An abrupt resignation, a reappointment, two long-term vacancies and no planned meetings: that’s the current status of the Vineyard Transit Authority’s advisory board as the full-time drivers’ strike enters a third week, prompting picketers and some of the board’s own members to call into question the powers of the authority’s oversight body.

Twenty-one full-time VTA drivers walked off the job two weeks ago today, protesting stalled contract negotiations with Transit Connection Inc. (TCI), a Florida-based company contracted by the VTA to operate the buses.

Striking driver Rich Michelson hands out leaflets to passing tourists on Church street in Edgartown. — Ray Ewing

While the drivers have spent the last two weeks pleading their case on the picket line and in selectmen’s meetings, contract negotiations have remained at a standstill. The VTA has kept most buses running with a combination of managers and replacement drivers behind the wheel. 

Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU), the union that represents the drivers, and TCI have been in talks with a federal mediator since January in an attempt to find common ground over wages, seniority perks, safety regulations and other issues. In the past week, however, a series of events have focused attention on the VTA board, thrusting the little-known advisory committee into the limelight.

On Monday, Edgartown selectmen received news that their representative on the VTA board, Louis Paciello, had resigned. In a brief letter sent to the selectmen, Louis Paciello cited a lack of time for the position and other family commitments as a reason for his sudden departure. Town administrator James Hagerty said the town was surprised by the resignation and estimated that the town would post the vacancy for two weeks before making an appointment.

Then on Tuesday, Tisbury representative Elaine Miller, who had learned over the July 4th weekend that her term had expired, came before the Tisbury selectmen, who swiftly reappointed her to the post. With a contingent of striking drivers present at the meeting, Ms. Miller outlined her concerns with the advisory board to the selectmen.

“We have not been as engaged as we need to as a board and that has bothered me.” Mrs. Miller said. “We’ve had a couple more board members who will not show up for board meetings, and so we don’t have a quorum. So I’m kind of operating by myself, which is not appropriate.”

According to the transit authority’s website, the advisory board meets four to six times per year and has broad oversight powers over the VTA administrator, Angela Grant. Under Chapter 161B of the Massachusetts General Laws, the VTA’s enabling legislation, the board hires Ms. Grant, sets her salary and is responsible for setting the general policy and vision of the authority. 

In a letter sent to Ms. Grant and other members of the advisory board, Mrs. Miller said the board has not met since the strike began. She said she has attempted to coordinate a meeting but has met with communication gridlock. She also felt the board was neglecting its responsibilities to the drivers by not meeting publicly.

“We are by no means excused from participation in any function that affects the efficient and timely operation of the VTA,” Mrs. Miller wrote in part. “There is no option to independently ‘opt out’ of participation and there should not be any independent discussions. All these issues and discussions should be held at an official meeting attended by all members and recorded by the secretary.”

The board is made up of one designee from each Island town appointed by the chairman of the board of the selectmen, along with a rider representative and representative of the disabled community. According to Mrs. Miller, the latter two positions have been vacant for over a year. The enabling legislation states that the positions should be filled on a yearly, rotating basis by towns serviced by the authority.

At the Tisbury selectmen’s meeting Tuesday, board chairman Melinda Loberg noted that the town missed its opportunity to appoint an at-large representative to the board last year — which according to town assistant Alex Kral rotates on an alphabetical basis.

“We missed our opportunity in 2017 when a letter did not arrive to us reminding us to make this appointment,” Mrs. Loberg said. “We know that other towns too have not made their appointments in the correct rotation — or at all, resulting in vacancies on the board, which is deplorable.”

On Thursday afternooon, drivers took their picketing into the Edgartown town hall, where advisory board member Leonard Jason Jr. works. Mr. Jason was not in his office. — Ray Ewing

On Wednesday, the West Tisbury selectmen joined the growing chorus of concerned public officials, calling on the VTA advisory board to schedule a meeting.

“I am proposing for the VTA board to have a meeting where we could go and ask them some questions about the process,” selectmen Jeffrey (Skipper) Manter 3rd. Speaking of the driver dispute, he said: “It’s been going on five years . . . I have an issue with that, no matter what side you’re on.” 

Alice Butler, chairman of the VTA advisory board, could not be reached for comment. In her letter, Mrs. Miller said that Ms. Butler did not feel the board had any control over contract negotiations between the striking drivers and TCI, and did not feel a need to call the meeting.

At press time Thursday, no meeting of the VTA board had been called.

VTA’s Five-Year Contract With TCI

TCI, based in Winter Springs, Fla., is midway through its second five-yearcontract with the VTA. The VTA supplied the Gazette with a copy of the contract following a formal request under the Massachusetts Public Records Law.

Under the contract, TCI has full authority to hire drivers and operate the Island bus system. Ms. Grant, as administrator, has the power to renew the contract on a yearly basis until 2022. Although TCI has control of labor relations under the contract, the administrator, who serves at the pleasure of the advisory board, retains the power to terminate the contract at any time, with 90 days written notice to TCI.

According to the contract, the VTA will pay TCI $98,452 in management fees in 2019-2020. The contract also states that the use of any subcontractors and consultants by TCI requires prior written approval from the VTA. TCI has retained labor relations consultant Greg Dash to help with the contract negotiations between the company and striking drivers.

The drivers’ effort to negotiate a contract goes back for half a decade. In 2015, full-time drivers with TCI informed the company that they had voted to unionize, beginning a three-year legal battle between the company and its drivers over their collective bargaining rights. A decision by the 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals last June affirmed the drivers’ right to join the union, but the drivers have as yet been unable to negotiate a contract. The drivers are not officially members of the union until a contract is signed, but are still represented by ATU in their bargaining negotiations. 

Meanwhile, this week striking drivers began to expand their picketing from bus stops and transit hubs to government offices where some VTA board members work.

On Wednesday, drivers hand delivered a letter to chairman Alice Butler at her office in the Oak Bluffs town hall. The letter demands that the advisory board hold a meeting to discuss the pending negotiations, declaring the board’s inability to hold a meeting a “failure to engage in even its most basic oversight and governance responsibilities.”

“We asked her to have a meeting and she [Ms. Butler] said it wasn’t necessary,” said Richard Townes, a longtime driver and leading spokesmen for the VTA drivers. “It feels like they’re just giving up . . . but we think that the advisory board should treat this as though it is important. And maybe they can force the administration to talk to the subcontractor [TCI],” he added. 

On Thursday, drivers picketed outside the Edgartown town hall office of Leonard Jason Jr. Mr. Jason is the Chilmark representative to the VTA advisory board. He works as the Edgartown building inspector.

Mr. Jason was not there and his office was closed, but striking drivers went into other town hall offices seeking support.

Speaking to the Gazette by phone one day earlier, Charles Ryan, president of the ATU, said he believes the advisory board is not fulfilling its duty.

“I’ve been on the Island walking the picket line morning noon and evening,” he said. “There is a letter being sent out by our legal department warning litigation if nothing improves, and calling for Angie’s resignation and Alice Butler’s resignation. 

He concluded: “We need to get the board to be a functioning board as defined by the bylaws . . . Because that is not what’s happening.” 

Caroline Kaplan contributed reporting.