SSA Reorganization Bill Passes Senate; New Bedford, Barnstable Win Seats; Governor Expected to Sign Law Soon

Gazette Senior Writer

The state Senate followed the lead of powerful New Bedford Sen. Mark Montigny and turned a deaf ear on Cape and Islands Sen. Robert O'Leary this week, voting overwhelmingly to approve a hostile bill to restructure the Steamship Authority.

"We know power is unevenly distributed around this room, and the rules are here to protect those among us who don't share in that disproportionate power. Our sense of institutional fair play has been hijacked by parochial self-interest, and that's sad," declared Mr. O'Leary.

"We are forced as a legislature to take positions and when one of our quasi-publics is not operating in the best interests of constituents, it is not uncommon to change governance," returned Mr. Montigny.

The impassioned exchange between the two lawmakers took place on the Senate floor on Tuesday afternoon. It was one day before the legislature adjourned formal session for the year, and by tradition, the rules had been suspended.

Mr. O'Leary argued eloquently, but because the rules had been suspended he was stripped of all ability to maneuver, and in the end he lost the debate when the Senate voted 36-3 to approve the boat line bill.

The bill is now on the desk of acting Gov. Jane Swift, and it must be signed in the next 10 days to become law.

The new legislation will give immediate voting seats to New Bedford and Barnstable on the SSA board of governors. The Vineyard and Nantucket will retain control through a weighted vote. The bill is an identical version of a bill approved by the House last month.

The bill also requires New Bedford to pay a portion of any operating deficit on the New Bedford ferry service - half the deficit or up to $650,000 per year in the first three years and no more than 25 per cent in the two years after that. The obligation does not apply to any losses on the passenger ferry Schamonchi.

The vote in the state Senate this week concluded a four-year hostile campaign by New Bedford city officials to break apart the boat line that has been the lifeline to the two Islands since 1960.

Under the terms of the bill, the Vineyard and Nantucket will each have a 35 per cent vote, and Falmouth, New Bedford and Barnstable will each have 10 per cent. The five towns will share any operating deficit incurred by the SSA the same way they share the vote.

The bill also requires a binding referendum vote on the Vineyard in November to decide whether to change the way the Vineyard boat line governor is appointed. For 40 years the Vineyard member has been appointed by the Dukes County Commission, but New Bedford now wants the Vineyard member to be appointed by a committee made up of one selectman from each town and one member of the county commission, because there is more support for the New Bedford position among the selectmen than there is among members of the county commission.

On Tuesday Mr. O'Leary pressed hard to strip the referendum language from the bill.

"This reinforces the fears the Islands have about the politics of this issue. This is not just about getting a seat on the board. It's about getting control of the board. I don't think any of you would tolerate legislation in which one community imposes a referendum on another community," Mr. O'Leary said.

But in this, as in every other argument, Mr. O'Leary lost.

"The whole business of the process really upset me at the end," he said later. "This is a bill that affects communities you represent, and you should have some opportunity to play a role in constructing the bill, and that did not happen. I was really disturbed by that and I think it's a bigger issue than just the Steamship Authority; it's about how the legislature conducts its business."

"What happened to Rob was a particularly egregious example of Senate leadership strong-arm tactics at their worst," said Cape and Islands Rep. Eric T. Turkington. "Rob had a series of constructive and intelligent amendments - but he could have offered the Ten Commandments and they would have voted it down," he added.

Mr. O'Leary's eloquent remarks during a caucus just before formal session reportedly drew comment from other state senators.

The bill includes a provision that would require the boat line to comply with local zoning in the towns of Bourne and Barnstable on any land that sits over an aquifer. Another provision will require the boat line to comply with the terms of the Pacheco Act, a state law that restricts the use of private contractors by state agencies.

New Bedford city officials have also reportedly agreed to drop their lawsuit in federal court against the boat line once the legislation is approved. The agreement to drop the lawsuit is not part of the bill, and the boat line must also agree to any dismissal of the litigation, which has cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees and is now ready for a ruling.

Other measures in the bill include:

* A provision to replace the financial advisory board with a seven-member port council made up of one member from every port town.

* A requirement that New Bedford enter into a long-term lease with the boat line for the use of State Pier (New Bedford pulled the plug on the boat line freight program running out of State Pier this year in retaliation against the Vineyard county commissioners for replacing boat line governor J.B. Riggs Parker with Kathryn A. Roessel).

* A requirement that New Bedford assist with relocating the barge operation owned by Ralph Packer in the New Bedford harbor (city officials had threatened to shut out the Packer operation if they did not get the legislation they wanted).

Although it came as no surprise to most political observers, the vote in the state Senate this week stirred reaction among Vineyard officials.

"This is a sad day. The Island has been sold out and bully politics have prevailed. I think we will have to move on, and I trust that the people here will see through this item that's being placed on the ballot and vote not to change the way we appoint our governor to the Steamship Authority," said Tisbury selectman Tristan Israel.

"I think that New Bedford has a place in the future of the Steamship Authority, but it's ill-advised to give them a voting seat on the board at this time," said Chilmark selectman Warren Doty. "I am all in favor of figuring out the right service for New Bedford, but I am very disturbed at the way power politics are going to distort whatever that right service is," he added.

Mr. Doty also expressed heartfelt respect for the uphill battle waged by Mr. O'Leary.

"It's poor legislation," said Falmouth SSA governor and board chairman Galen Robbins. Mr. Robbins also praised Mr. O'Leary.

"I think that Rob O'Leary has done a fantastic job - he was willing to go to the floor and fight. It takes a lot of courage to do what he did," Mr. Robbins said.

Vineyard officials who supported the bill expressed cautious optimism.

"It's not over yet," said Leonard Jason Jr., a county commissioner who was at the center of a heated political battle when a group of Vineyard elected officials decided to support the New Bedford position, with no clear mandate from the public.

"I think it's an important step in addressing regional transportation issues and I think maybe we can make some progress on that front," Mr. Jason said, adding: "And I would hope that the fighting has stopped."

Vineyard boat line member Kathryn A. Roessel had another view.

"I am committed to ensuring that the people of Martha's Vineyard do not bear the entire brunt of the cost of so-called regional transportation planning," she said, adding: "The bill isn't rational or particularly useful to anyone, but we'll have to live with it and we'll have to do what's necessary to ensure that the authority continues to fulfill its mission."

Nantucket governor Grace Grossman singled out the zoning and Pacheco Act provisions as examples of what she called bad government.

"I think this shows that the issue is no longer about New Bedford having a vote - it's about whether the Steamship Authority can operate under the twin handicaps of being subject to the Pacheco Act as well as local bylaws in Cape communities.

"This bill essentially will rob Peter, the Islands, to pay Paul, New Bedford," Mrs. Grossman said.

Former Vineyard SSA governor Ronald H. Rappaport expressed a similar view.

"I think it's a bad bill," he said, adding: "On the issue of voting representation, it brings in as a partner a community which is strongly pro-growth as opposed to the other four port communities, which are the opposite. [New Bedford] will demand more and more service, and for the Vineyard it will inevitably mean higher costs and more traffic, and we have to be vigilant about keeping an eye on that."

During his seven-year tenure as the Vineyard representative, Mr. Rappaport led the fight against New Bedford.

He said for all the complicated politics around the SSA, in his view the central themes are in fact quite simple.

"Be vigilant about costs, and be vigilant about getting into any additional service that is going to impose a burden on Vineyard ridership and taxpayers. It comes down to who controls the lifeline and the more you fracture it, the more the Islands lose control," Mr. Rappaport said.