Davis backs a new hire for SSA

Hanover calls for ‘top-notch consultant’ to help realize HMS recommendations.

Steamship Authority general manager Robert Davis, foreground, and New Bedford board member Moira Tierney, background at the second of two back to back SSA meetings Tuesday. — Rich Saltzberg

Updated Jan. 23

Just one month after a consultant suggested staffing changes for the Steamship Authority, general manager Robert Davis backed securing a director of marine operations at a special double meeting in Falmouth Tuesday. The board will vote on the six-figure position at the next monthly meeting in February.

Davis also backed a health, safety, quality, and environmental protection (HSQE) director, but could not reach a consensus with the board on the position.

Former general counsel Steve Sayers, who has been the SSA’s liaison to HMS, told the board HMS sent a letter expressing interest in changing gears to help implement the recommendations it put forth in its report. Board chairman Robert Jones and New Bedford representative Moira Tierney took issue with that possibility. Jones pointed out he was discouraged HMS has yet to come through with the communications portion of its report, and questioned whether HMS has established a track record that merits further business. Tierney said she felt it was a conflict for the company to try to implement the recommendations it made in its report. The board did not put the idea to a vote.

Marc Hanover, the Vineyard’s representative on the board, said “before we get in too deep” on the HMS report’s human resources recommendations, an industry specialist who he hoped would be a “top-notch consultant” should be secured to facilitate the selection process with management and the board. He went on to say, “We already lost two months since this report came out. We can’t be waiting. We need to get moving on this. This needs to get done.”

The SSA has still not scheduled a meeting on Martha’s Vineyard, where the decision to hire an outside consultant was pushed for after a series of mechanical breakdowns resulted in more than 500 trip cancellations in the first four months of 2018.

Last month, HMS Consulting recommended sweeping changes for the authority based on its top-to-bottom review.

Jones said the SSA paid a price for making the report public, and posited that if the SSA were private and more secretive, it would not have endured the lambasting it has since the report was released. “I have my own personal thoughts on the report,” Jones said. “Being that it’s a public report, it cost us a lot of comments and things like that. If this was a private company, those would have been accepted in-company, in-house …”

“Have we identified how much this is going to cost?” Tierney asked regarding the consultant’s recommendations. “How we’re going to pay for it, how we’re going to pay for it and continue to build boats, which we’re going to need, and what period of time, you know, we’re looking to implement it?”

Hanover said while he did not agree with all of the consultant’s human resources recommendations, installing them or a portion of them will save the SSA a “substantial amount of money.” He pointed out the frugality HMS said the SSA suffered from. “The report also said they felt penny-pinching has put us in this situation,” he said.

Tierney said she didn’t disagree with Hanover, and that she supported HMS recommendations, but nevertheless, she said, the SSA needed to “make informed” financial decisions going forward. At present, no costs or budgetary plans have been made clear. She said there is a lot of pressure on the bottom line, and theorized the SSA will have to take out a bond to “support working capital.”

“I agree both with Ms. Tierney and Mr. Hanover 100 percent,” Nantucket representative Robert Ranney said. Ranney also said he also liked how HMS suggested separating shore-side and marine-side operations. “But I’m concerned about costs as well, and I’m concerned about getting this done in a timely fashion,” he said. “I think we’re all concerned about that.”

He went on to say, “There are going to be rate increases. Where else does our revenue come from?”

In an interview after the meetings, Davis said looking to the legislature is a possibility for extra funding.

“Right now we do run autonomously from the state. HMS pointed out we’re one of the few public ferry operators in the world, never mind the U.S., that [operates from] 100 percent fare box recovery,” he said. “Whether the state would be willing to assist in any sort of grants or things like that, those are avenues we are always looking into.”

The SSA is actively exploring state and federal programs that may “assist us in coming up with some operational funds,” he said.

Asked if he changed his position on voyage data recorders a.k.a. vessel data recorders, which he told The Times in December the SSA is not obligated to use, Davis said he’d opt to defer the question to people he hasn’t hired yet: “It’s something that at some point I’m sure we’ll be looking at. I think part of this is we need to get qualified individuals for our marine operations piece of [the recommendations] — the director of marine operations and the port captain — and would utilize their recommendations in terms of if that is something we should have.”

The SSA has been without a port captain since Charles “Greg” Gifford retired last year. Davis told the board during discussion on positions that needed to be filled that HMS requested he not hire a new port captain until the report was generated.

In his written report to the board, Davis suggested hiring a planner instead of spending $125,000 on an outside consultant in order to craft the strategic plan HMS said was needed. “The planner could also be an additional resource for studying numerous other projects that have consumed or otherwise would consume the time of the management staff, such as the feasibility of providing freight service from New Bedford and barging municipal solid waste from Martha’s Vineyard …” Davis wrote. The planner could attempt to identify state or federal funding while working with the Island communities, he wrote.

During the second of the two meetings, Ranney threw his support behind Davis’s planner suggestion.

Davis also made a pitch to keep the assistant port captain position. The position serves “great value” as a “liaison between our fleet personnel and the incoming port captain and director of marine operations,” Davis wrote.

Jones announced that Falmouth member Elizabeth Gladfelter resigned her position via a brief letter. He did not indicate what reason she put forth for bowing out, but said, “I think she was a very valuable member of this board.” He noted Falmouth selectmen have yet to appoint her replacement. Jones also pointed out the treasurer/comptroller position is vacant after Gerald Murphy’s anticipated resignation occurred. Davis volunteered to assume his work until the position could be filled.

Updated to include more details from Tuesday’s meeting. -Ed.