Misplaced outrage

2

Jim Malkin, the Vineyard’s new representative to the Steamship Authority board for a little more than two months, has already made some waves — and for that the entire Island should be grateful.

Yes, Malkin misspoke about two board members — Moira Tierney and Kathryn Wilson — saying they voted against emergency repairs to the Oak Bluffs terminal pier when he was updating the Dukes County commissioners. When that appeared on our website, quoted accurately from the meeting, Malkin quickly reached out to correct his mistake.

We understand their disappointment at having their votes mischaracterized by Malkin. They did both ultimately vote for the repairs, but Tierney and Wilson did make comments about whether there was an immediate need for the Oak Bluffs terminal that were tone-deaf. By commenting on the close proximity of the terminals and whether there was a need to proceed with the Oak Bluffs repairs, they showed a lack of understanding of what happens on the Vineyard from Memorial Day to Labor Day. 

Malkin also criticized the SSA for its lack of financial records for 2019. A full four months into 2020, the audited reports are not ready for review by the board, even as the authority’s financial situation has been thrown into chaos by a lack of ridership during the COVID-19 pandemic. The slow slog to releasing audited financial records is nothing new for the ferry service. 

The Enabling Act, legislation that created the Steamship Authority, requires published annual financial statements within three months of the prior year’s end, but that doesn’t happen. The 2018 financial statements weren’t published until February of 2020, which is no way to run a $100 million business that operates solely on the amount of money it collects in ferry fares.

Malkin has good reason to be concerned, particularly this year, because the Enabling Act is clear. If the SSA ends the year with a deficit, the commonwealth will cover it, and then seek the funds from the port communities. The Vineyard’s share is 35 percent. The SSA has sought financial assistance from the state, and the state’s congressional leaders are seeking a bailout for all ferry services across the country, but neither is guaranteed. The money the ferry service has gotten so far only guarantees service through the end of summer. We face a real possibility that port communities will be forced to come up with the money, as the Enabling Act spells out.

The Enabling Act points out the fiduciary duty of the board members, but says little about their responsibilities in representing the port communities. In picking Malkin, Dukes County commissioners have made their expectations known: They want a strong advocate for the Island’s needs.

Wilson struck the right tone with her public comments about Malkin. They were brief and to the point. Tierney was over the top in berating Malkin.

“It’s really unfortunate that an inexperienced board member’s reckless and misinformed comments have created unnecessary controversy and suspicion about the Steamship Authority at a time when we are all working our hardest to share this terrible financial drain and continue to provide service to the Islands,” Tierney said.

She went on to praise the administration of the SSA, saying she had the “utmost trust and confidence in the information that our management provides to us.”

That comment must have knocked general manager Robert Davis off his chair. Take this exchange between Tierney and Davis at the board’s December meeting, after the SSA was criticized for not alerting customers to the reason that ferries were canceled, stranding some passengers traveling for Thanksgiving.

“Our customers need to know that,” Tierney said looking at Davis, and saying the message should come from him. “So, are you going to do that?”

“We’ll work on getting better communications out there,” Davis said.

“No, no, no, no, that’s not an answer,” Tierney responded. “Are you going to do that?”

“Yes, yes, yes, yes,” Davis said.

It wasn’t the first time Tierney has interrogated Davis at a meeting. She’s also asked pointed questions about cost overruns on the Woods Hole terminal project.

That’s what made her reaction to Malkin so confusing. We have been pleased to see at least one board member willing to ask tough questions and insist on answers. We figured Malkin would make a strong ally. 

Robert Ranney, Nantucket’s representative, piled on. He wondered “whether the working camaraderie that the two islands enjoy together was in jeopardy,” and added he was “shocked and offended.”

Vineyarders will remember it was Ranney who wanted to let Davis and the SSA administration fix the myriad problems in-house in 2018 when ferry breakdowns caused hundreds of crossings to the Vineyard to be canceled. It took a highly charged meeting in the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School Performing Arts Center to push for an independent review of the SSA.

To his credit, Malkin took his medicine. He did misspeak, and that’s difficult to defend. He apologized, he was contrite, and he made reference to the “schooling” he received.

Let’s hope Ranney, Tierney, Wilson, and Robert Jones, Barnstable’s representative, have also learned something about the value of a board member holding the administration accountable. The Vineyard has sent an experienced leader to the board, and in a time of crisis we can think of no one better to represent the Island’s needs and help right the ship. Join Malkin in asking the difficult questions and insisting on answers.