Bedford made sense.
"We foresaw nothing but conflict and nasty relations [if New Bedford did not get a seat]. Some of this has already happened because as you know, New Bedford sued the Steamship Authority," Judge Kass said. He continued:
"New Bedford is a voice that will be heard, and having a voice that will be heard reflects a deep tradition in this country going back to the Revolution."
But Mr. Sullivan interrupted the history lesson.
"Are you telling this committee that the threat of a lawsuit was an impetus for this legislation?"
"No, I was just describing some of the emotion around this issue," Mr. Kass said.
"I think this committee is very well aware of the emotions around this issue," Mr. Sullivan returned.
"We saw no negatives to having New Bedford as a voting member — for heaven sakes it's still four to one and we do not anticipate any confrontation from New Bedford," Judge Kass said.
"I'm hearing from you that to eliminate confrontation you would give New Bedford a seat at the table," Mr. Sullivan said.
"Not a bad reason, either," Judge Kass replied.
Mr. Kass said he does not equate expanding the board with weakening the Island position, as long as the Islands retain control. "The mission of the Steamship Authority is still the true mission of the Steamship Authority — to provide service to the two Islands," he said.
"What if New Bedford doesn't work as a port — how do you at that point pull away the voice of New Bedford?" Mr. Sullivan said.
Judge Kass said then New Bedford would simply have a member on the board with no active port. Or, he said, the legislation could be changed again.
"We're going to be back at this again, judge?" Mr. Sullivan said.
Mr. Leontire spoke out strongly about the need for New Bedford to have a voting seat and he pointed to the pilot freight program and the recent purchase of the Schamonchi as proof of SSA commitment in New Bedford.
Mr. Sullivan questioned Mr. Leontire about the inconsistency in his own testimony before the state legislature during the last two years, reminding him that he had said that the city only wanted freight.
Cape and Islands Rep. Eric T. Turkington commended Mr. Leontire for his aggressive work on behalf of the Whaling City, but Mr. Turkington said Mr. Leontire had seized on the wrong issue. "This is not a civil rights issue, it's a geography issue. It's not that the Islands don't like you or your people, it's a distance problem. And the jury is still out as to whether New Bedford service is going to work," Mr. Turkington said.
"I think all of those questions will never be answered until we have a seat at the table," Mr. Leontire shot back.
The hearing wore on for more than three hours and included testimony from a variety of other speakers, including three of the five Nantucket selectman.
Mr. Atsalis suggested that the financial advisory board to the SSA be abolished. Mr. Kass said the task force had agreed through a telephone conference to concur with that suggestion.
The meeting was also notable for its absence of speakers. Vineyard SSA governor J. B. Riggs Parker and Falmouth governor Edward DeWitt both attended the hearing but did not speak.
Not one Vineyard selectman attended the hearing. County commissioner Leonard Jason Jr. made a statement on behalf of the commission opposing the legislation, but then Mr. Jason also said that he personally supports the legislation.
Former Vineyard SSA governor Ronald Rappaport spoke briefly near the end of the hearing and submitted his own written testimony. The full text of his statement is published on the Commentary Page of today's Gazette.
Using the same technique as Mr. Sullivan, Mr. Rappaport pointed to the words of the task force report as good reason to leave the boat line legislation unchanged:
" 'Overall the Steamship Authority has been responsibly run in the public interest. As boards grow larger they become more difficult to convene and generally less efficient. The Steamship Authority has succeeded in providing safe and reliable service to the Islands. . . . We do not wish to tamper with a machine that is not broken.' "
Concluded Mr. Rappaport: "I agree with all of those things."