Updated March 6
HMS Consulting president John Sainsbury presented his company’s findings on the Steamship Authority’s performance to a largely empty Performing Arts Center in Oak Bluffs Tuesday night.
Pushed for by Vineyard SSA board member Marc Hanover, the presentation was meant to offer Islanders a personal walk-through of the independent consultant’s report commissioned last summer, and also meant as an opportunity to pose questions to Sainsbury and SSA brass. Only about two dozen Islanders occupied seats for the presentation, a far cry from the charged meeting last May in the same space when the idea of a thorough review of the ferry line was forged. At that time, Islanders were still reeling from a string of unprecedented mechanical breakdowns that left some of them stranded and inconvenienced.
Despite the small turnout, Islanders vented their concerns as soon as Sainsbury and Glosten representative Matt Lankowski delivered a less detailed rendition of the first presentation given on the report in December at Falmouth High School.
Unveiling the report in Falmouth first didn’t go over well with Islander Doug Pease.
“First of all, I have to step back and say I was shocked and appalled that the first meeting was not here, because I have to believe that the majority of your traffic and revenue comes from this rock,” he said. “So from a PR and communications standpoint, that was a huge black eye that frankly didn’t endear yourself to the Island — not to mention that many of you don’t live here, I don’t believe.”
Concerns were raised about how well the session was advertised, though SSA spokesman Sean Driscoll said it was on the SSA website under news and releases were provided to the local press.
“I think it’s more than just putting it on a website,” Pease said. “There are a lot of senior folks here on this Island. We have like the highest concentration of seniors on the planet practically. Many of them don’t use the web.”
Neither Davis nor Driscoll floated a remedy for reaching senior passengers with critical updates.
Oak Bluffs planning board chairman Ewell Hopkins highlighted the polarity in SSA function between providing a lifeline for Vineyarders and ferrying seasonal visitors, and asked if the “conflicts” and “complements” between the two were examined as part of the investigation of the SSA mission statement.
Hopkins also asked if the needs of terminal towns like Vineyard Haven and Oak Bluffs were taken into consideration.
“In terms of long-term planning, was there any discussion around integrating long-term planning with at least the port towns that are served and beyond?” he asked. “Meaning, the Steamship is doing a lot of work on focusing on operations. The municipalities that host the Steamship do a lot of work on keeping the lights on and running the businesses — who’s looking long-term at the strategic directions and challenges and goals of the towns and how that needs to be complemented by the mission and the goals of the Steamship?”
“Both the issues you mentioned certainly came up in discussions,” Sainsbury said. “I’m afraid I’m going to give you somewhat of a disappointing answer, which is we simply didn’t have time to get to any level of detail [of] how specifically to address those. Where we stopped, essentially, is there is no long-range plan, and there is a mission statement, but it’s not very well-known or circulated, and it’s probably time for an update.”
Sainsbury went on to say he’d illustrated in his presentation “cost versus reliability versus frequency of service” in relation to the question of whom the SSA serves, though he added his presentation only outlined the tradeoffs in broad strokes, and the heart of the matter “gets a lot more complicated and nuanced.” He said the study concluded more time and resources should be spent by the board and port council to examine and make public what the SSA’s service priorities are. “That’s a whole project unto itself,” he said.
Islander Nelson Smith said he hadn’t experienced travel problems with the SSA because he plans ahead to avoid foul weather or “vessels that are having issues.” Nevertheless, he supported implementation of most recommendations HMS put forth.
“I think they’re good recommendations,” he said.
Smith also said he wanted to see independent compliance reviews and data collection.
Sainsbury pointed out the safety management system (SMS) and the quality management system (SMS) recommended in the report are “externally audited” compliance vehicles that would help ensure the SSA stays on track.
At their February meeting in Hyannis, the board voted 3-0 to send out request-for-proposal packages for SMS and QMS vendors. At that same meeting, the board voted 3-1 to spend $135,000 to hire HMS to help implement the report it generated. New Bedford board member Moira Tierney took issue with HMS being paid to advise on its own report, describing it as a conflict of interest. The audience posed no questions on that subject Tuesday night. Also at the Hyannis meeting, the board voted 4-0 to fill two major new positions recommended in the report: a director of health, safety, quality, and environmental protection (HSQE), and a director of marine operations. At that meeting HMS declined to advise on SMS and QMS because they deemed it a conflict. When asked about this at the close of the presentation, Davis said this was because they were weighing whether they wanted to be the vendor for those services.
“At the time they were considering whether they were going to submit a proposal for that portion of it, and they decided that they [won’t],” Davis said, “that it’s more important to assist us in facilitating implementation of their recommendations.”
Largely absent from Sainsbury’s presentation was reference to the tardy communications portion of the report. Sainsbury walked the board through that portion at the Hyannis meeting, but had no slides in his presentation dedicated to explaining it to Vineyarders in Oak Bluffs.
“This was their Island presentation,” Davis said of HMS. “How they presented it was up to them — what they presented.” Davis pointed to Sainsbury’s efforts to explain that portion of the report in Hyannis.
Sainsbury said repeatedly the SSA must wean itself from over-reliance on the U.S. Coast Guard as a monitor for safety and quality assurance, and that the SSA must put in place procedures and practices, as outlined in the report, that will ensure it can better police itself.
The SSA has already made strides toward realizing recommendations in the report, Sainsbury said. The implementation process won’t be painless, he said.
“It’s not necessarily going to be an easy path. I’m just going to come right out and say that,” Sainsbury said. “But what I think what everyone needs to acknowledge is that what happened in the spring was not an anomaly. There were incidents because there were not contingencies in place and there were not processes in place to prevent them. And that’s going to continue to happen if those aren’t addressed. The operating environment in the maritime industry is changing, and the SSA needs to change with it.”
Sainsbury did not respond to press questions about the report, or his firm’s new advisory role with the SSA.
Updated with more details from meeting. -Ed.