Question 4 Attracts Mounting Interest

Controversial Issue Stirs Public Debate Over Political Mechanism to Choose Vineyard Boat Line Governor

Gazette Senior Writer

The purple and white bumper stickers are somewhat primitive, produced on a home computer with no stickum, so they have to be fixed to bumpers with Scotch tape. But if bumper stickers that fall off in the rain carry a message about the group that made them, then in this case the message is grass roots and underfunded.

Add to that, committed.

The printed message on the homemade bumper sticker is simple: "Vote No on four."

On Nov. 5 Vineyard voters will face an important decision in Question 4 on the ballot, a proposal to change the way the Vineyard Steamship Authority governor is appointed. On the face of it, the question appears benign: Should a special committee made up of one selectman from each town and one member of the county commission be established to appoint the Vineyard boat line governor?

In truth, Question 4 is rooted in the hostile politics surrounding the Steamship Authority over the last year, and the language was written by former New Bedford city solicitor George Leontire. For 42 years the Vineyard boat line member has been appointed by the county commission.

But Mr. Leontire and a group of Vineyard public officials were unhappy after the county commission voted 4-3 last December to replace former boat line governor J.B. Riggs Parker with Kathryn A. Roessel. The result was the referendum question, which was added to the recent bill adopted by the state legislature to restructure the boat line.

Question 4 only appears on the Vineyard ballot. Locally, it has been something of a sleeper in a state election year marked by widespread voter apathy and a lackluster race for governor.

But this week Vineyard residents began to wake up.

"The Vineyard Steamship Authority governor has been appointed by the county commission since 1960, and by my count that's something like 42 years and I see no reason to change it," declared Nora Nevin, a Tisbury resident who is helping to organize a No on Question 4 campaign. In addition to the bumper stickers, the group is distributing flyers in mailboxes this week and has begun a letter-writing campaign.

Supporters of Question 4 dismiss any suggestion that the referendum question is rooted in a series of questionable political maneuvers in the state legislature last year.

"I think it came out of the Vineyard. I think it comes out every time you have to make that appointment, and I think this is a much fairer way to do it," said Dukes County commissioner Leonard Jason Jr.

Critics of the question have another view.

"The only reason anyone has suggested there should be a change was because they were unhappy with the last appointment, and to me that is not a valid reason for making a change - the fundamental reasoning is wrong," said E.B. Collins, a county commissioner who is also a former Vineyard Steamship Authority governor.

The question is binding, and the outcome will be determined by a simple majority of Vineyard voters.

Both sides began to show their colors this week.

"I'm opposed to it. It should be up to the Vineyard to decide whether they want to change the method of appointment - it's not a question that should be dictated by legislation directed only at the Vineyard," said Ronald H. Rappaport, a prominent Vineyard attorney who was the Vineyard boat line governor for seven years.

"It should be coming from the Vineyard to the legislature and it should be our choice; it's our community; it should be our choice. That's the way the home rule process works, but this is home rule in reverse. If you want to have a round of town meetings, let people debate it out, let people select another process, that's fine, but that's not how this is working," he added.

"I'm going to vote to allow the selectmen to select the member - I believe the decision should rest with the people who ultimately have to pay the bill, and that is the different towns, so I'm going to vote yes," countered Mr. Jason.

More than one person pointed to the back-room dealing that led to the referendum question in the first place.

"Let's put it this way: This did not happen because of any public process on the Vineyard," said Mrs. Nevin.

"This was all done pretty much in the back room and there was no public communication in the process. It was all decided by a group of selectmen, and I didn't know anything about it at the time because I was on the opposite side. It was pushed through," said Roger Wey, a county commissioner.

"It came about totally outside the public process - this question was promulgated by and drafted by the city of New Bedford. The notion that the city of New Bedford would dictate our public process is offensive, and it's analogous to us telling the city how to elect their city council," said Robert Sawyer, a county commissioner who is running for reelection.

County commissioners who support Question 4 claim that it will allow more representation in the selection process.

"My thinking behind that is it now gives each town a voice, and if you sort of look at the total number of selectmen that would be involved and their constituents, you're talking 20 people. For those major reasons and also the fact that often a couple of towns are not represented per se on the county commission, I am voting for it," said county commissioner Leslie Leland, who is running for reelection

Dan Flynn, a county commissioner who is running for reelection, said he supports Question 4 because he is generally opposed to county government.

"I definitely will vote for it - I was one of the first people who supported it; I believe that politics on Martha's Vineyard, like everywhere else, is local and if we're going to have a regional government, it should be the selectmen," Mr. Flynn said.

"There is no need to have a county commission and there never was. The body is pretty much useless. We need regional services but we can let the selectmen be the county government," he added.

Mr. Collins, who will not seek reelection to the county commission this year, had another view.

"The county commissioners are elected Islandwide and there are seven of them. Everybody on the Vineyard has the opportunity to vote for the county commissioners; the selectmen are elected only by the towns they represent," he said. "I live in Edgartown but as a county commissioner I don't think Edgartown, I think Dukes County, and I always try to think of things from a countywide standpoint, that's the way I think we are supposed to think."

Mr. Sawyer said if Question 4 is approved, it will create an unusual committee that is accountable to no one.

"We would be creating a committee that had no other purpose in life other than to appoint the Steamship Authority governor, a committee that is unavailable to public process. County commissioners are elected by all the people on the Island; we are a regional entity. If the public has a problem with county commissioners, they know how to get rid of us at the polls," Mr. Collins said.

Mr. Wey agreed: "If you want to change how it's done, you should change the players, the county commissioners," he said.

Mr. Leland said if there are any concerns about the process, the voters can speak through the ballot box.

"They certainly have time now to voice their concerns; if they don't want it, they don't have to vote for it," he said.

But Mr. Rappaport questioned the nature of the beast. "Why is the Vineyard being singled out as a community of change? It's obvious it's a political game," he said.