Vineyard Officials Clash in Fight Over Boat Line Appointment; Political Dialogue Grows Ugly

Gazette Senior Writer

Political chaos broke out across the Vineyard this week in the aftermath of the surprise vote by the Dukes County Commission last week to replace J.B. Riggs Parker, the Island Steamship Authority governor who has presided over the most divisive period at the public boat line in recent memory.

The county commission voted 4-3 to appoint Kathryn A. Roessel as the new SSA governor. Ms. Roessel will join the board in January.

New Bedford city solicitor George Leontire reacted to the vote by abruptly canceling a plan to run a trial high-speed passenger ferry service between New Bedford and the Vineyard next summer. Mr. Leontire also announced the city would not allow the boat line to run freight service into State Pier there. On the home front, Vineyard officials turned on each other, crying foul and accusing four members of the county commission of collusion.

"Hey, the process was a failure. Quite frankly, it stank," declared Edgartown selectman Arthur Smadbeck.

Mr. Smadbeck was point man in circulating a resolution this week that is intended to change the way the boat line governor is appointed. The resolution calls on the state legislature to amend the pending Kass commission legislation to create an appointing body made up of a single county commissioner and one selectman from each of the Island's six towns. The resolution also calls for the new appointment to take effect on Jan. 1, 2002, and to supersede the current legislation and the current appointment.

It is unclear whether this is legally permissible, and at any rate the resolution is unlikely to go far since the legislature will not convene again in formal session until January.

The Kass commission was a state task force appointed by the governor a year ago to study Steamship Authority issues. The commission recommended expanding the boat line board of governors by adding voting seats for New Bedford and Barnstable. But the legislation filed as a result of the report has been languishing in committee for months.

Six months ago, Vineyard selectmen voted to oppose the Kass legislation. This week, selectmen in five of the six Vineyard towns voted to adopt a resolution that would amend the legislation that they oppose.

It was all a rush job - selectmen in two towns held emergency meetings to adopt the resolution.

The details of the resolution were in fact first laid out by Mr. Leontire in a story that appeared Saturday in the Standard-Times newspaper of New Bedford. Mr. Leontire was also reportedly seen traveling to the Vineyard on one of the boat line ferries over the weekend.

Then suddenly on Monday afternoon, Mr. Leontire's proposal surfaced in West Tisbury in the form of the resolution, which selectwoman Cynthia Mitchell gave to executive secretary Maureen Healy with instructions to put it on the agenda for the weekly board meeting. The resolution was adopted in a 2-1 vote, with Mrs. Mitchell and selectman John Early unleashing a bare-knuckle attack on John Alley for his vote last week in support of Ms. Roessel. Mr. Alley is a West Tisbury selectman and county commissioner.

"The county commission did not represent the community of Martha's Vineyard. Their spurning of Riggs Parker is absolutely beyond the pale," Mrs. Mitchell declared. "He's a victim of a dirty campaign. It's time the Vineyard public knew more about that, a corrupted process."

"The action by the Dukes County commissioners was the most monumental and irresponsible I've seen a public body take since I've been in office, grounded in politics of the basest kind," said Mr. Early.

At the outset the origin of the resolution was unclear. Reports surfaced that the resolution had been written by Mr. Smadbeck, an Edgartown selectman who is chairman of the All-Island Selectmen's Association. But Mr. Smadbeck denied that he had written the resolution.

"I only wish that I was that intelligent, but it would be disingenuous of me to claim that I wrote this," he said.

Mr. Smadbeck would not identify the author at first.

"The person asked me to remain anonymous, they asked me to distribute this and I agreed to do it," he said.

Mr. Smadbeck said the anonymous author was a member of the selectmen's association. He then said he would contact the person and ask if he would reveal his name. Mr. Smadbeck later telephoned the Gazette to report that the author was in fact county commissioner Leonard Jason Jr., who voted for Mr. Parker last week. But Mr. Smadbeck was also suddenly unclear about whether Mr. Jason actually wrote the resolution.

"I didn't think to ask him that," he said.

Mr. Jason said he wrote part of the resolution. "Most of it. I had help from a friend of mine," he said. "They agreed to help if they could remain anonymous.

"I just sat down and thought about what was going on, and how to avoid it in the future. I think the process is flawed," he added. "It isn't about which side I'm on, it's about which side makes me comfortable. And that meeting last week was probably the most excruciating thing I have ever sat through.

"Yeah, of course I think there was collusion. Can I prove it? Of course not. I just find it all very odd," Mr. Jason said.

"So I came up with this," he said, adding, "Hey, that's what happens when we play hardball."

Mr. Smadbeck was coy about how the resolution was distributed, saying only that it had been distributed to the selectmen in every Island town.

"It got there," Mr. Smadbeck said. "Somebody took it around, but I am not going to tell you who."

There was some confusion in the town of Tisbury. Dennis Luttrell, the executive secretary to the Tisbury selectmen, said he had seen a copy of the resolution but had not received it officially.

"All I have is a copy of something that was sent to West Tisbury. I was told to expect Arthur Smadbeck to come by with something - but there is no letter attached to this and no one has asked me to have it come before the selectmen. No one has made a request, so I have read this and now it is going to go in the trash," Mr. Luttrell said.

Mr. Smadbeck bristled at the suggestion that Tisbury had not received an official copy of the resolution.

"What an idiot," Mr. Smadbeck said, referring to Mr. Luttrell. "If he has it in his hand he can consider it. If not, I'm not going to go mucking around with another town's affairs," he added.

Mr. Smadbeck and Mr. Jason both reiterated their claims that the process was tainted.

"You better believe it," Mr. Smadbeck said.

Mr. Luttrell had a different opinion about the process: "The process has already taken place," he said. "And the Dukes County Commission - they determine it, it is legislatively delegated to them. They did this and no one held a gun to their head, so I would say that the democratic process took place," he added.

Mr. Smadbeck fingered Bob Sawyer - a member of the county commission who voted for Ms. Roessel - as the main culprit in the alleged collusion.

"It was all decided ahead of time - just ask Bob Sawyer. I don't have proof of it. But there were a lot of red flags," Mr. Smadbeck said.

Mr. Sawyer dismissed the allegations as silly.

"What Arthur Smadbeck said is ludicrous. I am only one vote - I don't own or control anybody," he said. "I voted my conscience and what I believe this community wanted. I believe with all my heart that this community was screaming for change, and as a result of the very capable lady we have appointed, the dysfunctional Steamship Authority will start to work again for this community - the community of Martha's Vineyard."

Mr. Alley defended his vote for Ms. Roessel and responded to the attacks on him from his fellow selectmen.

"In my opinion Mr. Parker did not represent the Vineyard, and I believe Kathryn Roessel best reflects my point of view on the SSA and that of a lot of my Island constituents," he said.

"I feel the personal attacks on me regarding my vote were reprehensible and somewhat slanderous," he added. "It is also unprofessional, and I believe that now is the time to unify behind our new Steamship Authority governor so that she can truly speak with the voice of the Island behind her."

Only the town of Tisbury took the high road, issuing a formal statement in support of Ms. Roessel.

"The Tisbury board of selectmen congratulate Ms. Kathryn Roessel on her appointment as the Island's new representative to the Steamship Authority, and we urge our counterparts in other towns to welcome her and join us in working with her together to address the critical issues that face the SSA," the statement said.