For Steamship Governor, Heated Questions About Direction, Accountability

Gazette Senior Writer

Amid fresh eddies of controversy swirling around the Steamship Authority, Vineyard boat line governor Kathryn A. Roessel came under heavy fire this week from an array of county officials - including members of the Dukes County Commission, her appointing authority - who demanded better communication and more accountability.

County commission chairman John S. Alley sharply rebuked Ms. Roessel for poor handling of recent events on Nantucket and called for an apology.

"The Steamship Authority ought to apologize to Nantucket for their conduct," Mr. Alley said, referring to the now-infamous November boat line meeting on Nantucket and the flap over a botched J. Crew advertising venture that remains a sore point more than two months after it took place.

"If this half-baked scheme was sprung upon the Vineyard the firestorm of protest would have been just as large," Mr. Alley declared.

The comments came during the regular Wednesday night meeting of the county commission.

It was a tough night for Ms. Roessel, who found herself on the hot seat more than once – first for her position on the brewing controversy with Nantucket, and later in the same meeting for a new boat line policy that has eliminated the use of excursion fares for local governments, including towns and the county.

County commissioners Leonard Jason Jr. and Robert Sawyer defended Ms. Roessel, but their comments were eclipsed by the litany of complaints that spilled out.

Mr. Alley set the tone at the outset with his blunt monologue about the new rift with Nantucket.

Last month it was revealed that Nantucket SSA governor Grace Grossman had privately approached high-ranking state officials about the possibility of splitting the state-chartered Steamship Authority into two separate entities.

A public forum is planned for Monday night on Nantucket to discuss this issue, which appears to have growing support among Nantucketers, angry about perceived poor treatment of their island by boat line management and also some members of the board of governors.

The November SSA meeting erupted in anger over a plan by the boat line to allow J. Crew to distribute catalogues during the popular Christmas Stroll weekend. The plan had not been shared with Nantucket business leaders, elected officials or Mrs. Grossman.

Mr. Alley said he had watched a tape of the meeting on cable television, and he called it "the last straw," and "a tasteless and irresponsible act." He also reprimanded Ms. Roessel for her own behavior at the meeting.

"Sadly the conduct and remarks made at that meeting by our governor were inappropriate and insensitive to the citizens of Nantucket," he said.

The county commission chairman then went on to blast the boat line for its new advertising policy, singling out for special criticism the plan to publish a glossy four-color magazine.

"Upon reflection this whole notion of advertising on the boats and an ‘in-float' magazine is a waste of money and appears to me to be nothing more than justifying a job," Mr. Alley said, in an undisguised jab at Paula Peters, the new director of marketing and communications for the boat line.

Mr. Alley said he had asked the county manager to contact the Nantucket county commissioners, who are also the selectmen, to plan a joint meeting. The meeting is tentatively set for sometime in April.

"The Islands should be unified and work together to set policy and not have it dictated to them - the Islands have worked well together and hopefully we can get back on track," Mr. Alley concluded.

Ms. Roessel wrote a letter to the county commission late last week attempting to clarify her position in the new debate over whether to split the boat line into two separate entities. The letter aims barbed remarks at Nantucket.

"I have come to the conclusion that - since nobody on Beacon Hill is apparently taking Mrs. Grossman very seriously [about the proposal to split the boat line in two] - we probably shouldn't either," Ms. Roessel wrote. Referring to Mrs. Grossman and her late husband, Bernard, who preceded her as Nantucket governor, she wrote: "The fact is, Nantucket has never had the public interest in the SSA that we have here. They have always left everything to the Grossmans."

On Wednesday night Mr. Alley called the letter "arrogant and inaccurate."

"Oooh, I sure hope it's not arrogant," Ms. Roessel said just before she read the letter into the record of the meeting.

Other reaction to the letter was mixed.

"I don't think your letter was arrogant, I think you were right on point," said Mr. Jason.

"I think the letter was fine," said Mr. Sawyer.

"I'm on the other side of the letter - I think it could have been a little more gentle in its choice of words," said county commissioner Roger Wey.

Ms. Roessel attributed the J. Crew flap to a misunderstanding over what she called the new CEO model at the boat line. Two years ago when boat line governors hired chief executive officer Fred C. Raskin, the top-ranking job title was changed from general manager to CEO.

Ms. Roessel pointed, for example, to an unrelated event last fall, when the Oak Bluffs selectmen were unhappy about a proposal to cut back the fall schedule for boats running into the Oak Bluffs terminal.

Selectmen were savvy about what to do, Ms. Roessel said: "They went to Fred Raskin to talk about it."

But when it came to the J. Crew problem, Ms. Roessel said the people of Nantucket failed to heed to nuances of the new management model. "Instead of having private meetings with management or sending their representative to meet with management, they got together a large angry crowd and came to the meeting and just started attacking. The entire board - with the exception of Mrs. Grossman - was just gob-smacked," she said.

She said the people of Nantucket missed the important issue of the day.

"We walked into that room fat, dumb and happy, and I would say the more serious issue on the table was the fare increase [proposed for Nantucket under the new budget for the coming year]. But instead it was all about a sweater catalogue," she said.

County commissioner Leslie Leland tried to steer the discussion back on track.

"I'm baffled here. I thought we were talking about Nantucket pulling out and I haven't heard anything about that," he said. "My feeling is that the Steamship Authority members at their next meeting should have this discussion with Grace Grossman. They need to find out what the issues are to see if things can be worked out," he said.

County commissioner Nelson Smith agreed.

"I think the Steamship Authority board of governors needs to sit down and talk," he said.

As the meeting wore on, Ms. Roessel continued to feel the heat.

A trio of county officials - sheriff Michael McCormack, register of deeds Dianne Powers and county treasurer Noreen Flanders - sharply criticized a new policy that prohibits local governments from using low-cost excursion fares for travel on official business.

The policy was voted on by the boat line board in November and went into effect Jan. 1, the beginning of the SSA fiscal year.

County officials said no one was told about the new fare structure, which has hit towns and county government midway through their own fiscal years - and there is no extra money in the budget to pay for added travel expenses.

Ms. Roessel said the new policy was intended to cut down on abuse of the excursion fares and also to pare down the number of users, because the boat line loses money on the cut-rate fares.

She said towns and counties travel using half-price vouchers, but once the vouchers are applied to excursion fares, it amounts to "double dipping."

County leaders disagreed with the premise, and said they were offended at Ms. Roessel's choice of words.

"This is official business. We are transporting prisoners, we're going to meetings. We're not going shopping - it's not personal," Sheriff McCormack said.

"There is no abuse. And if you are going to increase the fees, at least give us some notice. And I take offense at the term double dipping. It implies that we are doing something unethical," he added.

"This is taxpayer money and we are trying to be fiscally responsible," said Ms. Powers.

"If I don't balance the budget I have to assess the towns," Ms. Roessel said.

"Well, so do I," Ms. Powers shot back.

County manager E. Winn Davis asked Ms. Roessel to either suspend the new fare structure until July 1 or eliminate the new fares altogether.

Ms. Roessel said she would take up the issue at the next board meeting this month.

She also apologized for her use of the term double dipping, but insisted on having the last word.

"I get money from fares to run my boats, and I don't ask people from your office to come over and ride my boats," she told the three elected county officials.