County Commissioners Face Decision On Three-Year Appointment to SSA

Gazette Senior Writer

The Dukes County Commission faces a crucial battle this week that will set the course for Island policy at the Steamship Authority in the years ahead, as it prepares to appoint a Vineyard boat line governor at a special meeting Wednesday night.

The meeting begins at 7 p.m. in the community room of the Oak Bluffs School.

Five candidates, including the controversial incumbent governor J.B. Riggs Parker, have thrown their hats into the ring for the three-year appointment. Two members of the seven-member county commission have submitted their names, as have two Tisbury residents. In addition to Mr. Parker, the candidates include John Alley, a West Tisbury selectman and county commissioner; E.B. Collins, a county commissioner and former SSA governor; Clarence A. "Trip" Barnes 3rd, a Tisbury resident and owner of a trucking company, and Kathryn A. Roessel, a Tisbury resident and attorney.

Although none of the commissioners have said publicly how they intend to vote, it is known that there are deep divisions among members of the commission over whether to reappoint Mr. Parker, who has had a stormy 13-month tenure as the Vineyard's representative to the boat line. Mr. Parker was appointed by the county commission in October 2000 to fill the unexpired term of Ronald H. Rappaport, which runs out at the end of December.

Mr. Parker has presided over much change since taking over as chairman of the SSA board in January, beginning with the purchase of the Schamonchi and ending last month with a vote by the board to run a trial high-speed passenger ferry service between New Bedford and the Vineyard next summer.

He has been criticized for his style - which has been divisive at times - and his relationship with both the Nantucket and Falmouth members is strained at best.

The battle lines became more sharply drawn this week when Mr. Parker was endorsed by selectmen in five of the six Vineyard towns.

"Mr. Parker has demonstrated that he has the time, energy and expertise to devote to representing the interests of the residents of Martha's Vineyard," West Tisbury selectmen wrote in a letter to the county commission this week. (Mr. Alley abstained from voting on the letter.)

"Your positions on various matters, including the fast ferry, have reflected what the majority of the members of the All-Island Selectmen's Association have asked you to advance. We couldn't ask for more than that," wrote the Edgartown selectmen in a letter to Mr. Parker that was forwarded to the commission.

"Your leadership and determination to face difficult issues has been very valuable," wrote the Chilmark selectmen in a letter to Mr. Parker that was sent to the commission.

Selectmen in Falmouth also sent the commission a letter of glowing praise for Mr. Parker, although they stopped short of endorsing him as a candidate.

"Our intent with this letter is to commend [Mr. Parker] for a job well done and to acknowledge that his abilities, results and willingness to work on behalf of all ports have not gone unnoticed by this community," the selectmen wrote in part.

The Tisbury selectmen were silent on the subject of any endorsement for Mr. Parker, and yesterday selectman Tristan Israel spoke out sharply with the dissenting opinion.

"I am very disturbed at the direction Mr. Parker has taken the Steamship Authority in his short tenure. I think his style has been disruptive and abrasive, and I am concerned that we are becoming alienated from our sister island Nantucket," Mr. Israel said.

"I am also concerned that Mr. Parker has placed us and the Steamship Authority in the hands of [New Bedford city solicitor] George Leontire," he added, "and that deals are being made that are going to make us obligated to New Bedford at the expense of Island unity.

"But mostly I am concerned about Mr. Parker's unwillingness to compromise and his unwillingness to work with Tisbury. I think it is time for a change and for less stridency. We need peace," he concluded.

Among the tasks the SSA faces is replacing former general manager Armand Tiberio, who resigned late last summer. A search for a new chief executive officer at the public boat line is now under way.

All five candidates spoke briefly to the Gazette yesterday about their decision to apply for the unpaid position.

Mr. Parker, a retired corporate attorney who lives in Chilmark, described his accomplishments.

"I spent this year trying to bring some harmony onto the battlefield I found when I took the job," he said. "I feel there is much more to be done, but perhaps the most important matter in front of us is the selection of a chief executive officer - I think that is probably the biggest immediate problem we have.

"I hope that my experience over the past year can be used in that selection - and once selected can be used in assisting the chief executive in getting his feet on the ground and dealing with some of the issues that have essentially been in my court for these last few months," Mr. Parker added.

Mr. Collins, who served as the boat line governor from 1990 to 1993, referred to his letter of interest, where among other things he outlined his intention to "devote [his] time and energies to promote and protect the interests of the Vineyard."

Mr. Collins said he would also closely monitor the trial fast ferry programs and would continue the long-range planning efforts of the boat line. He said if he is appointed he will resign from the county commission at the end of December.

Mr. Alley, a lifelong West Tisbury resident and veteran Vineyard politician, said he submitted his name to bring more choice to the process.

"I decided that submitting my own name would generate a healthy debate among members of the commission on Dec. 5, and I look forward to that," he said.

Mr. Alley also noted that two members of the appointing authority for the boat line governor had submitted their own names.

"What that says is there is a lack of support for Mr. Parker," Mr. Alley said.

Ms. Roessel, a Tisbury resident who works part time as an attorney for the Vineyard Conservation Society, also talked about choice.

"I was disappointed to see that not very many people threw their hats in the ring this time, and since I have the time and energy, and I think I possess some of the skills needed to do a good job, I thought I would step forward so that the commissioners would have a larger selection of candidates to choose from," she said.

Mr. Barnes, a longtime Tisbury resident who owns a well-known trucking company on the Vineyard, said he applied for the job because the boat line board is ripe for change.

"The boats are dirty, morale is at an all-time low, and the upstairs people don't talk to the downstairs people," Mr. Barnes said.

"I have nothing personal against Mr. Parker, but the man talks down to people and he has clearly moved ahead on his own issues, which are not necessarily the real issues for the Island people," he said. "The Vineyard is changing, and we all know that, but the Steamship Authority is not supposed to speed up the process. It's a very, very sad situation, and it's a very, very serious situation."

This week, the county commission also will appoint a member of the Martha's Vineyard Commission for the coming year. The two applicants are Daniel Flynn, a member of the county commission who is the current MVC member, and Roger Wey, a county commissioner and Oak Bluffs selectman.