Governors Speak Out Sharply Against Union-Backed SSA Bill

Gazette Senior Writer

The Steamship Authority board of governors has formally protested a union-backed legislative bill that would shift control of the board away from the two Islands.

In a recent letter to the co-chairmen of the state Joint Committee on Transportation, the five members of the boat line board blasted Senate Bill 1853, which would increase the number of board members to seven and reduce the combined weighted vote of the Islands from 70 per cent to 40 per cent.

"The true facts reveal that the legislation does not deserve your support, that the legislation is totally unnecessary to improve the Authority's financial stability and that, indeed, it could have a potentially devastating effect on the Authority's ability to maintain what has been and will continue to be an efficient, economical, reliable and safe boat line for the islands of Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard," the SSA governors stated in the letter, dated Aug. 18.

The legislation would add the secretary of the executive office of transportation and a governor's appointee to the boat line board, giving them each a 15 per cent weighted vote. The Dukes County and Nantucket representatives each would have a 20 per cent vote, with the Barnstable, Falmouth and New Bedford representatives each holding a 10 per cent vote.

State Sen. Robert O'Leary, who opposes the bill, said it has yet to move out of the transportation committee. Mr. O'Leary anticipates no action will take place on the bill before the state legislature comes back into session later this month.

The SSA's August letter challenged a June 21 letter to the co-chairmen from William J. Campbell, a representative of the Marine Engineers Beneficial Association, one of the larger unions at the Steamship Authority, whose members are working without a contract.

In the June 21 letter, Mr. Campbell supported the Senate bill, which he said will better insure the boat line's financial health.

"This legislation will simply integrate the commonwealth's transportation experts on the SSA board to shore up its ability to avoid the fate of previous SSA board configurations," Mr. Campbell wrote. " . . . Without independent oversight and accountability, the SSA is doomed to repeat history."

The marine union represents about 200 employees who hold unlicensed positions on boat line ferries. Members include vessel pursers, bosuns, able-bodied seamen, ordinary seamen, cooks and oilers. The employees, previously represented by a different union, have been without a contract since April 2003. Boat line spokesmen and union representatives now are negotiating with the help of a nonbinding mediator.

The SSA governors wrote in their August 18 letter: "Due to the seriousness of the issues raised by the legislation, the irresponsibility of the legislation's provisions, and the falsity of certain allegations made in support of the legislation by the representative of one of the Steamship Authority's unions, we feel compelled to express our position on Senate Bill No. 1853."

The letter is signed by Vineyard governor and board chairman Marc Hanover, Nantucket governor Flint Ranney, Falmouth governor Robert Marshall, Barnstable governor Robert O'Brien and New Bedford governor David Oliveira.

In their letter, the governors said the boat line is a stable and financially viable entity, contradicting Mr. Campbell, who stated that the boat line "faces an uncertain fiscal future that may compromise the safety of those who rely on it every day," that the boat line is not a "thriving, sustainable authority," and that the bill was filed to "establish a financially viable and safe authority."

Responding to Mr. Campbell's assertions, the SSA governors wrote: "Nothing could be further from the truth."

When the state created the boat line in 1960, it included a mechanism to allow the SSA to assess communities served by the boat line in case of an operating deficit.

There has been no assessment since 1962, "and there is no indication we will need to do so in the foreseeable future," the governors wrote.

They also cited a 1994 University of Massachusetts-Boston study that praised the boat line. The study found that the SSA is the only unsubsidized ferry operation in the nation that provides year-round passage for both freight and passengers. The board also noted that the Kass Commission, appointed by the legislature to conduct a study in 2000 and 2001 of Steamship Authority operations, stated the boat line had succeeded in running safe and reliable service to the Islands without running a deficit.

The governors suggested that a hidden purpose of the proposed bill would be to "create an environment where the Authority will begin drawing on state financial resources for its operations."

The board also said the legislation, by transferring control of the boat line to the mainland, could replicate a situation that led to serious operating deficits in the earlier version of the boat line between 1948 and 1960.

SSA governors challenged an assertion by Mr. Campbell that no senior managers have direct maritime experience. Both the SSA port captain and director of engineering have commanded or served as officers on vessels, the governors said.

They also disputed Mr. Campbell's statement that the SSA had failed to pursue federal funding, saying that the boat line had obtained grants totaling more than $7 million over the past decade.

"The Authority," the governors wrote, "has remained a vibrant and unique example of a successful and economical government enterprise for over four decades."