Boatline Bill Moves to House for Vote

Fierce Debate Is Expected in Collision Between New Bedford and the Islands for Steamship Authority Control

Gazette Senior Writer

A fiercely contested legislative bill to reorganize the Steamship Authority board of governors is now on the move and set for debate and vote on the House floor on Beacon Hill next week.

Crafted by the Joint Committee on Transportation two months ago, the bill would give a full voting seat to the town of Barnstable and a provisional, nonvoting seat to New Bedford for two years.

Cape and Islands Rep. Eric T. Turkington confirmed late yesterday afternoon that the bill is scheduled to come to the floor of the House on Wednesday for a vote. Two weeks ago House Speaker Thomas Finneran promised an unhappy New Bedford legislative delegation that he will allow debate on the bill. New Bedford legislators do not like the bill - which puts more distance than they want between New Bedford and the boat line that is the lifeline to the two Islands. New Bedford wants to change the bill to give a full voting seat to New Bedford immediately.

"He promised them a debate and he's going to give them a debate. They'll be offering amendments, and I expect I will too," said Mr. Turkington yesterday.

"The Speaker had made a commitment to the New Bedford delegation to have this full discussion and that commitment is being adhered to," said Rep. Joseph C. Sullivan, a Braintree Democrat who is cochairman of the transportation committee, yesterday afternoon.

"I will not prejudge where it will go - but the transportation committee had offered a compromise, which I think is appropriate and strikes the right balance," Mr. Sullivan added.

The transportation committee bill is an altered version of the proposed Kass Commission legislation that was filed last year. The new bill is currently in the House Ways and Means Committee, where it was sent in late March after it emerged from the transportation committee. The bill is expected to come out of Ways and Means unchanged next week.

The fresh news about the boat line bill yesterday came against the backdrop of a political debate on the Cape and Islands that has begun to take on more twists and turns than a Russian novel. Among other things, in recent weeks an array of camps in the four port communities have staked out positions on the pending legislation.

On the Vineyard the politics around the legislation have grown increasingly fractured, thanks in large part to a deliberate, divide-and-conquer campaign being waged by two county commissioners. County commissioners Dan Flynn and Leonard Jason Jr. have been aggressively promoting the interests of New Bedford - both at home and among legislators on Beacon Hill. Their campaign has sowed confusion and discord among Island elected officials.

The campaign also stirred a renewed alliance between the Tisbury selectmen and the Nantucket selectmen this week - and an unusual apology.

"I apologize to you guys for having a community that does not speak with one voice," Ray LaPorte, chairman of the Tisbury selectmen, told the Nantucket selectmen. "Both Islands should be speaking with one voice, because we all share the same concerns," he added.

The comment came during a joint meeting of the selectmen from the two port towns on Tuesday afternoon in the Katharine Cornell Theatre in Vineyard Haven. Three of the five Nantucket selectmen traveled to the Vineyard for the meeting. The sole agenda was a discussion about Steamship Authority issues.

Among other things, the selectmen agreed without dissent that they would prefer to see no change in the SSA enabling legislation, but they also agreed that if there must be change, they will back a voting seat for Barnstable on the SSA board of governors, but not for New Bedford.

"New Bedford doesn't deserve a seat - certainly not a voting one - and this is the thing that troubles me the most," said Mr. LaPorte.

Five of the seven members of the Dukes County Commission support the same position. Mr. Flynn and Mr. Jason are in the minority, and yet have been lobbying for a full voting seat for New Bedford.

Among selectmen in the six Vineyard towns, the political landscape is decidedly more bumpy.

Robert Sawyer, a county commissioner who supports the transportation committee bill, drafted a resolution this week and began taking it to Vineyard selectmen for signatures. The resolution mirrors, in simpler terms, a resolution adopted by an overwhelming majority of Vineyard officials and all the Nantucket selectmen in a joint meeting last July. At that time the selectmen and county commissioners voted to support a voting seat for Barnstable but not for New Bedford.

But Mr. Sawyer's resolution has met with only partial success. Five of the seven county commissioners signed it, plus the three Tisbury selectmen and two Oak Bluffs selectmen. But in Chilmark and in West Tisbury this week, selectmen took no action on the resolution, after they were lobbied hard by Mr. Jason.

Mr. Jason and Mr. Flynn also traveled to Boston two weeks ago to lobby for the New Bedford position on the bill. Mr. Flynn and Mr. Jason were also ringleaders in a small group of public officials on the Vineyard who tried - through a back-door legislative amendment on Beacon Hill - to overturn the four-to-three vote by the Dukes County Commission last December to replace Vineyard boat line governor J.B. Riggs Parker with Kathryn A. Roessel. There are now reports that the campaign behind the scenes to return Mr. Parker to power is still very much alive - with Mr. Jason in the point position.

This week the work by the two county commissioners drew comment from the Tisbury and Nantucket selectmen.

"A couple of county commissioners are apparently lobbying for something that is not in the interests of this Island, and I think they are overstating their representation - they are certainly not representing this town," said Tisbury selectman Tristan Israel.

Mr. LaPorte agreed. "Some of the people here have altered their positions to serve some agenda that I cannot understand," he said.

Tisbury selectman Tom Pachico recalled the public forum on the Vineyard in January when more than 300 people voted without dissent to oppose any change in the SSA legislation, and also to oppose a voting seat for New Bedford on the boat line board.

"There was a public meeting at the high school and the vast majority of people who went did not support anything for New Bedford," Mr. Pachico said.

"The public has spoken - it was loud and clear," said Mr. Sawyer, who attended the Tuesday meeting.

"I know that you have mavericks out there that aren't carrying the same message," said Nantucket selectman Tim Soverino. He also thanked the Tisbury selectmen for fellowship during politically troubled times.

"Nantucket, as you know, had felt somewhat isolated in this battle, and then this town [Tisbury] extended an olive branch, and we felt it was very helpful. We are very grateful for your support," Mr. Soverino said.

Nantucket board chairman Frank Spriggs and selectman Finn Murphy also attended the meeting.

Mr. Israel underscored the need for the two Islands to stick together. "I have heard people who formerly supported Nantucket start to vilify Nantucket, and I am troubled by that," he said, adding: "Two Islands are stronger than one."

As word went around the Island late yesterday about the movement on the boat line bill, Vineyard legislative liaison Russell Smith announced that he will organize a bus to take Island residents to Boston on Wednesday.

The pending boat line bill has also stirred debate in Barnstable and in Falmouth in recent weeks, and again the message has been clear about a voting seat for Barnstable but mixed on the subject of New Bedford. Early this month the Barnstable town council adopted a resolution that supports a seat for Barnstable, but avoids any clear position on a voting seat for New Bedford.

A Falmouth resident, who has led an intense campaign to support New Bedford, cranked up the volume on his web site over the weekend, calling for people to turn out at the Falmouth selectmen's meeting. Frank Shephard has also advocated openly for the removal of Falmouth boat line governor Galen Robbins, who has refused to bow to the narrow agenda of the Shephard campaign.

On Monday, the Falmouth selectmen voted four to one to support a voting seat for New Bedford. But one day later the political landscape changed again in Falmouth when board chairman Pat Flynn was voted out of office in the annual town election. Mrs. Flynn was closely aligned with former New Bedford city solicitor George Leontire, who is still working on ferry issues for the city.

Yesterday Mr. Sullivan said he respects the New Bedford position, but only to a point.

"I will acknowledge that the New Bedford delegation - which is five members strong - this is an important issue for them. My hope is that through floor discussion, further debate and full analysis by the full House membership, we can develop a consensus on the legislation," he said.

He also said he will go to bat for his own bill. "I am prepared to promote the virtues of that legislation," Mr. Sullivan said.

He concluded: "Representative Turkington is a member of the transportation committee and some of the Cape Cod members will be promoting the Islands' view. I expect to offer my assessment of the situation in terms of transportation policy and maintaining the mission of the Steamship Authority, which is to service the Islands. That should be the primary focus."