The Steamship Authority’s port council voted on Tuesday to endorse the addition of a chief operating officer position (COO) to the ferry line’s management structure. The port council also endorsed the addition of a grant administrator.
The votes came after state Rep. Dylan Fernandes, D-Falmouth, and state Sen. Julian Cyr, D-Truro, filed legislation to impose term limits on the ferry line’s board and to establish a chief operating officer (COO) position. Three out of the four port council members present for the vote expressed reservations about the COO position being pushed by state legislators.
SSA general counsel Terence Kenneally called focus on the COO position “a little bit out of left field.”
Nevertheless he said that per a request from SSA board chair Moira Tierney, staff have delved into the COO position, and are preparing a report. Based on current wage scales, Kenneally said the compensation with benefits would be on par with that which he himself receives, or that of treasurer Mark Rozum, a cost of approximately $200,000 per year.
A draft management chart shared with the port council showed the COO reporting to the general manager and overseeing the directors of engineering, marine operations, and shoreside operations.
Kenneally said that after examining the management structure, staff found another position was needed, a grants administrator to “source and research” grant opportunities for the ferry line.
“So this person would not only be researching and applying for grants,” Rozum said, “but then they’d be responsible for administering the grants …” Rozum also said the grant administrator would be responsible for executing proper reporting associated with grants.
Kenneally said the grants administrator would be compensated similarly to others on the same management tier. Per that draft chart, similarly tiered positions include the SSA accounting manager and chief procurement officer. Kenneally did not provide any approximate compensation numbers for the position, however.
“While I’m in favor of both positions,” chair and Tisbury port council member John Cahill said, “the word on the street that I’m hearing from our state friends is that they’re making some of these proposals based on 2018.” Cahill thanked the SSA for steering a course from 2018 through the intervening years and the pandemic to today, “with the crew that you already had in place, because it’s a whole new world than it was in 2018.”
Cahill went on to say, “It leads one to question what is the real motivation of this current talk up at the State House, because we’ve made great improvements, and 2018 was four years ago.”
“I would say as far as the grants go, there’s no question about that,” Oak Bluffs port council member Joe Sollitto said. “I think we need somebody to be doing grants and trying to find out where you can get some of the governmental money.” However, Sollitto said, he’d defer to the board on the COO position, to research it and evaluate its necessity. “Not up to the legislature,” Sollitto said.
Nantucket port council member Nathaniel Lowell said a refresher and timeline Kenneally gave earlier in the meeting on the 2018 HMS report and all the recommendations in it that the SSA has implemented “should have been given to Dylan and Julian, if we had the opportunity.”
Lowell added, “2018 was a long time ago, if you think about COVID.”
Lowell noted the SSA was “nonsubsidized” and therefore he saw merit in garnering grants. He saw the grant administrator as perhaps the more important of the two positions, but he backed both.
“If it can be done in the best interests of the Steamship,” and “as long as it doesn’t affect our bottom line too much,” Lowell said he would be willing to “move cautiously forward.”
“I’m supportive of the operations manager based on the recommendation of management,” Fairhaven port council member Mark Rees said. “I would like to say I hope that’s the result of their desire to move forward with it, and not because of the proposed legislation. I don’t think the legislature should be micromanaging the Steamship Authority.”
Rees said he was also supportive of the grants administrator position, which he thought could be offset to some degree by American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds.
The vote was 4-0, with one member absent and two seats vacant.
When asked at the end of the meeting if he believed the 2018 HMS contemplated board term limits, Kenneally said, “I don’t see that in there.”
Kenneally noted the COO was contemplated in 2019 but became “somewhat parked” because of all the other changes being implemented at the time. Thereafter he said the pandemic hit — ”COVID was a game changer, as everybody knows.”
Kenneally said he described the COO subject as “out of left field” because “typically issues like this are brought to members of the port council or members of the board, then they’re brought to staff, or vice versa. Again, we weren’t consulted at all about this, as far as I know.”
The Vineyard’s board representative, Jim Malkin, expressed similar sentiments about the proposed legislation last week at a county commissioner meeting. He also expressed concerns that the legislation might get amended by other parties in unfavorable ways.
In a statement to The Times, Fernandes and Cyr downplayed such concerns. “It’s discouraging to hear that misinformation is being spread about pending legislation to ensure accountability for the Steamship Authority,” the legislators stated. “No amendments have been, nor will be, filed to the bill by outside legislators. This legislation stems from an over $200,000 audit report in 2018 that was called for by Islanders in the wake of the Steamship missing over 550 boat trips, stranding hundreds of Islanders, and stumbling in its mission as a lifeline. Just last session, we fast-tracked legislation to amend the Steamship Authority statute to ensure that Island residents were not on the hook for any COVID-related cost overruns, which at one point totaled in the millions of dollars. We remain proud of our record, and confident in our ability to advance legislation vital to the islands.”