A Plymouth-based transit union is threatening legal action against the Vineyard Transit Authority (VTA) administrator for what they claim to be violations of state law.
Charles Ryan III, president and business agent of Amalgamated Transit Union Local Division 1548, wrote a letter to Island towns detailing allegations against VTA administrator, Angie Gompert.
“She is running the day-to-day operation of the transit authority by interfering with the management company that is hired to run the system,” Ryan wrote. “Now she has taken it one step further, and has involved herself in the contract negotiations, which is clear violation of state law.”
Gompert refutes that she is violating any state laws, but that she’s trying to operate the Island’s public transit system.
The Aquinnah Select Board discussed the letter during its Tuesday evening meeting. Board chair Tom Murphy said since legal action may be involved, it would be appropriate to refer the issue to town counsel, which the select board unanimously voted to do.
West Tisbury also received the letter, and it is on the agenda for the West Tisbury Select Board meeting on Wednesday, June 7.
Reached by The Times Wednesday, Ryan said that the problem lies with the agreements surrounding the VTA’s operations. He said transit authorities in Massachusetts are required to hire a company to run the daily operations of the system, which in the VTA’s case is Transit Connection.
Ryan said that a transit authority administrator is supposed to primarily do tasks like acquiring funding, getting new buses, and buying fuel. Ryan said under the contract, Transit Connection should be the ones providing drivers to the VTA.
But he said that a report from a recent Freedom of Information Act request showed the VTA paid Yankee Bus Lines more than $247,500 since the beginning of the year to supply additional drivers, at a cost of $750 a day per driver.
“She went around them and hired another company,” Ryan said. “I don’t know if she has authority from the board to do this.”
Gompert’s refutes the point. “I’m not violating any state law, I’m doing my job,” Gompert said, adding this isn’t the first time Ryan has sent letters.
Gompert referred The Times to a section of state law governing transit authorities, which states “affairs of an authority shall be managed by an administrator” who acts as the chief executive officer. Gompert also said that while the VTA is contracted with Transit Connection, it was not an “exclusive contract;” and utilizing Yankee Bus Line was fine. Gompert added that she will do what was needed to keep the VTA system running.
“I’m hopeful we won’t have to do that again, but if we need to to offer the services we’ll have to,” she said.
In the letter, Ryan also advocated for the select board, which appoints the town representative, to step in and push for compliance. He wrote that Island towns annually pay for VTA services, and are “entitled” to have a representative on the authority’s advisory board, which he described as the administrator’s bosses. However, he alleged in the letter the advisory board tends to “just go with the flow and rubber-stamp everything she wants.”
Ryan said he sent a letter to the select boards because some towns don’t have a representative on the advisory board, and the present ones do not seem to be properly watching out for their towns’ interests. “If legal action comes about, I don’t want them hiding under a pillow, saying they didn’t know about this,” he said.
But Gompert said the advisory board was “clearly doing their job.”
“This is not an organization where you just rubber stamp things through,” she said. “There are real funding concerns.”
One of these concerns revolved around federal relief funding distributed because of the COVID pandemic, which Gompert said was used to “rebuild” the system. However, the VTA has gone through about 70 percent of what they were given. Gompert said this allowed the VTA to operate with double what it usually was allocated, but those funds are running out and are uncertain if they will be refilled.
Gompert said she is comfortable with the funding through 2027, but the VTA will need to plan for what to do after that.
Ryan also wrote that while the VTA blames the union for service cuts over the past few years, it is actually the authority that is at fault.
“The reason for service cuts is that the VTA cannot hire drivers for the wages that they are offering,” he wrote. “It has also come to my attention that some of the summer drivers are being forced to share rooms. Because of that, some have refused to work here.”
But Gompert denies that the VTA blamed the union for service cuts. She also said parts of the service cuts were due to the COVID pandemic. Gompert said the amount of services and drivers have increased compared to last summer, which was when the VTA had to make schedule cuts due to a driver shortage.
She also said the VTA needs to “overhire” because many summer drivers who said they would join, sometimes don’t end up coming.
Gompert said drivers voted in May not to strike and turned down the contract proposed at the time, although she was not privy to the details of their negotiations with Transit Connection. She said the VTA has approached the union about contracts. The negotiations with the union also did not start until January, according to Gompert.
Ryan wrote that he tried to “reason” with Gompert, and offered a federal program to get the needed drivers and “be refunded 50 percent of their wages for the first year.”
Ryan said there is an apprenticeship and mentoring program sponsored by the U.S. Department of Labor and funded by a $10 million grant. There are also partnerships with other organizations, like colleges and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. A college student could get credits through the program by driving during the summer, and veterans can earn up to $30,000 on top of their salary as a driver. Additionally, Ryan said the VTA could be reimbursed $15,000 per driver through the program, and other authorities, like Cape Cod Regional Transit Authority, have signed onto it.
“There has never been more federal money for transit in the 32 years I have been doing this job,” Ryan wrote, also saying there is plenty of funding to pay drivers a living wage and to develop a “sustainable plan” to attract new candidates.
However, he wrote that these attempts were rejected.
Gompert told The Times that the VTA has federal hiring programs in place, such as providing for commercial drivers license training for new drivers. She also said work is being done to try to recruit students from Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School who are at least 18 years old.
Gompert also pointed out that the union represents only the year-round drivers and the VTA also needs to consider the seasonal drivers. The peaks in service demand and the task of bringing in summer drivers means a “one size fits all” method doesn’t work. Gompert said the VTA needs to do a “balancing act.” “It’s not like running a regular urban system, like Attleboro or Taunton,” she said.
“At this time, the union is planning legal action against the VTA administrator for violating state law,” Ryan wrote.
A point Ryan underscored in the letter was that his intent was to increase services and improve transit, not to damage the system or have another strike. “The citizens of the Island deserve much better,” he wrote.
The towns are not the only places documentation was filed. Ryan said unfair labor practices have been filed with the National Labor Relations Board, and letters were sent to the attorney general’s office, the governor’s office, and the Massachusetts Department of Transportation. So far, Ryan has only heard back from the attorney general’s office, which he said agreed, and suggested hiring a lawyer.
Gompert said the VTA was working hard with the resources it had. She also said that while she received a lot of criticism from people during the 2019 strikes, she is still in her position.
“I don’t live in a vacuum,” she said. “We need to look at the same problem in different ways to fill the gap.”