Public Denounces Political Campaign to Force Changes in SSA Legislation; New Bedford Ferry Position Draws Fire

Gazette Senior Writer

The people of the Vineyard turned out in force this week to vent their views about the Steamship Authority at an old-fashioned democratic forum. The forum revealed sharp differences between the populace and a group of local elected officials who have been lobbying the state legislature to change the boat line enabling legislation.

In fact a strong majority of the more than 300 people who attended the forum on Wednesday night voted against any change in the SSA legislation. In a series of other straw votes, the crowd voted nearly without dissent against high-speed ferry service between New Bedford and the Vineyard and against a voting seat for New Bedford on the SSA board. There was equally strong sentiment in favor of starting from scratch when it comes to planning New Bedford as an alternative port.

"I promise you that the legislature is watching tonight and they want to know what is the real voice of the Vineyard," declared Dukes County commissioner Robert Sawyer at the outset of the meeting.

Held at the Performing Arts Center of the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School, the forum was organized by Mr. Sawyer, Chilmark selectman Warren Doty and Tisbury resident Nora Nevin.

West Tisbury town moderator Pat Gregory guided the meeting with a practiced hand and set a decidedly civil tone, although at times it was not an easy job.

Art Flathers, a Tisbury resident who is known for speaking out at length on nearly every topic associated with the boat line, tried to dominate the discussion early on but Mr. Gregory would not allow it.

The official head count was 329 - more people than attended a public hearing hosted by the SSA last August and more than attended a public hearing hosted by the Kass commission task force last February.

The Kass commission was appointed by the governor to study boat line issues, and after a series of public hearings last year the commission issued a report recommending that the SSA governing board be expanded to include a voting seat for Barnstable and a voting seat for New Bedford.

The Vineyard has been in a political uproar since late last month when the Dukes County Commission voted 4-3 to replace the controversial incumbent boat line governor J.B. Riggs Parker with Kathryn A. Roessel. Ms. Roessel took office this month, amid a frantic campaign by a group of Vineyard elected officials to overturn the vote by changing the SSA enabling legislation.

The officials, who include 15 selectmen and three county commissioners, want to tack an amendment onto the pending Kass legislation to change the way the Vineyard boat line governor is appointed. The selectmen want the appointing authority to be a group made up of one selectman from each Island town and one county commissioner. The selectmen developed this plan in the absence of any public discussion or public hearing.

They then traveled to the state house to lobby powerful legislators to support the plan, ignoring the two local legislators, Cape and Islands Rep. Eric T. Turkington and Sen. Robert O'Leary. Instead they lobbied New Bedford legislators and also Joseph Sullivan, the co-chairman of the state committee on transportation.

Mr. Sullivan later expressed open puzzlement at the move by the Vineyard selectmen.

Mr. Turkington and Mr. O'Leary both attended the meeting Wednesday night and received a warm reception from residents that stood in sharp contrast with derogatory comments made by some local selectmen in recent weeks about the two legislators.

"I'd like to ask Representative Turkington and Senator O'Leary to stand up," said Tisbury businessman Steve Bernier. "You have worked and worked on our behalf, and I would like to apologize for the selectmen of Martha's Vineyard and thank you publicly for your work," he added.

Mr. Turkington and Mr. O'Leary said they would carry their own reports of the meeting back to the state legislature. They also responded to comments made by some people attending the meeting about the pending legislation to restructure the boat line.

"We have been hearing about all these changes for three years and so far the legislature hasn't done anything. We always have the option of doing nothing and we usually take it," Mr. Turkington said.

Mr. O'Leary said he expects there will be some kind of change, but he said he will argue for the Island interests. "Clearly the Island interests are paramount and we need to be aware of that and not lose sight of it," he said.

Linda Sibley, a longtime member of the Martha's Vineyard Commission and a former county commissioner, issued a word of caution about opening up the boat line legislation for change. "It's a very high-risk endeavor, because you have no idea what's going to happen in the legislature. I think we should move forward on this a little tentatively," she said.

The meeting had a lightly scripted format, with a list of topics. Mr. Gregory called for informal votes after discussion on each topic; along the way he added a few more subjects that came up during discussion.

The Kass legislation took some shots.

"I don't know why we need this Kass legislation at all, and I don't see any need to change the board of governors," said Chappaquiddick resident Roger Becker.

The meeting was also marked by a good measure of outrage toward the elected officials who went to the state house last month to lobby for change in the boat line legislation.

"I don't ever remember voting for a selectmen's board to represent me in Boston," said Tisbury resident Harriet Barrows, drawing applause.

"I agree. No one asked me what my feelings were about this," said Oak Bluffs resident Linda Marinelli.

There was some scattered support for the selectmen.

"In a representative democracy there are too many of us with too many opinions and our selectmen have to go forward and be a voice for all of us," said Chilmark resident Georgia Ireland.

"I fully support our elected officials and their actions," said Edgartown resident Linda DeWitt.

But sentiment ran mostly in the other direction.

"If one of these issues had come up before a planning board there would be a public hearing and a warrant article and a town meeting vote - that is the Massachusetts way of doing business," said Tisbury resident Ned Orleans, who is a member of the town planning board. "That group of politicians who lobbied the legislature has done so with no public compact," he added.

"This gives poor losers a bad name," said Tisbury resident Ginger Martin.

"I think it's time to rally around Cassie Roessel and give her the help she needs to get going in this job," said Tisbury resident Mev Good. The remark drew applause and a number of other speakers made similar comments supporting Ms. Roessel.

Mr. Becker suggested that the Vineyard boat line governor be chosen through a popular election. "All we need to do is vote for the guy or gal ourselves. All we need to do is let them tell us how they are going to screw up the boat line and then we can vote," he said, drawing laughter and applause. In fact the idea of choosing the boat line governor through popular election saw strong support in an informal vote later on.

Mrs. Sibley had a wry observation about the recent move by the selectmen to change the way the boat line governor is appointed.

"I find this whole thing kind of amusing," she said. "I think however it turned out, that the vote to reappoint Riggs Parker was going to be a close vote, and if we put in place some new seven-member appointing board I can almost guarantee you that at some point in the future we will see another 4-3 vote and there will be more outrage and perhaps another proposal to change the way the appointment is made?"

Little was said by the Vineyard selectmen who are pushing for the change. West Tisbury selectwoman Cynthia Mitchell said the position is essentially the same as last year, when the selectmen supported a voting seat for Barnstable and a nonvoting seat for New Bedford. But she failed to note one important change: the recent amendment adopted by selectmen calls for creating a nonvoting seat for New Bedford that would automatically become a voting seat in two years.

Tisbury selectman Tristan Israel recounted the work of the Lifeline Coalition two years ago when Vineyard and Nantucket selectmen stood shoulder to shoulder on Beacon Hill to oppose any change in the boat line legislation.

"Two years ago I went with Lenny Jason and Cynthia Mitchell to the state house and we stood together with Nantucket - and now I am trying to understand what has happened that makes so many opinions change," said Mr. Israel. He continued: "It was an ad hoc group of selectmen that went to the state house last month and the town of Tisbury was never even consulted. Our commonality lies with Nantucket - they have been supportive of us and we need to be supportive of them. We should approach this slowly - opening up the legislation."

On the subject of ferry service from New Bedford, many who attended the meeting appeared unconvinced that the move to open up New Bedford as a port was accompanied by much good planning.

"We were having a new model thrust upon us that was ill-conceived and poorly designed by people who didn't know what they were doing. New Bedford service? In time we will have it, but the time to deal with that is after we develop a model that works. Let's get a system that works and then legislate things," said Edgartown resident David Pritchard.

Several Tisbury residents spoke in favor of a place at the table for their town, and Oak Bluffs business leader Renee Balter said that her town too has been often overlooked in the mad dash of politics around the SSA.

In the end most of the people attending the forum agreed. The final straw vote of the night was cast in favor of giving the two Island ports a role in boat line decisions that affect their communities.

Mrs. Marinelli concluded the evening with a request. "A plea to elected officials," she said, "that before they make a major decision that will have an impact on the taxpayers and the communities, that they at least consider putting a question on a referendum."