Falmouth SSA Member Brings Board Consensus On Fast-Ferry Proposal

Gazette Senior Writer

In a dramatic act of leadership that swept away two months of tension, threats and personal attacks, the freshman member of the Steamship Authority board of governors yesterday led his board into a unanimous vote of approval for a two-year pilot high-speed ferry program between New Bedford and the Vineyard.

"This institution has been plagued with baseless innuendo that threatens to paralyze the ability of it to move forward," declared Galen Robbins, the Falmouth boat line member appointed to the board in late August.

The approval was accompanied by 13 stiff conditions that must be met by Dec. 20, including a stipulation that New Bedford drop its lawsuit in federal court and a written agreement from the city that it will pay half of any operating loss incurred by the test ferry program.

Mr. Robbins said if all 13 conditions are not met by Dec. 20, the deal is off.

"I can tell you now that I will not vote for this unless [all the conditions] are realized," he said.

The much-anticipated vote came during the monthly boat line meeting in Woods Hole yesterday morning. Mr. Robbins has been under almost ceaseless personal attack by both the city of New Bedford and Vineyard SSA member and board chairman J.B. Riggs Parker since he led a 2-1 vote last month to kill an earlier version of the pilot high-speed ferry project.

Yesterday a second proposal that was less expensive and shorter in duration came before the board again for a vote.

Mr. Robbins later drew warm praise from a variety of camps for his leadership and courage in the face of heavy pressure.

"They should tear a page out of Profiles in Courage and write his name on it," declared Carl Pimental, a New Bedford resident who attended the meeting.

"It's nice to feel that the Steamship Authority is back in the hands of the Steamship Authority - Galen, thank you very much for what you did today," said Vineyard businessman Steve Bernier.

"Nantucket appreciates your leadership," said Nantucket legislative liaison Tim Madden.

In a prepared statement, Nantucket governor Grace Grossman censured New Bedford city solicitor George Leontire for his attacks.

"It is obvious that Mr. Leontire's objective is to disgust and discourage Mr. Robbins and myself by his personal attacks. Mr. Leontire's tyrannical outbursts will not succeed," she said.

Mr. Robbins upstaged Mr. Parker, first quashing a vague, open-ended motion promoted by Mr. Parker for the pilot ferry project. Mr. Robbins then made his own detailed motion to approve the project with its strict set of conditions.

For the second month in a row, Mr. Parker treated Mr. Robbins with open disrespect on procedural matters. In a short round that sounded a little like the Abbott and Costello "who's on first" routine, Barnstable boat line member Robert O'Brien made the first motion to adopt the high-speed ferry project, and Mr. Parker seconded it. Mr. Robbins moved to amend the motion, but Mr. Parker would not allow the amendment. Then Mr. Robbins offered to make a substitute motion and Mr. O'Brien offered to withdraw his own motion on the project in favor of Mr. Robbins's motion. But Mr. Parker refused to withdraw his second. He then led the board through a charade discussion on the first motion, even though he had seen Mr. Robbins's motion ahead of time and knew what it contained.

"What, are we trying to suppress discussion here?" he said to Mr. Robbins when Mr. Robbins tried to move the process along by calling the question.

Mr. Robbins has brought a new chemistry to a boat line board that has been rocked by internal problems in the last 10 months. Mr. Parker has presided over board meetings with a heavy hand, and the atmosphere at the monthly meetings has become brittle and rife with unsavory behavior.

Yesterday there was a change in tone. Even Mr. Leontire, who has spent the last month attacking the Falmouth and Nantucket governors, suddenly struck a diplomatic tone.

"I believe today has the potential for being one of those historic moments in the history of this region," he said, adding: "Mr. Robbins has raised a lot of concerns and we have responded to those concerns. Mrs. Grossman, I know we don't see eye to eye, but New Bedford people are to a great degree the children of Nantucket because of your whaling history. Relations have been strained, but hopefully we can repair those relations."

Mr. Leontire's newfound tact drew an immediate barb from Mr. Pimental, owner of the Billy Woods Wharf in New Bedford, where the ferry Schamonchi docks. "I didn't hear you address yourself to the way Mr. Robbins has held up under a barrage of eight hours of deposition," Mr. Pimental said.

Among other things, last month after Mr. Robbins voted against the high-speed ferry project, the city of New Bedford summoned him for an eight-hour deposition under the guise of the pending lawsuit in federal court.

The lawsuit charges that the boat line violated restraint of trade laws.

The meeting yesterday was attended by nearly 100 people, including many public officials from the Vineyard, Falmouth and Nantucket.

Opinions from Vineyard officials were mixed about the pilot high-speed ferry service; some urged the boat line board to approve the pilot program and some urged the board to reject it. Nantucket town counsel Paul DeRensis urged the board to turn the program down, calling it financially unsound. Later in the meeting, Mr. DeRensis also announced that Nantucket will intervene in the federal lawsuit to protect the interest of the boat line - especially its licensing authority.

Mr. DeRensis said papers were filed in court yesterday and will not be withdrawn unless the city actually withdraws its complaint.

"We have decided to no longer sit on the sidelines and watch New Bedford's tactics," he said.

If all the conditions are met, the boat line will now execute a bare boat charter with the Nichols shipyard in Washington state to lease a 499-passenger high-speed ferry for about $1 million a year for two years. As part of the deal, the boat line will also take immediate steps to sell the Schamonchi, which it bought early this year in a surprise move for $1.7 million.

Other conditions required before the fast ferry test program can proceed include the following:

* A written agreement with New Bedford allowing the Steamship Authority to use the State Pier in New Bedford for freight service next year.

* A written agreement to terminate the existing contract with the owner of the Billy Woods Wharf, with New Bedford paying half the cost of any settlement with the owners.

* Agreements with New Bedford for the city to develop a 900-car parking lot, and also for the city to modify the State Pier terminal for a passenger waiting area - all at the city's expense.

* A plan by the boat line to set aside $75,000 to study the impact of the new ferry service on both Falmouth and the Vineyard. New Bedford is to pay half of this expense.

Mrs. Grossman tried to add an amendment requiring the city to pay for all the boat line's legal expenses in connection with the federal lawsuit, but the amendment failed.

In the end, Mrs. Grossman drew an expression of surprise from Mr. Parker when she voted to support Mr. Robbins's motion.

In his own statement yesterday, Mr. Robbins recounted the events of the last month and described a boat line board that he said "has been rudderless with no leadership."

He said: "It has been a very difficult and challenging time for this board and myself over the last 30 days." In pointed language, he ticked off the events:

"Potential partners have acted like schoolyard bullies. Appointing boards have wielded significant influence on the process that may turn away those who seek to serve the public on a volunteer basis. I have been told by financial advisors not to look at the numbers. The legal system has been abused and time and money has been wasted. . . . All because of a vote I made on Oct. 18 based on fact and what I believed to be the best decision."

In the end Mr. Robbins concluded that the most important task is to is put a fractured boat line board back together.

"It is a question of moving forward and eliminating barriers, regardless as to how baseless they are. It's about somehow weaving this board, this institution back together again and focusing our energies on future initiatives that will strengthen the Steamship Authority," he said.