Boat Line Bill Set for Hearing

Sleeper Legislation Would Dilute Island Control of SSA Board; Unions Back the Measure, Management Does Not


The Steamship Authority is facing a fresh fight for its independence over union-backed attempts to change the composition of its board to dilute local representation and impose an increasing degree of state control.

To that end, a sleeper bill which would put the boat line under control of the Executive Office of Transportation and add another member to the board and to the port council is set for a public hearing before the Joint Committee on Transportation next week.

The hearing begins on Thursday at 11 a.m. in Room B1 at the state house in Boston.

Under the bill the new member would be the secretary of transportation or a designee of that office and the weighted vote of the two Island boat line governors would be reduced from 70 per cent to 60.

SSA general manager Wayne Lamson said this week that the boat line will vigorously oppose the bill, which he sees as a possible first step toward state takeover of the Authority, which now operates entirely independently. The 47-year-old state-chartered boat line is the only public transportation agency in the country that operates in the black without subsidy. The mission of the boat line is to provide dependable year-round ferry service to the residents of the two Islands.

The bill is similar to one previously rejected, which would have cut the Islands' weighted board vote to below fifty per cent, Mr. Lamson said.

"This is a little different from the one we were looking at a couple of years ago," he said, "but any piece of legislation that disrupts the operation of something which is working well is very significant."

Both Mr. Lamson and Cape and Islands Rep. Eric T. Turkington, who has represented the Island in the state house since 1989, suggested the bill was a tool being used by unions to try to gain leverage with the SSA during contract negotiations. The major union involved in negotiations denies the claim.

Mr. Lamson also noted one of the bill's three sponsors, Rep. Matthew C. Patrick of Falmouth, has a record of antipathy to Steamship Authority management.

"I know Matt Patrick was up two years ago before the committee on transportation telling them there was mismanagement at the highest levels of the Steamship Authority," Mr. Lamson said, adding: "He couldn't tell me, after I found out that he had made those statements, he couldn't give me any specifics.

"And he didn't think he needed to explain himself. But for some reason he made the statement but then wasn't able to cite any specific problems or examples of what he considered mismanagement."

Asked what Mr. Patrick's motivation might be, Mr. Lamson said: "We're in the middle of a fact-finding process in our negotiations with the unions. Maybe there are employees [of the boat line] in his district, who went to their state representative and asked for some help."

Titled An Act Relative to the Coordination of Intermodal Assets in the Commonwealth, the bill would not strip the Vineyard and Nantucket governors of their control over decision making, but it would add a sixth member to the five-member board and would give the new member access to the books, records and files of the SSA.

Mr. Lamson said he only became aware of the hearing last week, and has since been working to coordinate opposition to the bill.

He said it is important for Island officials to attend the hearing and testify.

"I've been talking to the board individually about it. I think the county commissioners and some of the boards of selectmen could speak for their communities about what they feel about the Authority's operation," Mr. Lamson said.

Mr. Lamson, who began working at the boat line as a ticket-taker more than 30 years ago, said he sees no need for a state representative on the board.

Mr. Turkington agreed. "Anyone can see what this is about," he said. "It's the unions." He continued:

"The bill was filed not as a government effort to change the Authority's board, but as a way of drawing attention to the unhappiness of unions that work at the Authority because they haven't had a contract for two or three years - which is a reasonable thing to be unhappy about, quite frankly.

"My understanding is the unions have suggested and the Authority has agreed for a fact finder to look at the issue [of stalled contract talks]. That process is under way. I don't think it is the legislature's job to muddy it up. If they had a settled contract, you wouldn't see bills like this being proposed."

But Bill Campbell, the Boston area representative for the Maritime Engineers Beneficial Association, said the union push for changes is unrelated to the pay dispute.

"Yes, we're in negotiations, but that has nothing to do with this bill, which would be filed even if we had a contract tomorrow," Mr. Campbell said. He continued:

"We filed this bill because we're concerned about the future of the Authority. They raise rates every year and they try to put the blame on us, on labor costs. But the fact is our costs to the authority have gone down each of the last four years. The reason rates are going up is because of management's flawed decision-making process. There's no real accountability.

"They don't want accountability and what this bill provides for is for the secretary of transportation to have some oversight of the Authority. We need transportation expertise to help run the Steamship Authority. Currently there is none. The board is a hodge podge of various business people without any transportation experience and it's reflected in the decisions they make.

"We are pushing this because the future of the Authority is our future too, and we want it managed better."