Island Senator Hits Bias in Boatline Bill Backing New Bedford

Gazette Senior Writer

As a bill to restructure the Steamship Authority moved from the House to the Senate this week, Cape and Islands Sen. Robert O'Leary said the proposed legislation is disappointing at best and was written solely to serve the interests of New Bedford.

"I am not happy with this; I think it totally ignored what the transportation committee was recommending and it is pretty clear that New Bedford sat down and rewrote the bill from top to bottom," said Mr. O'Leary in a telephone interview with the Gazette yesterday.

A drastically altered version of a bill authored by the Joint Committee on Transportation three months ago, the new bill was approved by the House last week, concluding a four-year hostile campaign by New Bedford to take over the 42-year-old public boat line.

Among other things, the bill calls for expanding the boat line board of governors from three to five members by adding voting seats for Barnstable and New Bedford.

The SSA legislation has been the subject of heated debate, nearly all of it centering on the long list of demands from New Bedford.

Mr. O'Leary said he was somewhat dumbfounded at the outcome.

"We've been busy, but this has not been off my radar screen by any stretch. I just didn't anticipate this bill - I must say this caught me by surprise," he said.

The bill approved by the House last week will require New Bedford to pay for half of any operating deficit on a New Bedford ferry run for the next three years, and 25 per cent of any deficit for two years after that. The amount New Bedford is required to pay would be capped at $650,000 and does not apply to the passenger ferry Schamonchi.

SSA freight service between New Bedford and the Vineyard last year lost about $1.2 million. The boat line contracted with a private carrier to run the service for the last two years. This year the boat line planned to run the service itself using the freight ferry Katama, but New Bedford pulled the plug on the plan in January after the Dukes County Commission voted to replace Vineyard boat line governor J.B. Riggs Parker with Kathryn A. Roessel.

The bill approved by the House last week also includes a provision that requires a binding vote on the Vineyard in November to decide whether to change the way the Vineyard SSA governor is appointed. The Vineyard boat line member has been appointed by the Dukes County Commission since 1960. Written by former New Bedford city solicitor George Leontire, the proposal calls for creating an appointment committee made up of one selectman from each Vineyard town and one member of the county commission. The position is supported by allies backing a return to power by Mr. Parker.

Mr. O'Leary said yesterday that he considers the proposed legislative mandate requiring a referendum vote to be the most onerous part of the House bill.

"The very act of imposing a referendum on the Vineyard is evidence of what has happened here and what is playing out legislatively. That didn't come from the Vineyard, that came from New Bedford and that is prima facie evidence that they have political ambitions here that go well beyond what they are describing," Mr. O'Leary said.

"If the Vineyard wants to change the way they elect their representative, if there is a genuine sentiment for that, then the Vineyard should ask for it. But to have the legislature impose this and have it happen because of another community - well, that is just wrong," he added.

The House bill includes a provision that will allow the Islands to retain control of the board through a weighted vote. The Vineyard and Nantucket would each have a 35 per cent vote, and Falmouth, New Bedford and Barnstable would each have 10 per cent. The five towns would share any operating deficit incurred by the SSA the same way they share the vote.

Other provisions in the bill include:

* The creation of a seven-member port council to replace the boat line financial advisory board. The port council would include one member each from Nantucket, Vineyard Haven, Oak Bluffs, Falmouth, Barnstable, Fairhaven and New Bedford.

* A requirement that New Bedford enter into a long-term lease with the SSA for the use of the State Pier (New Bedford has blocked SSA access to the pier).

* A requirement that New Bedford find a suitable new location for the barge operation owned by Ralph Packer, a Vineyard Haven businessman who operates a marine barge operation to both Islands. New Bedford has used the Packer barge operation as a bargaining chip in its negotiations with the boat line - threatening to evict the Packer operation if the boat line failed to meet the city's demands for ferry service. Public records show that Mr. Leontire put considerable pressure on state officials to help him convert the Packer issue into a lever in the Whaling City's bid to gain a foothold in the boat line.

The bill moved to the state Senate this week, where it is now in the Committee on Ways and Means. New Bedford Sen. Mark Montigny is chairman of the committee.

Mr. O'Leary said he expects the bill to be reported out as soon as next week, but he said it is unclear whether what comes out will be an identical version of what was approved by the House last week.

In public statements following the House vote last week, Mr. Montigny was mostly noncommittal about the bill, saying only that he had some concerns about the financial liability for New Bedford.

Mr. O'Leary said yesterday that he has not spoken to Mr. Montigny about the bill, but he said it is likely that Mr. Montigny believes the bill does not favor New Bedford enough.

"I think he thinks New Bedford is being treated unfairly in terms of the financial liability, and if anything I think he will move to reduce the liability," Mr. O'Leary said.

He concluded:

"This is a difficult situation. This is arguably a New Bedford bill, and you've got the chairman of ways and means who can make changes that are even more sympathetic to his community. But I feel like I have to fight this bill and either reshape it or try to stop it."