House Delays SSA Vote; Island Political Maneuvers Press New Bedford Case

Gazette Senior Writer

An acrimonious political campaign to restructure the Steamship Authority went into yet another stall this week when a much-anticipated floor debate in the state legislature was diverted to a back room by House Speaker Thomas Finneran. The move by Mr. Finneran came amid a week-long swirl of politics, including a series of secret maneuvers by a small group of Vineyard officials who are now working to promote the interests of New Bedford.

"We live to fight another day," declared Cape and Islands Rep. Eric T. Turkington on Wednesday afternoon, after more than two hours of closed-door meetings on Beacon Hill between the delegations from New Bedford and the Cape and Islands. The meetings ended in a stalemate.

A House floor debate had been planned for a bill crafted two months ago by the joint committee on transportation. That bill would give a full voting seat to the town of Barnstable and a provisional, non-voting seat to New Bedford for two years.

The transportation committee bill is considered a compromise in a two-year battle by New Bedford to restructure the boat line that is the lifeline to the two Islands. New Bedford wants a full voting seat.

Early in the week, the bill became the subject of dueling amendments. Rep. William Strauss of Mattapoisset filed an amendment to give a full voting seat to New Bedford and also to change the way the Vineyard boat line governor is appointed. Mr. Turkington and Rep. Demetrius Atsalis of Barnstable filed an amendment that would require New Bedford to pay for half of any operating losses on ferry service between the Whaling City and the Islands.

On Wednesday morning, George Leontire, the former New Bedford city solicitor who represents the city in its dealings with the SSA, expressed confidence that New Bedford would come out on top. "We've won," he told several people early in the day.

But about 1:30 p.m., just before the debate was about to begin, Mr. Finneran called a House recess and sent the group into another room to try - one last time - to work something out.

By late in the day, Mr. Leontire's demeanor had changed to one of clear consternation, as five representatives from the Cape and Islands and five representatives from New Bedford remained locked in a room.

The closed-door session was also attended by Rep. Joseph C. Sullivan, the Braintree Democrat who is cochairman of the joint committee on transportation, and House majority whip Lida E. Harkins, a Democrat from Needham.

Around 4 p.m. all returned to the House floor, at which time Mr. Finneran announced that the day was over. "We have been having negotiations all afternoon and, while they have been somewhat fruitful, they have not been conclusive - and there will be no debate and no roll-call vote on this matter today," the Speaker said amid the din.

Mr. Turkington said later that the voting seat for New Bedford continues to be a central sticking point, as well as the question of who will pay for any operating losses incurred by a New Bedford ferry service.

"The cost of service from New Bedford was an issue that was on the Speaker's mind as well as ours," he said.

The bill could come up for debate again next week, although no date was set.

A small group of Vineyard residents wearing MV stickers on their lapels also spent Wednesday morning visiting legislators and urging them to support the compromise bill.

But among Vineyard officials there is now a growing civil war over the boat line bill - and it is also now known that Mr. Leontire has been working closely with a group of Island officials to promote the interests of New Bedford.

The ringleader of this local group sympathetic to Mr. Leontire is Leonard Jason Jr., a Dukes county commissioner. Among other activities over the Memorial Day weekend, Mr. Jason composed a letter opposing the transportation committee bill.

"This attempt at a compromise is a disappointment to many, and a comfort to few. We believe a more equitable solution is" in the New Bedford amendment calling for a full voting seat, the letter says in part. "[T]he time has come to end the acrimony, to forget past injustices that are both real and imagined, and to move ahead."

The letter promoting the New Bedford position was signed by 13 Vineyard selectmen and three county commissioners over the holiday weekend, with no public discussion and absent any public meeting. Among other things, the letter was signed by a voting quorum of selectmen in Edgartown, Aquinnah, Oak Bluffs and Chilmark.

Mr. Jason traveled to Beacon Hill on Tuesday along with county commissioner Dan Flynn, Edgartown selectman Arthur Smadbeck and Oak Bluffs selectman Todd Rebello. The four officials spent the day alongside Mr. Leontire lobbying against the transportation committee bill.

Two Tisbury selectmen also spent the day on Beacon Hill speaking to legislators in support of the bill, having taken a formal vote to support the bill at a joint public meeting with Nantucket selectmen last week. The same Nantucket selectmen were stranded at home because of fog on Tuesday, but traveled to Boston Wednesday to lobby legislators to support the transportation committee bill.

Yesterday Mr. Jason took credit as the author of the letter supporting the New Bedford position. "I wrote it," he said.

The letter is dated May 23, although Mr. Jason said he wrote it over the weekend. "I'd say it was Friday or Saturday night," he said. Mr. Jason said he wrote the letter "because I think it's important for people to know how the selectmen feel."

Mr. Jason said he did not contact all the Vineyard selectmen, only the ones whose names were on the letter. "It was essentially the same people who took a position in December, and it was essentially a reiteration of that position," he said.

Mr. Jason said he called each of the selectmen first and then personally drove to their houses - or wherever they were (he said one was on the golf course) - and obtained their signature. "It's how I spent my Memorial Day weekend," he said.

Mr. Jason also said he faxed copies of the letter to a number of New Bedford legislators.

In fact, Mr. Jason also faxed two copies of the letter to Mr. Leontire over the Memorial Day weekend. Copies of both the faxes from Mr. Jason to Mr. Leontire were obtained by the Gazette. The copies were sent from Mr. Jason's home fax machine.

Mr. Jason faxed the first copy of the letter to Mr. Leontire on Sunday morning of Memorial Day weekend. The letter contained the typed names of the selectmen and county commissioners with no signatures. On the evening of Memorial Day, Mr. Jason faxed Mr. Leontire a copy of the same letter, this time with signatures.

Yesterday Mr. Jason did not name Mr. Leontire when he recounted the list of people he sent faxes to, but when questioned by the Gazette, he quickly added Mr. Leontire to the list.

Mr. Jason also said he did not believe that the newfound support among some Vineyard officials for the New Bedford position is in conflict with the consensus that emerged at a public forum on the Vineyard in January. At that forum, 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.

Mr. Jason said he did not remember it that way.

"I don't think it was overwhelming at all. I thought it was more like a 50-50 split," he said.

The maneuvers by Mr. Jason and other Vineyard officials who are working in concert with Mr. Leontire drew an angry response from the chairman of the Tisbury selectmen this week.

"End the acrimony? They are the ones going around secretly plotting," Ray LaPorte said. "The last public vote I recall was in support of a voting seat for Barnstable but not for New Bedford," he said, referring to a vote taken last summer by a majority of Vineyard and Nantucket selectmen.

"Who wants to hand the keys to the Steamship Authority to New Bedford? It's not the Tisbury selectmen, I can assure you," he continued. "We had a posted public meeting where we discussed this and we took a position - our position is that we will reluctantly support the Sullivan bill if that is what is necessary.

"But this is a public issue and it demands public comment," he added. "I fear that there has been a lack of communication among the public leaders on the Vineyard. This shotgun marriage being proposed with New Bedford could end up being devastating to the rate payers on the Vineyard, and it will likely end in a disastrous divorce. I am troubled with a capital T, and as far as I'm concerned the gloves are now off."