Room for improvement


The Steamship Authority’s board appears to be tone-deaf, not really understanding the public it serves.

We were troubled by this comment from Marc Hanover, the Martha’s Vineyard representative to the board, providing an update last month to the Dukes County commissioners: “[The] problem now is you’ve got a fleet of 10 boats that are on heavy, heavy schedules — seven and eight runs a day — and any issue gets magnified. When would a boat missing two runs make the Boston Globe? These boats are going to have issues, but it gets so magnified in the press now; it’s just a little out of control, and the only way to address that is through consistency, running in a timely fashion, and being reliable.”

We can tell you when it became magnified. That would be when the Steamship Authority missed 549 scheduled trips from January into April because of mechanical issues. At that point the entire Island community had Hanover’s back when some of his fellow board members wanted to look at the problems “in house.”

How soon he forgets.

But Hanover is not alone. The rest of the board seems to have selective memory as well. At last month’s board meeting, Robert Davis received a glowing review for his performance during his first year on the job. The average of his grades was in the 90th percentile. In other words, he got an A from the board.

Robert Jones, the Hyannis rep, thinks Davis did a “spectacular job.”

He says he’s not sure what would have happened if the authority had not hired from within.

Seriously? We’re not going to lay all of the problems of the first six months of 2018 at Davis’ feet, but he is the leader of an organization that had a tremendous failure rate, and had some outlandish public relations snafus. And it wasn’t all about the ferry fiascos.

Remember, the SSA computer system crashed when the season opened for ferry reservations? And how soon we forget that it was the SSA’s insurance company, after people’s cars were burned in a Falmouth parking lot through no fault of their own, that said the authority would not be responsible for any losses.

Then there was the incident where people, including Island teens, were stranded in Falmouth because the ferry failed to wait for the last bus of the night from Peter Pan. The issue has been resolved, but that was not a shining moment for either of the public transportation companies.

Are we completely blind to the fact that the SSA was going to hold a meeting on Nantucket, nearly impossible to get to from Martha’s Vineyard, at the same time there was a complete breakdown of the ferry service between Woods Hole and the Island? The SSA board ultimately caved to pressure and held the meeting at MVRHS, and it got a well-deserved earful.

New Bedford representative Moira Tierney was the only board member who seemed to understand that there is room for improvement for the SSA and Davis. She was right to call Davis out for stonewalling during the spring’s ferry fiasco. He showed a reluctance to hire an outside consultant to look at the SSA’s operations to determine what went wrong in the spring of 2018.

But even Tierney followed up her remarks using the word “magnificent” to describe Davis.

We’re guessing that “spectacular” and “magnificent” aren’t the words that regular users of the ferry service would use.

Davis has had some fine moments in his first year on the job. He saw the need to hire a communications person, and advocated for that position — someone who could interact with the public on social media and get to the root of issues quickly, before they fester. When there were so many breakdowns in March, he worked with SeaStreak to bring in a fast ferry to help shuttle commuters and passengers without vehicles back and forth. He also moved a ferry over from Nantucket to catch up on freight that needed to make it to Martha’s Vineyard. The SSA and Peter Pan also got together to iron out their communication issues.

It is through received wisdom that we measure organizations, especially nonprofits and quasi-government agencies, by how well they achieve their missions.

SSA’s mission is to provide “adequate transportation of persons and necessaries of life” for the Islands. “The Steamship Authority’s statutory mission is to serve as the ‘Lifeline to the Islands’ for everyone from year-round residents, who depend on the ferries for all commerce and transportation to and from the mainland, to a significant seasonal population, to the tourists who visit for a day, a week or longer,” the SSA website states.

Against that standard, an “A” seems like grade inflation.

There have been good moments, among some historic failures. Probably more of a solid B for Davis.

The SSA board already has reduced credibility in the eyes of the public it serves, and given the opportunity to show some leadership, it failed spectacularly and magnificently. Let’s hope the board does a much better job this month when it comes time to fix the problem the board created with the so-called “Lifeline” cards.