On March 2, the Dukes County Commission heard a report from its appointee to the Steamship Authority board, Jim Malkin, about legislation filed by state Sen. Julian Cyr, D-Truro, and state Rep. Dylan Fernandes, D-Falmouth. The legislation aims to impose term limits on the ferry line’s board, and to establish a chief operating officer (COO) position.
Malkin and the commissioners were displeased not to have been consulted prior to the filing of the legislation, and were further displeased at the possibility such a bill could be open to amendments.
Commission chair Christine Todd said the commission should join the Vineyard’s two port council members to “collaboratively voice our dissatisfaction with this.”
Seeing a potential threat via amendment to the voting supermajority Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket hold on the SSA board, commissioner Peter Wharton said the commission should voice its opinion “loudly and strongly” to protect the “critically important” lifeline to the Islands.
The board resolved to coordinate with Nantucket to communicate a position on the legislation, and tapped Todd and county manager Martina Thorton to initiate the process.
In a recording of a Feb. 23 Zoom meeting with the Nantucket select board obtained by The Times, Fernandes called the proposed changes to the SSA enabling act a “relatively small tweak to the legislation.”
Fernandes told the Nantucket select board that the proposed changes stem from the “Comprehensive Review of the Steamship Authority’s Operations,” more commonly known as the HMS report. The report is a deep dive into how the SSA functions, and is chock-full of recommendations on how the ferry line can improve performance and safety. The report included a supplemental section on communications delivered a couple of months after the main report was presented at Falmouth High School in December 2018.
“You guys didn’t really experience this, but your sister Island, in a short, couple month period, 550 boats were canceled. A couple Steamship boats lost power, you know, stranding people for hours at a time. Another ran aground in Vineyard Haven Harbor. At one point in this period, five out of 10 boats were out of commission. On the Vineyard, it honestly was chaos,” Fernandes told the board.
Fernandes said one of the recommendations of the HMS report was establishing a chief operating officer position in the SSA management structure.
“The short reason is that the current way that it’s structured, it’s really flat management structure, where the head is making a lot of day-to-day decisions, rather than doing a lot of long-term thinking and planning, and averting some of these crises that have occurred. So it’s a really small change just to add a COO position.”
Fernades said the board has also been looking at possibly implementing such a position. In light of that, he said, establishing the position doesn’t necessarily need to be enshrined in statute: “But certainly we’re going to get it there some way — we’re going to get it there one way or another.”
In a Feb. 8 email to Cyr and Fernandes, Nantucket SSA board member Robert Ranney criticized the legislation.
“In my opinion,” Ranney wrote in part, “the proposed amendments to the Enabling Act are a mistake. The bill should be withdrawn immediately pending local discussion. At the very least, any proposed amendments to the Enabling Act legislation ought to be brought forward at duly posted public meetings, on both Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard, and discussed openly to gain perspective and to avoid disenfranchising those who rely on the SSA the most. After all, you represent us as well.”
At the county commission meeting on March 2, Malkin said while he believed Cyr and Fernades have been “attuned to the Vineyard and its issues over the course of their terms,” and done a “good job” representing Vineyard interests, he had a “major” concern with what he described as a process that “wasn’t followed.”
Malkin criticized the filing of legislation without any input from the public, without involvement of the Vineyard and Nantucket government bodies that appoint SSA board members (the Dukes County Commissioners and the Nantucket County Commissioners/select board), the SSA board, or the port council.
“Whatever discussions that took place by Mr. Cyr or Mr. Fernandes were apparently individual and off the record or in-confidence phone calls, and there was no consultation, no open meetings, no discussion, no fora, and basically this was done pretty much in a vacuum in Boston or in their offices, in terms of process,” Malkin said.
Malkin said something that does not get “much mention” is that to offset the 2018 cancellation crisis, the SSA added “more than 400 additional freight boat trips,” and hired a SeaStreak fast ferry. “I think the Authority did a pretty good job of juggling and scheduling to accommodate the people on our island,” Malkin said.
Malkin added that the SSA created two key management positions which helped mop up a lot of problems experienced in 2018. The ferry line brought aboard Mark Amundsen as the director of marine operations, and promoted Alison Fletcher to director of shoreside operations. Since those managers took their respective helms, Malkin said he has not seen or heard about problems like those that occurred in 2018. He also said it was his belief the ferry lines had made improvements in multiple areas.
Malkin said the “organizational structure of the Steamship Authority is a function of the board.” He added that the “board is appointed by the appointing authorities,” the DCC in his case, “and not by the legislature.”
Malkin reminded the commissioners the SSA is self-funded via its farebox revenue. “It would seem to me that the involvement of the commonwealth in issues that are the purview of the board isn’t helpful, and poses risks to the stability of the operation and the mandate, which is to provide goods and services and travel between the Islands and the mainland,” he said. “And I further suggest that if our legislators want to bring concerns to you as the appointing authority of me, that I’m sure you’ll welcome any discussion with them. But what I find troublesome in all of this is there was no discussion, and this legislation was filed and as I know you all know, when things go up to Beacon Hill, who knows what Springfield or Holyoke or Worcester would have to say about what might come down the pike for the Steamship Authority.”
Malkin said when the SSA enabling legislation opened for changes, it’s akin to opening “Pandora’s box.”
Malkin alleged that state Sen. Susan Moran, D-Falmouth, has filed an amendment to the legislation Cyr and Fernandes put forth.
The Times hasn’t been able to confirm that an amendment has been filed, though in a recent interview Moran did say she was open to the possibility of doing so. Moran previously attempted to file a bill that would have downgraded the supermajority votes of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket on the SSA board, a prospect that received heavy criticism from officials on both islands. Moran has argued that the minority ports of Barnstable, Falmouth, and New Bedford should have the capacity to filibuster in the face of Island votes they disagree with.
Barnstable board member Robert Jones previously condemned Moran’s bill and said, “I think legislation like that only serves to tear us apart.”
However, former Falmouth SSA board member Kathryn Wilson previously said, “From Falmouth’s standpoint, the status quo is not satisfactory.”
Cyr and Fernades previously came out against Moran’s bill.
When asked by commissioner Don Leopold if Cyr and Fernandes should be invited to come before the commission to discuss the bill they filed, Malkin said, “I think they certainly should do it now, and they probably should have done it before.”
Further asked by Leopold about substantive issues with the legislation, Malkin said the term limits run the risk of hampering vital institutional or “legacy” knowledge.
Malkin said he’s twice raised the COO position in the past, and the board failed to bite the hook. However, the position is under consideration by the board as part of a succession plan for general manager Robert Davis.
“And whether or not to appoint a COO, to go out and hire a COO, to bear the cost of COO, is in my view, a function of the board’s decision, not the legislature’s decision,” Malkin said.
Commissioner Tristan Israel said he was “very dismayed” last year when Moran filed her legislation. Israel said he spoke with Fernades about the present legislation. “And he said to me, This is going to be no problem,” Israel said. “Don’t worry about it. I am very worried about it.”