Dukes County and Nantucket officials held a public hearing Monday about the Steamship Authority bill filed by state Rep. Dylan Fernandes, D-Falmouth, and state Sen. Julian Cyr, D-Truro.
They should have called it the hurt feelings summit, because that’s what this appears to be about, rather than anything of real substance.
Instead of being grateful that Fernandes and Cyr were finally able to push the needle enough to get a chief operating officer approved by by the Steamship Authority board, more than three years after it was first suggested in the HMS report, leaders on Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard continue to grouse that they weren’t kept in the loop about this legislation and the lack of process.
Where were these leaders when the SSA failed to follow the recommendations of the highly paid consultants brought in after the SSA failed miserably in the spring of 2018 as the lifeline to Martha’s Vineyard, with more than 500 crossings lost to mechanical failures? One Nantucket commissioner brushed that off ahead of the meeting as “one unfortunate event in 2018,” according to the Nantucket Current. Wonder if he would think that if the mechanical failures were on the Nantucket crossings. And Joe Sollitto, a Port Council member from Oak Bluffs, was also dismissive of those 2018 failures, saying that a “freight boat” filled in for 400 of the crossings. We think he meant a fast ferry, which did nothing for vehicles trying to get back and forth between Woods Hole and Vineyard Haven.
We can somewhat understand the initial blowback to the legislation. But when Fernandes went before the Dukes County commissioners on March 16 and they had their chance to put him on the hot seat, that should have been the end of it.
Instead, the next week, Jim Malkin, the Dukes County Commission’s appointee to the SSA board who took over in 2020, decided to pour gasoline on the fire. “There was no public comment,” Malkin said of the legislation. “There was no public discussion. There was no public hearing. There was no input from the commission.”
Wasn’t the public process three years earlier, when Martha’s Vineyard residents demanded better service from the SSA? Hasn’t it continued since, with the public insisting that the SSA follow the recommendations of the independent review, including the recommendation to hire a chief operating officer?
The so-called threat of opening up the Enabling Act and somehow having it amended to strip the Islands of their weighted votes is a red herring, repeated again erroneously Monday night by Nantucket board member Robert Ranney. Both Fernandes and Cyr have been clear they would not support that proposal, put forward by state Sen. Susan Moran, D-Falmouth.
This would be a good time to remind the public that the SSA is beholden to the bondholders — of which there are plenty, with the bills piling up in Woods Hole. You, the port communities, are responsible for repaying those bonds, should the SSA fail to do so.
The public should wonder why SSA board members are so resistant to term limits. Change is good. Complacency and cozying up to the SSA administration are not. Term limits would avoid the board members getting too close with longtime employees. There was a lot of talk about the flawed process of the legislation during Monday’s summit. (Speaking of process, there were multiple violations of the Open Meeting Law, with the SSA board and some select boards having quorums, but not posting their meetings.) Having legacy board members doesn’t seem to be the best process of selecting representatives of the port communities.
Ranney did make one good suggestion. These summits should be held on a more regular basis. Maybe they could talk about the real issues that the SSA board continues to ignore. How about the cost overruns in Woods Hole? How about the mechanical failures that still happen? How about getting the SSA to have meaningful dialogue about electrification of the fleet? Boats over buildings, as Malkin once said.
Bottom line, Fernandes and Cyr were able to prod the SSA from its slumber into action. For that, they deserve our praise, not criticism.