Steamship Authority amendments floated

Legislators seek addition of COO and term limits for board members.

A wind advisory is in effect for Monday night. — Rich Saltzberg

Two Cape and Islands legislators have proposed amending the Steamship Authority’s enabling act to provide for a chief operating officer (COO) and to set term limits for board members.

State Sen. Julian Cyr, D-Truro, and State Rep. Dylan Fernandes, D-Falmouth, announced at a Tuesday press conference that they had drafted a bill to seek the amendments.

Cyr pointed out that not long ago in 2018 the SSA had a calamitous year with significant ferry mishaps. The response to those mishaps, which Cyr said at one point had knocked out 50 percent of the ferry fleet, was a call for an independent review of the ferry line. A review came to pass and Cyr said both he and Fernandes supported it. 

The report generated from it, the HMS report, called for numerous changes to the ferry line. To date the SSA has addressed most of them, however, one suggestion it hasn’t implemented is installing a COO into the management structure. Fernandes said the SSA would be improved by the addition of an COO. 

The term limits Fernandes outlined would total nine years of service for any new board member. This was based on change from unlimited service on the board to a maximum of three terms of three years each. Current members who have exhausted nine years would be able to serve out the remainder of their term plus an additional term.

The SSA has a five-member board that represents the ports of Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket, Barnstable, Falmouth, and New Bedford.  

Per the bill, the COO would report to the general manager and would “provide overall organization management to improve agency performance and achieve the mission and goals of the Authority through the use of strategic and performance planning, measurement, analysis, regular assessment of progress, and use of performance information,” among other duties. 

“These are very small changes,” Fernandes said. “They will not alter the SSA in any dramatic way. But based on the consultant’s deep dive into the SSA, we believe that these changes will help further a long term vision and improve reliable service for Island residents. And ultimately this small change will help them as they respond to the needs of Islanders.”

In a press release issued Tuesday afternoon, SSA general manager Robert Davis said term limits was a matter “best left to the members themselves, as well as their appointing authorities, to discuss.”

Davis said he didn’t see the necessity of including a COO position in the enabling act but was willing to discuss the position in general.

“I look forward to discussing with our board members the creation of a chief operating officer or similar position, as well as revisiting the remaining recommendations of the HMS report, including the creation of a chief operating officer position or one with similar responsibilities,” he said in the release. “This work was underway at the outset of the pandemic and shall be resumed. However, it seems unnecessary to include this sole position in the Steamship Authority’s enabling act, which has been our guiding document for more than six decades.”

Davis went on to say the ferry line has embraced numerous recommendations made in the HMS report.

“Following the report’s partial issuance in December 2018 and completion in February 2019, the Authority held public workshops with the consulting team in June 2019 to prioritize initiatives and to develop an implementation plan,” he said in the release. “The Authority has made great strides in implementing many of the recommendations contained in the report. We have implemented a Learning Management System; we created a new mission statement; we have added key positions in the Engineering and Maintenance Department; we have added a health, safety, quality and environmental manager; we have added a director of marine operations and realigned elements of the organizational structure; and we have increased our external recruitment efforts. We are also in the final phases of implementing our Safety Quality Management System, a transformative work that will improve our operations for decades to come.”

Davis said while there is still work to do, “it cannot go unstated that less than one year after we began the implementation of the HMS report’s recommendations, the COVID-19 pandemic placed unimaginable stress on our operations, port communities and the traveling public. The Authority’s immediate priorities during the crisis were to maintain lifeline operations to the islands. Two years after the pandemic’s onset, we continue to deal with its effects, but we also are turning our eye toward projects that have been set aside during this period.”

Davis wrapped up with a thank you to Cyr and Fernandes, who he described as perennial supporters of the ferry line and its mission.