State Attorney General Urges New Bedford Vote in Political War Over SSA

Gazette Senior Writer

The Massachusetts Attorney General touched off a fresh storm of politics on Beacon Hill this week when he sided with the city of New Bedford in the war among state legislators over a bill to restructure the Steamship Authority.

"I have grave concerns about the way in which the authority operates under its enabling act," wrote attorney general Tom Reilly in a letter to House Speaker Thomas Finneran late Wednesday afternoon. The letter emerged as lawmakers from New Bedford and the Cape and Islands remained behind closed doors for the second week in a row, haggling over possible redrafts of the controversial boat line bill.

The letter followed a meeting Mr. Reilly held earlier in the day with New Bedford mayor Frederick M. Kalisz Jr. and former city solicitor George Leontire. Mr. Leontire is working as an unpaid consultant for the city on boat line issues.

The letter stood in glaring contrast with a formal legal position taken by the attorney general five days earlier, when his attorneys filed a brief in U.S. District Court defending the boat line's shipping practices as constitutional. New Bedford is suing the SSA, claiming that it is an unlawful monopoly.

The attorney general brief was filed in court on Friday alongside the brief filed by attorneys for the boat line, asking for summary judgment in the case.

Attorneys for the whaling city did not file a brief.

But Mr. Leontire and Mr. Kalisz did their political work on Beacon Hill, meeting with Mr. Reilly to convince him to write a letter to the House Speaker in support of a voting seat on the boat line board for New Bedford.

The attorney general's letter was a quick job, framed in information that was inaccurate. "As you know, the Kass Commission spent two years studying the Authority's operations," the letter said in part.

In fact the Kass Commission - under the leadership of then-retired appeals court judge Rudolph Kass - spent less than three months studying the boat line.

Mr. Reilly urged Mr. Finneran to follow the recommendation of the Kass Commission and give New Bedford a full voting seat on the boat line board.

"I am concerned that under the guise of ensuring its own economic viability, the authority has engaged in practices that unfairly limit the city of New Bedford and shippers equal access by water to the Islands," Mr. Reilly wrote.

"Tom - this is about competition on a level playing field," the attorney general wrote to Mr. Finneran in a handwritten note at the bottom of the letter. Copies of the letter were sent to Joseph C. Sullivan, cochairman of the Joint Committee on Transportation, and to every member of the House.

It is unclear how much impact the attorney general's letter had in the battle over the boat line bill that has attracted so much attention in the state legislature in recent weeks and months.

Last week a House floor debate that had been planned for the transportation committee bill was diverted to a back room, where lawmakers from New Bedford squared off against lawmakers from the Cape and Islands for more than two hours.

Considered a compromise, the bill would give a provisional nonvoting seat to New Bedford on the boat line board for two years. New Bedford wants a voting seat.

On Wednesday the two delegations again went behind closed doors to debate the bill.

"We huddled again," said Cape and Islands Rep. Eric T. Turkington.

Both sides have filed a series of amendments to the bill, but there are only two central sticking points: the voting seat for New Bedford and financial responsibility. Mr. Turkington and Rep. Demetrius Atsalis of Barnstable have filed an amendment that would require New Bedford to pay for half of any operating loss on ferry service to the Islands.

At the end of the day on Wednesday Mr. Finneran announced that the bill is now set for debate and a vote by the House next Tuesday.

Meanwhile, the letter from Mr. Reilly drew angry remarks from officials on the Cape and Islands.

"It's an obvious political move in concert with New Bedford, and New Bedford has definitely coached him on this issue of great importance to the Islands," declared John Alley, a West Tisbury selectman and Dukes County commissioner.

"These are personal views written on commonwealth stationery to Speaker Finneran - and just in case he does not pick up his mail, Mr. Reilly copied every member of the House," Mr. Alley added.

"It's contrary to what was filed with Judge Woodlock the prior Friday," said Galen Robbins, the Falmouth SSA governor who is chairman of the board. "Anybody has the right to comment on public policy, but for the attorney general to comment on public policy and then cross the line into a legal question - in my opinion it is inappropriate," he said.

Mr. Robbins said the letter could not have been timed more poorly - at least for the Cape and Islands.

"The timing was terrible - it's harmful to the process, it's harmful to the debate," he said.

Mr. Robbins concluded: "The two sides debating over this is not bad but when stuff like this happens, it smacks of pure political thuggery. This whole debate on the Steamship Authority has been dragged down because of stuff like this. And we know the main person who is generating all this garbage is George Leontire.

"Having said that, I am still absolutely confident in the process and in our legislators, that they will do the right thing for us and move this forward."