SSA authorizes a COO

Board attempts to sidestep the legislature.

The SSA board voted in a COO position. — Rich Saltzberg

In a unanimous vote on Tuesday, the Steamship Authority board authorized the creation of a chief operating officer (COO) position and a grant administrator position. The vote came on the recommendation of SSA general manager Robert Davis and his staff, and largely echoed one taken by the port council on March 8

The board vote included an additional measure authorizing a change to SSA bylaws to separate some of the responsibilities of the general manager position from that of the new COO position. 

The vote came a day before a comment period left open by the legislature’s Joint Committee on Transportation elapsed. That committee convened March 9 in part to hold a hearing on an SSA bill sponsored by state Rep. Dylan Fernandes, D-Falmouth, and state Sen. Julian Cyr, D-Truro. Their bill calls for the establishment of a COO and for term limits for SSA board members. The bill has been roundly criticized by Vineyard officials, largely because they felt they weren’t properly consulted before it was filed, but also because they believe the changes called for in the bill are the purview of the SSA board and its constituencies, and not the state legislature. The Vineyard wasn’t alone on the board in its distaste for legislative intervention. Falmouth board member Peter Jeffrey said the SSA board “is the right place” to talk about and decide about a COO, “and not necessarily on Beacon Hill.”

Nantucket board member Robert Ranney asked how the board’s vote on a COO position would affect Cyr and Fernandes’ bill. 

“It seems to me it would make it moot,” Ranney said, “but I don’t want to have something in the enabling act that mandates this position when, you know, maybe at some point we don’t need it anymore, and then we have to change the enabling act again.”

“I would think that would make the discussions regarding the legislation unnecessary to add that to the enabling act,” Davis said. “Interesting, the enabling act does not mention any other staff-level position … So if we were to do this internally, the hope would be that the legislature would see that this is something that’s being addressed internally.”

Robert Jones, who represents Barnstable on the board, said he thought Davis needed at least “an assistant general manager.” He described the impending end of the legislative committee’s comment period as “D-Day.” Overall, Jones was skeptical about taking a vote, as he deemed it too early in the evaluation process, and also felt the SSA board was wading into a political matter. 

James Malkin, who represents the Vineyard, noted he brought the issue of a COO up to the board twice before, but the idea didn’t sway the members at those times. If SSA management viewed the position as in the ferry line’s best interests, Malkin said, “then that carries a lot of weight for me as a voting board member.” Malkin also said he believed addressing a COO position was “a function of the board,” and “it’s not a function of the legislature.”

Fernandes previously said the bill he and Cyr filed stemmed from a “Comprehensive Review of the Steamship Authority’s Operations,” more commonly known as the HMS report — a deep dive into how the SSA functions, with recommendations on how the ferry line can improve performance and safety. The report was authorized by the board after hundreds of cancellations and mechanical failures plagued the Vineyard route in 2018. A COO is among the recommendations in the report. Davis told the board he was thinking the position would be akin to a “chief of staff”; however, he acknowledged, the report identifies the position as a COO. Davis recalled that the report’s authors, however, weren’t “necessarily married to that titie.”

Malkin included chief of staff as an alternative title in his motion, and the board adopted both titles in its vote. 

What wasn’t included in the vote, was hardly discussed, and based on recent comments made at the last port council meeting by general counsel Terence Kenneally, wasn’t part of the HMS report, were board term limits. Jones wondered aloud if the legislature might cut the SSA bill in half, though nobody weighed in when he mentioned it. 

Davis noted the grant administrator position (also not in the HMS report and not in the SSA bill) would be helpful in securing outside funds.

In other business, the board voted unanimously to authorize an RFP for freight service between the Vineyard and a yet-to-be-determined off-Cape port. The successful freight carrier would be permitted to use the SSA Vineyard Haven terminal twice daily, if it chose, and to utilize the SSA reservation system. Davis said the carrier would need to be able to carry hazardous cargo, preferably early in the morning, and rubbish trucks. Jeffrey said the concept had potential to alleviate traffic in Woods Hole. The town of Fairhaven was excluded as a possible port. Board chair Moira Tierney, New Bedford’s representative, said she hoped New Bedford could be the freight port. 

“We have a fabulous port, and I’d like to see its involvement greater with the Steamship Authority,” Tierney said. 


  1. Give us a break: if any board members happen to be reading, or his Lordship Bob Davis, it TOOK Dylan Fernandes, Julian Cyr, and the weight of the LAW to begin to consider a recommendation that was made FOUR years ago. Jim Malkin nailed it, with chutzpah, when he said he had brought it up twice before, only to be shot down. It’s true we all know that it took the “threat” of legislation for the board and the administration of the SSA to “approve” a recommendation made 4 years ago. Way too much CYA.

    The SSA is a pathetic entity compared to similar transportation services in the Pacific Northwest and elsewhere, with vastly higher prices. They bought the wrong board, are making a terminal that is apparently unnecessary considering how well the small temporary one is working, and they fumbled the vaccine mandate, whereas companies such from Amex to CVS mandated employees, the SSA, with Bob Davis at the helm, held out until OMICRON. Of course, they implemented it well when they took it up. Fools.

  2. Let’s give Jim Malkin credit for pushing the COO idea in the past. But to say ‘if management thinks it’s a good idea’ -that’s nonsense. Management is scared to death the archaic Enabling Act will be opened up or that a professional will get inside to view how SSA operates. Management is already trying to downgrade the position- look at the organization chart floated at Port Council meeting; and the suggestions the COO would be a ‘staff’ position.
    Good management brings in strong experienced professionals and gives them the tools and support to do their job.

  3. Crazy to hear that board term limits is not an issue of urgent and immediate concern. Of course the board should have term limits!

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