At last month’s board meeting, Steamship Authority general manager Robert Davis was lauded for his efforts over the past year. Davis received high marks for his ability to handle the curve balls thrown at him — the pandemic, a ransomware attack, and the seemingly endless and costly change orders to the Woods Hole terminal project among them.
We were a bit stunned by it all, frankly. It left us wondering what the board saw that customers of the Steamship Authority don’t. In all of this we want to make one point perfectly clear. Our dissatisfaction with the SSA isn’t about the rank and file employees of the SSA. When it comes to customer service, the front-facing job of the SSA, many of them have proven themselves excellent at their jobs and go above and beyond to assist passengers.
SSA employees outperform their management.
Let’s start with the pandemic. When stores and other businesses were imposing mask mandates, the SSA waited to be told to do it. That’s not leadership. And once face coverings were made mandatory — and they still are on public transportation — the lackadaisical approach by management to masks has trickled down. The SSA has failed to enforce the face-covering mandate, even now as we face another uptick in cases and the threat of the Delta variant.
Sure, they have signs and make announcements. After making numerous crossings over the past year, we’ve never witnessed crew members walk around the boat to see the many passengers with their face coverings pulled down under their chins or off their faces completely. Sadly, some crew members are among the offenders. So it’s: “Do as I say, not as I do.” Why do the board members continue to let Davis say compliance is “a challenge” on the ferries without stepping in to say: What are we doing to meet that challenge?
We do have to acknowledge that once we shared some photos of crew members without face coverings as cases began to rise on the Island, compliance among staff has improved. And on SSA shuttle buses, the drivers have consistently insisted that passengers wear their masks.
As for the ransomware attack, we still don’t know a lot about what happened because of the lack of transparency. We have to take it on faith that the SSA had security measures in place to avoid cyber attacks. Where are the board members publicly asking what’s being done to make sure the SSA’s website and reservation system isn’t crippled again?
The Woods Hole Terminal reconstruction project is also perplexing. The waterside portion is $52 million and the gangway doesn’t work during some tides. The SSA’s answer? It was designed that way. Seriously? As regular passengers of the SSA, we’ve experienced times when the gangway couldn’t be used because the tide made the ramp too steep. We’re used to that. This problem is happening at low tide.
SSA spokesman Sean Driscoll told us that was the issue with this new problem. But in our own experience, the issue with using the gangway never has anything to do with the steepness of the ramp. On the occasions we’ve been sent to the freight deck, it’s because the ramp is too flat and crew members say it would be dangerous to use it. Driscoll told us initially there was no safety issue with the gangway (even though that’s what the crew says on scene) and then corrected himself to say there is sometimes a safety issue.
Board members have pushed back on the cost overruns for the Woods Hole project and at the last meeting, board chair Kathryn Wilson went on a rant about the size of the canopies and light pollution generated by the new slips. Not a word about the inability to use them for safety reasons at low tide, however.
During his performance review, New Bedford representative Moira Tierney said of Davis: “I think I made a comment that Jesus Christ wouldn’t deserve 100.” That was right before she gave him a 100. “I’m so blown away by his ability to remain unflappable in circumstances that I think the vast majority of people in his position would not be able to work through similar circumstances.”
Indeed no one deserves 100. Maybe it was that Tierney was distracted by her law practice. Several times during the meeting her back was turned to the Zoom camera and later she asked to go first on the performance review because she expected to be called into a court session at any moment. The board meets once a month for about three hours. Is it too much to expect a board member’s undivided attention?
We all understand that the job of general manager of the SSA is not an easy job. It comes with tremendous challenges and responsibilities. We just wish the board members who are the voices for the port communities they serve would do more to push the administration to achieve the scores they handed out.