Attack Targets SSA Members

New Bedford's George Leontire Demands Resignation of Board; Former City Solicitor Attempts to Dismiss Boat Line Lawsuit

Gazette Senior Writer

The former New Bedford city solicitor, who is now weighing his own appointment to the expanded Steamship Authority board of governors, condemned all three voting members of the board yesterday and called on them to resign.

"They all should resign; I really do believe that it is time for a fresh look," said George Leontire in a telephone interview with the Gazette. "Kathryn Roessel - I think she's immature. Grace Grossman - what you see is what you get; Grace Grossman simply ignores any factual basis in decision-making and makes decisions based on her own bias. And Galen Robbins did enormous harm to the Steamship Authority when he first came on and immediately abandoned his role as a representative of Falmouth. The Steamship Authority is rudderless, pointless and in serious financial straits," Mr. Leontire declared.

Ms. Roessel is the Vineyard boat line governor; Mrs. Grossman is the Nantucket governor and Mr. Robbins is the Falmouth governor.

Mr. Leontire's statements about the board come as he is being considered for the newly created voting seat for New Bedford on the board. The seat was created by new legislation signed into law last month by acting Gov. Jane Swift. The legislation, which will add voting seats for New Bedford and Barnstable, takes effect next month.

Following the monthly boat line meeting in Hyannis last week, New Bedford mayor Frederick Kalisz announced that he would nominate Mr. Leontire for the new seat on the boat line board. The appointment must be approved by the New Bedford city council.

Then just a few days after he had hailed his intended appointment, yesterday Mr. Leontire announced abruptly that he may reconsider.

"It is true; I am reconsidering the issue. On the one hand I think that somebody needs to speak up and present the facts the way they really exist; there has been so much distortion, and since I have a history with the Steamship Authority I thought it would be helpful to bring me onto the board. But there is also a history of antagonism between myself and the leaders on the board and what I don't want to see happen is that personalities drive Steamship Authority policy rather than substance," he said.

Mr. Leontire denied reports that he may not have enough votes on the 13-member city council to win approval.

"That is absolutely hogwash. I never failed to pass something on the mayor's agenda in the four and a half years I have been involved, so that's not the issue," Mr. Leontire said.

The next scheduled meeting of the city council is Sept. 12, although a meeting could be called before that. The appointments to the board are expected to be complete before the September boat line meeting on the Vineyard. Robert O'Brien, the nonvoting member of the board from Barnstable, will become the voting member for his town.

Also last week, attorneys for the city of New Bedford filed a motion in federal court to dismiss a massive lawsuit against the SSA, but attorneys for the SSA said bluntly that they will oppose the dismissal of the case.

"This is not a serious effort to pursue dismissal - instead they filed a motion which continues to attack the constitutionality of the statute and the performance of the board," declared John Montgomery, a partner at Ropes & Gray in Boston who represents the SSA in the case.

"This was a reasonable compromise," countered Mr. Leontire, who represents the city on the case alongside Henry Dinger, a partner in the Boston law firm of Goodwin Procter.

The move by the Whaling City to dismiss the lawsuit is considered the final piece of business associated with the recent legislation to reconfigure the boat line.

Filed two years ago in U.S. District Court in Boston, the lawsuit claims that the SSA violates interstate commerce by restricting ferry service. The lawsuit was used as a club of sorts for two years by New Bedford politicians in their hostile campaign to take over the SSA.

The lawsuit has seen a number of twists and turns in federal court. The Hon. Douglas P. Woodlock, a U.S. District Court judge, is presiding over the case.

A key issue in the case includes jurisdiction and whether the city has standing to bring a lawsuit against the state-chartered boat line in federal court.

A motion filed by the SSA requesting summary judgment is now pending before Judge Woodlock. At a hearing in Boston last month, the judge spent nearly three hours grilling Mr. Dinger on the subject of standing. "I am faced with an intramural squabble. . . . It seems to me that this … should not be resolved in federal court. This is an in-house issue," the judge said at the time.

Federal courts are expected to respect state sovereignty and the decisions of the state legislature, and there is little federal case law in this area.

If Judge Woodlock does not allow summary judgment, the case will ostensibly move to trial.

The Steamship Authority has spent more than $500,000 on the lawsuit so far, and Mr. Leontire said yesterday that the city has spent about the same amount.

One dispute in the move to dismiss the case centers on whether the dismissal is with or without prejudice. With prejudice means the case is dismissed forever; without prejudice means the plaintiff reserves the right to file a new complaint at a future date.

The city's motion asks the court to dismiss without prejudice, but with a stipulation that the city cannot bring suit again for five years.

Mr. Leontire characterized the motion as a "hybrid."

"I felt I couldn't bind the city forever. I couldn't bind future city officials to a situation when I didn't know what could arise in the future. . . . It would be negligent on my part to bind future generations," he said.

In the three-page motion filed in court last week, city attorneys admitted that their own motion is unusual.

"New Bedford recognizes that it is unusual to seek voluntary dismissal without prejudice at this stage in a lawsuit. . . . There is the very real prospect that in five years a working relationship between the authority and New Bedford can be forged that will obviate any desire for renewed hostilities," city attorneys wrote.

Mr. Montgomery said yesterday that the case is ripe for a ruling.

"It has never been in the public interest for two agencies of government to be spending all this money to use the courts in a policy dispute," Mr. Montgomery said, adding: "Since New Bedford still maintains that the amended statute is unconstitutional, the court ought to resolve the issue so that this wasteful exercise doesn't have to be repeated in the future."

Mr. Leontire returned to his own sketch of the boat line as a fiscally troubled organization with a dismal future, and to his own central agenda for the last two years: developing high-speed ferry service between New Bedford and the Islands.

"The boat line is not being run cost-effectively and efficiently. It is in terrible trouble going into the future with an aging fleet and no capital plan for replacement. Revenues are declining … and the way to make it profitable was with high-speed ferry service out of New Bedford. I don't think that can occur given the personalities and the biases that are now in place. It would be in the best interests of the authority for these people to remove themselves from the board. It doesn't mean they can't be involved - there are other ways for them to be involved. But they should get off the board," he said.