County commissioners interview SSA candidates

The chairmanship of the Steamship Authority board is up for grabs.

Leon Brathwaite, a Dukes County commissioner, answers questions about his application to serve on the SSA board. - Rich Saltzberg

Nine people came before the Dukes County commissioners Wednesday afternoon in hopes of being appointed to the board of the Steamship Authority. 

The Vineyard’s longtime representative, Marc Hanover, announced in January he would not seek reappointment to the board. Hanover is the board’s current chairman, and whichever candidate is appointed will take over for him.

Chairmanship notwithstanding, the Vineyard seat is endowed with greater voting weight than several of the other port communities on the board. Like Nantucket, the Vineyard casts a vote worth 35 percent of the five-member board, whereas Falmouth, Barnstable, and New Bedford are weighed at 10 percent each. Therefore one vote from whoever occupies the Vineyard seat supersedes Falmouth, Barnstable, and New Bedford combined.

On March 4, Dukes County commissioners will deliberate and decide who will wield that powerful vote. 

Chilmark selectman Jim Malkin, Martha’s Vineyard Commissioner Clarence (“Trip”) Barnes, Babson College vice president Jane Edmonds, Dukes County Commissioner Leon Brathwaite, former Aquinnah selectman Elmer Vanderhoop, marketing executive Allen Carney, mechanics expert Michael Lyons, former Aquinnah assessor Angela Cywinski, tech management consultant Rob Lytle, and transportation consultant Jacqueline Noel have all applied for the appointment. Noel was the only candidate not interviewed Wednesday. Her session will take place on Feb. 12, along with candidates for the airport commission. 

Brathwaite was first to be interviewed by the commissioners. Before that began, he announced he would recuse himself from voting on candidates or sitting in on their interviews.

“I’m doing this to eliminate any appearance of a conflict of interest, or any violation of MGL chapter 268A,” he said.

In a past interview with The Times, Brathwaite said he believed he could vote for himself, if need be. He said there was a commission precedent to do so. He also said he ran sitting in on the interviews of the other candidates by the state Ethics Commission, and got a green light. 

Brathwaite had said the reason no conflict was at play was because neither his role as a county commissioner nor the SSA board position offered any compensation. However, The Times discovered SSA board members received free or discounted passage on SSA ferries, which may constitute compensation. Brathwaite did not respond to an email sent Monday inquiring if he informed the Ethics Commission of the perks afforded SSA board members.

Brathwaite suggested that to remedy problems at the SSA, a focus should be made on the little things. “If they fix the small things, the big things will fix themselves,” he said. 

As to the greenness of the SSA, he said work was needed. “I think that their carbon footprint needs to be addressed,” he said. He pointed to the hybrid conversion project Washington State Ferries has begun with its largest boat class, the Jumbo Mark II. 

He said absent conversion, those boats are “burning a thousand gallons of fuel an hour.”

He said suggested assessing what the current fuel usage for the SSA fleet, and to consider running the vessels slower as a fuel-saving measure. 

Malkin offered a short list of things he would work toward, including reliability, affordability, direct communication with passengers, environmental impacts, “and the bottom line.” He said those issues “need to be dealt with right away, not just in the future.”

He went on to say the SSA needed to adopt an “execution culture, where things get done” and that his mantras were “holding people accountable” and “getting stuff done.”

He handed each commissioner a binder containing plans for 30, 60, and 90 days out from the day he was appointed, and said he was prepared to spend two entire days a week working in Falmouth during his tenure. 

Cywinski was less concrete, and described the nautical and logistics heritage of her family, and the kindness the SSA showed her after she endured a family tragedy, and suggested such attention to passengers had ebbed. “I would like to see that warm hug come back as best it can,” she said. 

She suggested the ferry line was too focused on the value of tourists. “They’re only looking at the tourism aspect,” she said. “They’re not looking at its true meaning for us. This is our road system. This is how we connect to the other side. This is how we get to our medical appointments, our occasional shopping trips, our vacations, visit our family. I mean, it’s really devastating when you have a medical appointment. You’ve waited two months for this medical appointment, and the Steamship breaks down and you can’t get there. Do you know how frustrating that is for a regular person?”

Carney said management and culture issues are what trouble the SSA. “I think they’re best addressed by transforming the SSA’s internal focus into a community-centric culture,” he said. 

He said that means in order to engage with the community, the SSA needs to gauge the public’s appraisal of “the products and services you’re offering,” and to further “ask them, ‘What do you want us to be doing that we’re not?’”

Vanderhoop took issue with how some ferries handle stormy weather. “I would like to know, myself … how they pick a boat, because I know they’ve gotten a couple of boats … that they can’t turn around in high winds, because it sits too high in the water,” he said. 

He also took issue with the necessity to be at a terminal with one’s vehicle 30 minutes prior to departure because, he said, it’s unevenly enforced. “Now my idea is, I’m not saying it’s good, enforce it. And if you’re not going to enforce it, get it off the schedule.”

Lyons said his job in trucking, which puts him on ferries nearly every day, gives him uncommon perspective, but he conceded numbers and paperwork aren’t his forte. He described himself as a “boots on the ground” person. 

“I know most of the captains,” he said. “I know most of the bosuns, pilots, the deckhands, the agents. I know them all. I know a lot of the inner workings. People talk.”

He suggested the Vineyard needs two board members. “One that’s the face,” he said. “One that goes to all the meetings religiously without fail. And then somebody who’s actually on the boat talking to the crews, talking to the general public — kind of [low] key, not at the meetings … just gathering the background information.”

Asked about greening the SSA, he wasn’t gung-ho for complete electrification. “They can’t figure out diesel engines right now, and you want to start looking into alternative energy and battery boats and everything else,” he said. “Diesel has been around for a hundred years, and they still can’t keep up with it.”

He did say some things could get done, such as electrifying diesel generators, as opposed to the engines they serve.

Lytle said he would bring strong grant-writing skills to the table. He described his patient project management style as “a vise that’s closing” as opposed to “a bull in a china shop.”

He stressed adherence to the HMS report and the recommendations therein. “Where are we on those things?” he asked.

Barnes said the SSA needs to expand its telephone coverage. He pointed out his phone is on day and night. 

While he didn’t offer too many details on what he would do, he did say he has taken a deep dive into the HMS report, and found it a revelation on many subjects. 

Barnes was critical of the Woods Hole project, and pointed to what he saw as often inert cranes. “I’ve looked at those cranes doing nothing for quite a while now,” he said. 

When he’s inquired what’s going on with the project, he said, he hasn’t been able to get a straight answer. That might change if he’s appointed, he told commissioner John Alley. “If I got the job, [I’d] call you in a week and let you know,” he said. 

He compared the SSA vessel maintenance to that of a subpar truck mechanic. “If this were my truck, I’d find another garage,” he said. 

Edmonds said she had a lot to learn about the SSA, and was frank when questioned about various aspects of the ferry line that she could not yet provide answers. However, she pointed out that over the course of her long career, one that included working closely with two Massachusetts governors, that she had entered big roles in the past that she was initially unprepared for, and went on to excel in them. She said her family has had roots on the Vineyard, and that she was wholly prepared to bow out of academia and immerse herself in the work of the SSA board. She also said, should the commissioners select another candidate, she was still willing to serve in some other capacity regarding the SSA.