Nantucket Asks: What's the Big Deal?

Gazette Senior Writer

It was the logical next step in a business matter that began last February.

This is the viewpoint on Nantucket, where residents and elected officials are apparently mystified at last week's flap over the news that draft legislation is now circulating to study breaking up the public boat line which has been the lifeline to the two Islands since 1960.

"I guess I don't understand the furor. Is the furor over the fact that there wants to be further study done? This just dovetails with what the community of Nantucket told Grace [Nantucket SSA governor Grace Grossman] last winter, which is to explore this to the maximum to make sure we have all the facts before we can make a decision," said Tim Soverino, chairman of the Nantucket selectmen.

The draft bill would have the state legislature appoint a study committee to examine the feasibility of splitting the boat line into two separate entities. The legislation has not yet been filed as a bill. News of the draft legislation surfaced last week when Steamship Authority chief executive officer Fred C. Raskin released a letter to local newspapers that singled out Nantucket SSA governor Grace Grossman for harsh criticism. Among other things, Mr. Raskin warned that the legislation could pose a threat to capital projects if it queers the boat line's standing in the bond market.

Mr. Raskin is leaving his post after two years on the job, although he has not said when.

This week the people of both Islands struggled to sort out the latest tangle of politics around the boat line. Mr. Raskin, whose poor relationship with Nantucket has been an ongoing problem, continued to make caustic public comments about Mrs. Grossman.

Last February more than 450 Nantucket residents gave their unanimous approval for a group led by Mrs. Grossman to study a possible boat line split. The study group includes Flint Ranney, a member of the Nantucket port council, and several men with trucking interests on Nantucket and in Barnstable, the mainland port town for Nantucket.

The group has engaged the paid services of Thomas Kiley, a prominent Boston attorney who is a former assistant state attorney general under Francis X. Bellotti. The group has also hired former Cape and Islands Sen. Henri Rauschenbach as a lobbyist. The study group has functioned well below the public radar since it formed. The source of funding for the group is unknown.

The draft bill that surfaced last week was curiously absent any fingerprints - Mrs. Grossman and Mr. Ranney both said they had not seen it; ditto for Cape and Island Sen. Robert O'Leary and Rep. Eric T. Turkington. Mr. Turkington and Mr. O'Leary both expressed doubt that the draft could make its way into bill form before the state legislature adjourns for the summer in two weeks. Both also said they would not support such a bill unless it had the support of all the port towns.

In a telephone interview with the Gazette this week, Mr. Soverino said he is unfazed by the news about the draft legislation.

"Unless there is something I'm missing, I'm not sure why everyone is all bunched over this at this point," he said, adding: "Unless they are fearful that it might make sense to split the authority."

Mr. Soverino said there is logic in letting the state legislature appoint some kind of study committee in order to keep things at arm's length.

"It seems to me that Fred Raskin in particular and the Steamship Authority in general - they wouldn't be the most objective at looking at this, because it would be taking an empire and splitting it in two," he said.

The Nantucket selectman suggested that Mr. Raskin may have overreacted.

"I think some of the shots he took at Grace were clearly uncalled for - it seems to me this kind of examination of the facts that we've asked Grace to go out and garner - if the legislature wants to take a look at it, clearly that makes sense to me. It would need legislative support anyway," Mr. Soverino said.

He also said he is not bothered by the fact that the work of the Nantucket study group has gone on out of the public eye.

"When the group that's looking into the feasibility of this has completed their work they will issue some sort of verbal report to us at a meeting one night," Mr. Soverino said. He continued:

"Did we know about this before? The answer to that is no, but I'm not sure we needed to. We told Grace to report back when they have a conclusion."

Despite the dearth of any public discussion, Mr. Soverino said selectmen are not uninformed about the work of the study group.

"We have not met formally about this, but I am in Grace's office talking to her about all kinds of Steamship Authority issues and it would be wrong of me to say I haven't asked her, ‘How's it going [with the study group],' " he said, adding: "I didn't know the timeline of the legislation being filed, but by the same token I am not surprised that Grace is doing due diligence. To me this seemed to be a natural progression."

Mr. Soverino said there has been no stir on Nantucket over the news about the draft bill now circulating on Beacon Hill.

"No, I don't think so at all. The only two calls I've had on this are from Martha's Vineyard," he said. "I'm not only content as a selectman, but I believe that is exactly what our community has asked for. We all are waiting to see what the study will come back and report."

He also spoke out about the growing rift between the two Islands, which he said has been fueled in the last year by a dominant mainland perspective inside the boat line, from senior management down to the boat line board. He called it all unnecessary.

"In the grand scheme of things, it's too bad that the Islands haven't tried to protect one another because if the Islands were looking out for one another this wouldn't be needed," Mr. Soverino said. He continued:

"Both Islands could control what we want for whatever reason … but along the way, and I don't know what the reason is, it seems like the Islands haven't supported each other. I'm not sure why that is.

"It doesn't seem to me like Nantucket has been a bad neighbor to the Vineyard, but it seems like the Vineyard representative has been less than supportive of Nantucket, and it's too bad we're at this point. And I'm not sure its repairable because you can't legislate that both Islands vote together - but boy, it sure seems to me like it would be a very simple matter to come to some kind of understanding with each other."

On Nantucket hard feelings linger over the boat line meeting last November, when senior managers turned a deaf ear on more than 100 residents and business leaders who turned out to protest a planned advertising venture with J. Crew.

The residual anger was evident at the February meeting. Mr. Soverino said the November meeting is so much history, but he said in some ways it was a defining moment.

"Let's face it - we were a dysfunctional family before that, but I do think that was a turning point. I think maybe the true colors of the way the authority portrays Nantucket have never shown as bright as they did that day," he said.

All the bad blood aside, Mr. Soverino said the real reason for the study is the need to examine costs.

"This is absolutely driven by a desire to study, not to split. The effort being put forward by Grace and others is to make sure that Nantucket knows going into the future what the options are. We really won't know what kind of conclusion to draw until we can see what the result is. I'm looking forward to that and I think all Nantucketers are looking forward to that. It has nothing to do with being a bad neighbor, and it has everything to do with the desire to minimize our costs,'' he said, concluding:

"What is it Joe Friday used to say - we need the facts, just the facts, ma'm, and nothing more than that."