Dukes County Commission demands transparency

State Rep. Fernandes grilled about proposed SSA bill.

State Rep. Dylan Fernandes, shown here at a climate change forum, answered concerns raised by the Dukes County Commission on Wednesday about his SSA bill. - Gabrielle Mannino

Dukes County commissioners met with state Rep. Dylan Fernandes, D-Falmouth, on Wednesday to discuss proposed legislation concerning the Steamship Authority.

The legislation filed by Fernandes and state Sen. Julian Cyr, D-Truro, includes the appointment of a chief operating officer to the Steamship Authority administration, in addition to establishing term limits on all board members.

Concerns expressed among Dukes County Commission had less to do with the particulars of the legislation and more to do with the process in which it was filed.

“Hearings were held, [but] there was no hearing here,” said James Malkin, Vineyard SSA board appointee, “there was no discussion in any public forum with this community on this issue before legislation was filed.”

This lack of communication is cause for concern, said Malkin, who vehemently asserted that the appointment of an SSA COO should be a board issue rather than decided by the state. “The process didn’t allow the elected officials or citizens of the Island to help, in terms of dealing with issues” that affect all Island residents. That lack of process “doesn’t serve either the Island, or particularly the legislature” in terms of what gets passed in Boston.

The failure to welcome Martha’s Vineyard representatives into the conversation didn’t sit well, particularly with commissioners John Cahill, Tristan Israel, and Joe Sollitto, who is a port council representative to the SSA. The select board of Oak Bluffs was not even notified about the proposed legislation until Sollitto, the former Duke County Superior Court Clerk turned SSA port council member, told them himself, Sollitto reiterated from the last commissioners’ meeting.

Fernandes told the commission he did reach out to commissioners, and spoke to at least one member of the port council.

Because the SSA board approved the appointment of a COO at its meeting on March 15, commissioner Cahill asked Fernandes if he would consider withdrawing the bill from the state house.

Fernandes said it was his preference that the SSA implement the COO on their own. “That’s a huge win in my mind. Julian and I deserve credit for getting that done,” Fernandes said. “So we’re going to take that out of the bill. It was my intention all along that it be something we pushed them to do, and I’m glad we did.”

The legislation was filed because of Islanders’ apparent unease with the Steamship’s lack of accountability, said Fernandes. “It failed as a lifeline to Martha’s Vineyard.”

In 2018, the SSA missed more than 500 crossings on the Martha’s Vineyard line because of mechanical failures. That resulted in an independent review of the SSA’s management and operations, known as the HMS report.

Fernandes cited the report, which he says highlights fundamental operating issues at the SSA which he found “deeply troubling,” pointing to overall management problems, lack of accountability and oversight, and a culture of “complacency” that is “not conducive with long-term planning.”

Although changes were implemented after those findings, one of the changes that had not been considered until recently was the appointment of a COO. The addition of the new administration position, which was implemented on March 15, is meant to ensure accountability and invite potential for more input from the public. 

Fernandes said he has heard from the SSA, and it would like the enabling act to be amended to remove a section that requires an annual report that’s “antiquated,” he said. 

Sean Driscoll, a spokesman for the SSA, confirmed that the ferry line would like the wording changed to give them more time to produce the annual report. Currently, an audit is required by April 1, which is a “tough ask every year,” he said. The change wouldn’t eliminate the need for an audit, but would just give the SSA until the end of June to complete it, he said.

As for the term limits, Driscoll said no position was taken by the SSA board. “That would be up to the appointing authorities,” he said.

Many DCC members were apprehensive, saying that decisions made to push the bill through without input from M.V. and Nantucket reps has created a sense of “disunity on the Islands.”

“As the appointing body of our SSA representation, procedurally it would benefit all of us to have an open discussion,” chair Christine Todd told Fernandes. Echoing other commissioners, she added that if there was just more public discourse, he’d find the county supportive.

Sollitto expressed concerns about term limits being placed on members of the SSA board. “We elect the county commissioners, and I would think it would be up to them if they want to set term limits,” he said, adding that he believes the proposed term limits should be eliminated from the bill. “We don’t have term limits for state reps and selectmen, or state Senate, why have them for members of the SSA?” he said. “It doesn’t make sense to me.”

Israel agreed with Sollitto, but said he has no issue with the COO appointment.

Fernandes responded that the board position “is appointed, not elected” — comparing it to similar appointed positions statewide, which often have a 10-year term limit.

Commissioner Keith Chatinover agreed with Fernandes, saying that he supports imposing term limits, adding that without them, board members are susceptible to becoming “creatures of the SSA board,” citing a disinterest of the “arcane” issue among the Island’s laypeople.

Despite numerous objections, Fernandes remained unfazed, downplaying the seriousness of the county’s concerns and doubting public interest in the issue.

“At the end of the day,” said Fernandes, “the Steamship exists to serve as a lifeline to the Island, and we want to make sure that folks have improved reliability of service,” adding that the legislation would present the opportunity for the county to exercise “more power.”

Moving forward, agreements were made between Fernandes and the DCC to work toward a more transparent relationship. 

In other business, commissioners praised the legislation that seeks to add a tribal representative to the Martha’s Vineyard Commission. The bill recently passed the House and will now go before the Senate, where it’s expected to get a favorable response.


  1. File this under “damned if you do, damned if you don’t.” The public was roasting Rep Fernandes for “not doing enough” to ensure the SSA operates reliably. When he files a bill to ensure that the recommended COO position be established, he gets roasted. What does everyone expect a legislator to do? He filed legislation. Im not sure why everyone was so shocked by this.

  2. Dylan Fernandes is spot on and we are so glad he has the real backbone when it comes to the SSA. He is 100% correct that they got the COO position to dock. He is also correct about appointments and term limits, as elected officials are the ones with or without term limits. Thank goodness for democracy and representation. What the GM and the SSA Board ignored, he gave voice to, Dylan once again gets my vote. THANK YOU, DYLAN!

  3. When business declined during the worst part of Covid, the SA was “forced” to raise prices. Of course, we all remember the breakdowns and loss of trips that have occurred.
    Now that business is more than brisk, is there going to be a rollback in those price increases? Naturally not, but hiring another suit, a COO, is what the SA does. That’ll fix things.

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