Boat Line Governors Dispute Legal Bills

Gazette Senior Writer

Steamship Authority governors and senior managers said yesterday they were overbilled by a Boston law firm that represented the former Falmouth boat line member in his legal dispute with the town.

"There is no question that Smith & Duggan should receive a fair fee for their service. The question is what is a fair fee," said SSA general counsel Steven Sayers.

"I feel strongly that what we were billed was far from reasonable," said Vineyard SSA governor Kathryn A. Roessel.

At the monthly boat line meeting in Woods Hole yesterday, Ms. Roessel led a move to release executive session minutes and all other records in connection with the bills from Smith & Duggan, the Boston law firm that represented former boat line member Galen Robbins. Mr. Robbins, who did not seek reappointment last month, became embroiled in the dispute late last summer when the Falmouth selectmen tried to remove him because he disagreed with them on policy matters. Mr. Robbins filed a lawsuit in federal court and forced the selectmen to back down as he served out the remainder of his term.

Yesterday boat line governors revealed for the first time publicly that they had received a bill from Smith & Duggan for $112,000 for legal services to represent Mr. Robbins. Smith & Duggan also billed the boat line $40,000 earlier in the year for research work in connection with governance and board-CEO relations.

Mr. Sayers said yesterday that the $40,000 bill had been paid and $104,000 had been paid to Smith & Duggan on the separate bill.

The legal bills have been the subject of extensive discussion in executive session, but yesterday Ms. Roessel said there is no longer any reason to keep the matter behind closed doors.

"With respect to this dispute, I'd like to show the public that we acted properly," Ms. Roessel said. The Vineyard boat line governor also led a separate move to request all of the research work produced by Smith & Duggan in connection with the legal services on board governance.

"This is work that we paid for and we have a right to ask for it," she said.

Mr. Sayers and SSA chief executive officer Fred C. Raskin said the board decided to pay most of the Smith & Duggan bill to avoid incurring interest charges, but they left open the question about what steps, if any, will now be taken to dispute the bill. There was general agreement among board members and senior managers that the bill was excessive.

In other business yesterday, the the board and members of the public welcomed Robert Marshall, the new boat line governor from Falmouth, who attended his first meeting.

The board agreed to keep working with the new seven-member port council to define roles and responsibilities. The port council was established under the new enabling legislation for the SSA adopted by the state legislature late last summer. The legislation also expanded the board of governors from three to five members, adding voting seats for Barnstable and New Bedford.

The port council replaces the old financial advisory board. Both boards are still settling into their new roles, and the port council, led by its New Bedford member and new chairman George Leontire, has tried to take a more active role in boat line affairs.

At a meeting before the regular SSA meeting yesterday morning, the port council spent an hour and a half painstakingly reviewing a set of draft guidelines for the council drawn up by Nantucket SSA governor and board chairman Grace Grossman.

Some members of the port council questioned the need for such detailed discussion on issues that could be decided using simple common sense.

"Let's keep it simple. I don't think we need to discuss every point in this letter," said Marc Hanover, the Oak Bluffs member of the port council. "We're kind of splitting a lot of hairs here," agreed Bob Jones, the port council member from Barnstable.

Later during the regular boat line meeting it became clear that the only real sticking point centered on whether the port council will be allowed to attend executive sessions. Mr. Leontire proposed that council members be allowed to attend the sessions to listen but not participate, but the majority of the boat line governors disagreed.

"I have to disagree with the wisdom of having a gigantic, 12-person executive session," said Ms. Roessel.

New Bedford governor David Oliveira was the lone member who sided with the port council, saying he found it useful to have more voices contribute to a free-flowing discussion. "There are seven members of the port council from seven communities - they have over 400 life years of experience and they are capable of engaging in constructive dialogue, while we are more inhibited on our board because of procedures," Mr. Oliveira said.

But Mrs. Grossman said free-flowing dialogue on a range of subjects is not the point of an executive session. "Executive sessions are very specific in what we talk about, and it's not the time to just throw out ideas about a lot of things," she said.

The board will take up the issue again next month.

In his monthly financial report yesterday, Mr. Raskin said traffic and revenues stayed stubbornly down throughout the late fall.

"It's becoming the same old story," he said. Overall passenger traffic on boat line ferries was down 11.6 per cent in November; car traffic was down 9.2 per cent and truck traffic was off 8.6 per cent. Operating revenues in November were two per cent off budget and seven per cent down from last year, Mr. Raskin said. Expenses also came in over budget, largely because of maintenance costs that were higher than anticipated.

With $26 million in cash and special purpose funds the boat line remains in sound financial shape, but Mr. Raskin said the trend on traffic and revenues is being tracked carefully. He said he expects the December numbers to show the same downward trend.