Cape and islands object to surprise SSA bill
Vineyard, Nantucket, and Barnstable elected officials joined forces this week to oppose a bill that would put the now independent Steamship Authority (SSA) within the Executive Office of Transportation and add a voting member at the expense of the islands.
The Joint Committee on Transportation is scheduled to hold a public hearing at 11 am this morning on House bill No. 3681.
SSA officials, including Marc Hanover, Vineyard Steamship Authority member, are expected to testify in opposition to a bill they said was instigated by union members.
The SSA and the Marine Engineering Beneficial Association (MEBA) have been unable to agree on a contract for more than four years. Bill Campbell, MEBA representative, said he also plans to attend.
Mr. Campbell denied any link between the legislation and failed contract negotiations.
The bill would expand the authority board from five to six members, adding the Secretary of Transportation or a designee. The weighted vote of the Vineyard and Nantucket members, now 35 percent each, would be reduced to 30 percent. The port council would also be expanded from five to six members.
Flint Ranney, Nantucket SSA member, said the legislation is not good for the islands that the Steamship Authority was created to serve, and has served successfully, for 47 years.
He said that the board and management are stable, the boatline just constructed two new boats in accordance with the Islands' wishes, is proceeding with major improvements to the ports of Hyannis and Oak Bluffs, and has managed to keep fare increases to a minimum through ever more efficient operations. .
Rep. Joseph F. Wagner of Chicopee in Western Mass, Rep. Mathew C. Patrick of Falmouth, and Rep. Cleon H. Turner of Barnstable filed the bill, entitled, "An act relative to the Coordination of Intermodal Assets in the Commonwealth."
Mr. Wagner is House committee chairman.
The interest of the three legislators in boatline operations has not been readily apparent. According to SSA counsel Steve Sayers, who records the minutes at monthly board meetings, none of the legislators has ever attended a board meeting. Mr. Sayers said that the SSA did receive a letter from Mr. Turner in support of previously filed legislation meant to force the boatline to engage in binding arbitration.
On Tuesday, The Times called all three legislators for comment. Mr. Turner was "on the phone and going into a meeting." Mr. Wagner was "in a meeting." Mr. Patrick was "in a meeting."
None of the busy lawmakers had returned the telephone call as of late yesterday.
In a letter dated May 11 addressed to the Senate and House chairmen of the Joint Committee on Transportation on behalf of the Dukes County Commissioners, Dukes County manager Winn Davis said the legislation would not improve the boatline or the board. "The Steamship Authority has proven quite capable at balancing its budget; modernizing its fleet; maintaining excellent service to those of us who depend on it daily, and it does so without state money or involvement."
Mr. Davis noted that the sponsoring representatives do not represent the islands and "have not even come to the Island to explain why they believe this bill is necessary or good for the islands, or how it will improve the operation of the Steamship Authority."
In a letter dated May 10, the Nantucket board of selectmen, who also serve as Nantucket County Commissioners, questioned the intent of legislation that would put the SSA under the Dept. of Transportation along with the Mass Turnpike Authority, Massport and other Boston-based agencies with which the SSA has no links.
"The Steamship Authority has been functioning extremely well as an independent agency serving Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard for over 40 years without any cost to the Commonwealth," wrote Chairman Whitey R. Willauer, "and we respectfully ask that you not change the situation."
On May 10, the Barnstable Town Council voted unanimously in opposition to the bill. In a letter dated May 15, the council provided three reasons why the town opposed the bill, including a lack of local discussion, public notification or debate about any restructuring of the SSA and the fact that the legislation was "submitted without the knowledge or support of any community impacted or served by the Steamship Authority."
In earlier comments Senator Robert O'Leary of Barnstable, who represents the Cape and Islands, and State representative Eric Turkington of Falmouth, who represents Falmouth and the Islands, said they oppose the legislation.
On Monday night Falmouth selectmen said they needed more information and took no action on the SSA legislation. Their decision was made on the eve of town elections Tuesday.
Mr. Patrick attended the selectmen's meeting with Mr. Campbell. Robert Marshall, Falmouth SSA member, was out of the country and did not attend.
In a telephone call Tuesday, Mr. Campbell, who represents approximately 250 MEBA members, said the legislation is necessary for the long-term viability of the SSA. Asked to describe the union's direct involvement in the bill's genesis, Mr. Campbell said, "We made legislators aware of our concerns and they thought it was prudent to act on our concerns."
In Mr. Campbell's view, state involvement would provide needed professional oversight. He said recent decisions and capital projects, for example the Island Home ferry, point to a need for transportation professionals capable of raising the red flag when bad decisions are about to be made.
Mr. Campbell refuted the charge that the union's legislative effort is tied to failed contract negotiations. "If we had a contract tomorrow, next month or a year from now it would not matter as far as us pushing this legislation forward," he said.
In previous comments regarding his negotiations with MEBA, SSA general manager Wayne Lamson said that management wanted to address longstanding issues aimed at improving productivity, operational efficiencies, and employee discipline, and reducing overtime and premium pay abuses resulting from contract restrictions.
"We are tired of being made the scapegoats for costly management decisions," said Mr. Campbell. "Our costs to the authority have gone down each of the past four years and management has raised rates each year. And each time they raise rates they blame it on the labor."
MEBA, which represents marine engineers and unlicensed vessel employees, and management have been engaged in sometimes bitter negotiations. Because the union is prohibited by law from striking, it has repeatedly sought the help of state legislators.