Stealth Lawsuit

When they made a conscious decision to stay quiet about the lawsuit against Ralph Packer and Tisbury Towing and Transportation last October, senior managers at the Steamship Authority may have forgotten for a moment that they work for a public agency. They didn’t hide the lawsuit, but they also didn’t say anything about it.

The apparent rationale was that by keeping things quiet they could negotiate with Mr. Packer and reach a quick settlement.

First, as a state-chartered transportation agency, the boat line is a government entity like any other and responsible to its rate payers, i.e. the traveling public in general and year-round residents of the two Islands in particular.

As for strategy, the best way to negotiate with the notoriously publicity-shy Mr. Packer was to make a public announcement about the lawsuit.

The decision to file the complaint was necessary and justified. The boat line must carefully guard its revenue stream and that is why it is allowed by law to license its competition in state waters. This protection is for the Islanders the boat line is chartered to serve. Mr. Packer, a respected businessman who runs an excellent barge and towing operation, among other things, has been operating without a license for years. That may have been fine when he was hauling fuel and modular homes — things the Steamship Authority would rather not carry — but when Tisbury Towing and Transportation began hauling rental cars the SSA properly stepped in to address a problem long overdue for attention.

The dispute may be settled before the spring sitting of Dukes County superior court; if not it will go to trial.

Meanwhile, the lack of transparency at the boat line on the lawsuit serves as an important reminder that the press is an essential check to the potential abuse of government power, whether in the corridors of Washington or the offices of the Woods Hole, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket Steamship Authority. A careful reading of the footnotes is always in order.

The issue calls to mind the words of South Dakota Sen. Nancy Turbak Berry when she introduced a bill establishing the presumption that all government records are public. She said: “We’ve got a proprietary attitude about government, like those who are elected or those who . . . work in it, own it. . . . We’ve got to be reminded that it really belongs to all of us.”