Kathryn Roessel Begins First Term Amid Aggressive Selectmen's Campaign to Overthrow Her With Political Maneuvers

In a quiet ceremony on the second floor of the Edgartown courthouse yesterday, Kathryn A. Roessel was sworn in as the new Vineyard Steamship Authority governor.

The appointment came amid a fresh wave of back-corridor politics, both on the Vineyard and on Beacon Hill, aimed at some kind of coup to overthrow Ms. Roessel by fast-tracking a piece of stalled legislation that would overhaul the SSA board of governors.

After a 4-3 vote by the Dukes County Commission last month to appoint Ms. Roessel over incumbent boat line governor J.B. Riggs Parker, a group of Vineyard selectmen hastily adopted a resolution requesting legislation to change the way the boat line governor is appointed. The selectmen want to create a new appointing authority made up of one selectman from each town and one county commissioner.

The selectmen want their legislation tacked onto what is known as the Kass legislation - pending legislation that grew out of a state task force appointed last year to study boat line issues. Headed by retired state appeals court judge Rudolph Kass, the task force recommended expanding the boat line's board of governors by adding voting seats for New Bedford and Barnstable.

This week, two surprise amendments to the legislation were unveiled. The new amendments would:

* Create a nonvoting seat on the SSA board for New Bedford that would automatically become a voting seat after two years.

* Increase the share borne by the Vineyard and Nantucket of any boat line deficit, and decrease the share of Falmouth, New Bedford and Barnstable. The pending legislation calls for the deficit share (and corresponding weighted vote) to be 30 per cent for the Vineyard, 25 per cent for Nantucket and 15 per cent apiece for the other three towns. Under the new proposal the Vineyard share would be 40 per cent, Nantucket would be 30 per cent and the other three communities would have their shares reduced to 10 per cent each.

The two new amendments were not included in the resolution adopted by selectmen in five of the six Vineyard towns last month, nor have they been the subject of any public discussion on the Island. The amendments did not come up during a discussion about SSA affairs at a meeting of the All-Island Selectmen's Association this week.

But a small group of Vineyard officials, apparently acting unilaterally and in the absence of any public process, is now urging the legislature to adopt all three amendments.

"Enclosed for your consideration is a copy of the legislation that the overwhelming majority of the selectmen and selectwomen of Martha's Vineyard request be adopted as soon as possible," wrote Oak Bluffs selectman Todd Rebello in a letter sent to Rep. Joseph Sullivan and Sen. Robert Havern, co-chairmen of the Joint Committee on Transportation. The letter was faxed to Mr. Havern and Mr. Sullivan on Dec. 31.

"We respectfully ask that you support the amended version faxed to you by selectman Todd Rebello on our behalf," wrote West Tisbury selectman Cynthia Mitchell in a letter to Cape and Islands Rep. Eric T. Turkington on Wednesday this week. The letter was written on town stationery and signed by Mrs. Mitchell alone, although the pronoun reference in the letter is repeatedly plural.

"We ask that you do not, under any circumstances, let debate over minor adjustments to the voting and deficit apportionment delay or imperil action on this bill," Mrs. Mitchell wrote to Mr. Turkington. Mrs. Mitchell also wrote that the amendments are "consistent with the formal recommendations of our All-Island Selectmen's Association, including a joint recommendation with the Nantucket selectmen."

The selectmen's association and the Nantucket selectmen voted last summer to support the Kass legislation but with the express caveat that they did not support a voting seat for New Bedford. But Mr. Rebello said he sees no conflict between the amendments and the votes taken by the selectmen.

"This very much supports the past votes of the all-Island selectmen," he said.

Mr. Rebello also said public discussion about the new amendments was not necessary.

"This was a consensus," he said. "I had conversations with Mrs. Mitchell, and pretty much over the last two weeks I have spoken to 14 or 15 different Island elected officials about this.

"I believe if you were to get on the phone and call 14 or 15 people who signed the resolution, they would have knowledge of those amendments," he added.

There was another view.

"The action of a group of selectmen urging legislation that increases the Island's financial liability of the Steamship Authority is beyond the pale. And what is really outrageous is that this is being pursued without the benefit of any public process whatsoever," said Dukes County commissioner Robert Sawyer.

"It appears to me, based on last night's meeting of the All-Island Selectmen's Association, that some members are not putting all their cards on the table so that everyone knows exactly what is going on - and I think that is reprehensible," said John Alley, a West Tisbury selectman and Dukes County commissioner.

"I am totally disappointed in the actions of the officials on our Island. There has been no regard for the public and the public has had no input on this," said Roger Wey, an Oak Bluffs selectman and Dukes County commissioner.

Mr. Rebello said the proposed change in the deficit share came out of Falmouth. "This basically came about through concerns of our partners being Falmouth because Falmouth would have to also take on the responsibility of 15 per cent - and that wasn't necessarily what they were looking for," he said.

He also gave credit to Judge Kass.

"I believe that the amendments were assisted by Judge Kass," said Mr. Rebello. The proposed changes faxed by Mr. Rebello to the state legislature bore the fax mark of the state appeals court, but Mr. Rebello said he had not been in contact with Judge Kass; he said he received the material from Mrs. Mitchell.

"I have never spoken personally with Judge Kass, but other selectmen have - you could feel free to call Cindy Mitchell and she would tell you about it," he said.

Reached at his office in Boston yesterday, Judge Kass said Mrs. Mitchell was his only contact on the Vineyard.

"I understand them to reflect the will of the Martha's Vineyard selectmen and I understand them to reflect the will of the Falmouth selectmen and the Barnstable selectmen," Judge Kass said of the amendments.

The judge said he supports the amendments but they did not come from him.

"They are the Martha's Vineyard, Falmouth, New Bedford amendments - that's what they are and that's fine, we certainly accept those," he said.

Judge Kass said his other contacts included some members of the Cape Cod Transit Task force and New Bedford city solicitor George Leontire.

"I've talked to Leontire," Mr. Kass said. "If New Bedford is happy, then I'm happy," he said.

Mr. Kass said he was recently recalled to active status on the state appeals court, so his involvement with the pending legislation will now end.

The selectmen's association meeting this week was marked by an uneven discussion about boat line affairs.

The unscheduled discussion was kicked off by Tisbury selectman Tom Pachico, who appealed to the group to "put the cards on the table" and find some consensus.

Chilmark selectman Warren Doty agreed. "We are a house divided," he said. "The Island has no consensus; there is a lot of debate . . . . Here we are, our candidate we supported is out and a new one is in. Can we find a way to get ourselves together?"

Others at the meeting reflected some of the red-hot anger that has surfaced in recent weeks, much of it around the 4-3 vote to replace Mr. Parker.

"Have you neglected to realize that there is legislation that can change the SSA now?" bristled county commissioner Leonard Jason Jr.

Meanwhile, yesterday Ms. Roessel, a retired attorney, had her first official day as the new Vineyard boat line governor, after she was sworn in by Dukes County superior court clerk Joseph E. Sollitto Jr.

In brief remarks, Ms. Roessel said she was ready to tackle the job. "This is a very important job for the people of Martha's Vineyard," she said, adding:

"I plan to put all my energy into understanding the job and doing it to the very best of my ability. I would also like to make it clear that I am not taking any of the actions of the selectmen's resolution personally at all, and I am looking forward to being able to forge a good working relationship with all of the public officials on the Island."

But once the news surfaced about the new amendments to the Kass legislation, Ms. Roessel did not shy from comment.

"I am opposed to these surprise amendments to the Kass legislation which not only give New Bedford a voting seat but also raise the proportion of any Steamship Authority deficit which the Vineyard will pay - and I don't believe the people of this Island will support this, when they find out about it," she said.

Gazette staff writer Joshua Sabatini contributed to this report.