On Wednesday, Dukes County Commissioners weighed in on recent revelations on July’s untethering of a Steamship vessel, and emphasized concerns about what they say are systemic communication and transparency issues within the Steamship Authority.
On July 27, the Sankaty broke loose from the Woods Hole Terminal and drifted into a Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution dock.
At the time, few details were provided to the public other than that the freight vessel sustained only minor cosmetic damage, and that the SSA would be conducting an internal investigation into the incident. Steamship Authority leadership declined to share any more details.
A successful appeal to the Massachusetts Supervisor of Records after SSA initially denied The Times’ record request for internal documents relating to the Sankaty later revealed — among other things — that three days prior to the incident, the master and crew of the Sankaty were advised by the port captain’s office that they “were not following standard operating procedures when securing the vessel in Woods Hole.”
Additionally, the documents have shown that earlier on the day the freight boat broke loose, Steamship crew members had notified their superiors of improperly secured bow lines, which are meant to hold the vessel in its slip.
But a number of officials say they were not informed of the results of the internal investigation until The Times published its Nov. 8 article, ‘New details emerge on Sankaty mishap.’
On Wednesday, Dukes County commissioners were joined by Vineyard board representative to the Steamship Authority Jim Malkin, and Port Council members Joe Sollitto and John Cahill, none of whom had been made aware of the revealing documents before last week.
Malkin shared that he first learned of the untethering of the Sankaty in July the same way he found out about the internal documents — through the newspaper, and not from the SSA.
“For three days, the boat not being secured properly was known, and memos were written, but nothing was done,” he said, adding that neither the Port Council nor the board were immediately notified.
“There’s an issue of accountability, there’s an issue of transparency, there’s an issue of operational processes,” within the Steamship Authority, he said. Had the Sankaty broken loose somewhere like Hyannis or Nantucket, “it could have been a catastrophe.”
Malkin called the Sankaty incident an “operational failure,” indicative of “an underlying culture and organization that is siloed,” and “does not communicate well between departments [or] to the traveling public.”
Oak Bluffs Port Council member Joe Sollitto agreed, and emphasized the laissez-faire nature of the SSA. “They react, they don’t anticipate,” he said. “That’s not the way it should be.”
Sollitto said that he was “blindsided” by The Times’ article revealing the findings of the internal investigation; at a meeting with SSA management in October, he said, the Port Council was not given any indication that there was a records request pending, or that one had been denied.
“Something could have been said … Nothing was mentioned,” he said.
Provided with a timeline of events in the Sankaty incident, commissioners took the opportunity to voice their concerns about the service’s handling of the mishap.
“It seems very apparent to us that there is a lack of good judgment on the part of management at the Steamship in regard to this situation and others,” commission chair Christine Todd noted, calling how the SSA addressed the issue “indicative of much more systemic problems within the organization.”
Commissioner Don Leopold agreed. “This is not an issue at an individual level,” he said. “This is a massive process failure.” He said the recent events could likely shake the public’s confidence in the ferry operator, and people might question the effectiveness of the service.
Commissioner Peter Wharton said the thing that stuck out for him when reviewing the timeline of events was the hours between when concerns about the Sankaty’s bow lines were expressed to the port captain’s office to when the vessel was finally returned to its berth.
“What happened on that day obviously did not rise to a level of immediacy [or] transparency about what actually occurred,” he said, adding that Port Council and board members should have been “fully informed by the management of the Steamship Authority” about what was happening at the time.
“The lack of transparency, not just to the public but with [the Port Council] is embarrassing,” he said.
In addition to expressing their own concerns about the series of events surrounding the Sankaty incident, some commissioners Wednesday shared that they were less surprised by the lack of transparency by the SSA.
Reports of SSA operational and managerial remissness aren’t new, commissioner Doug Ruskin said. “And that is the second most annoying thing — the most annoying thing is the cover-up.”
“And I’m calling it that, because it sure looks like it,” he said.
“Somebody from the public mentioned to me that they thought this was an egregious event,” Ruskin continued. “My immediate response was that the egregious event was in 2018, when we had three boats out and weeks of disruption. This, to me, rises to gross negligence.”
“It goes back to how the board has rated the management of the Steamship for years, until very recently, providing relatively high marks and raises. And I can tell you, the public doesn’t get it … At this stage, I certainly don’t get it.”
He urged his fellow commissioners to “communicate as strongly as possible” to SSA leadership that the ferry service’s issues “need to be addressed in way more than just words.”
The commission agreed, and voted in favor of drafting a letter to all SSA board members and municipal leadership, expressing the county’s urgent desire to address systemic problems within the SSA. That letter was sent to the chair of the Steamship board, Robert Ranney of Nantucket, and board members on Friday. In it, commissioners describe the Sankaty incident as “extremely disturbing from multiple perspectives,” and urge Steamship leadership to “take any corrective action necessary to restore the trust in Steamship Authority management that this community has lost.”
“As an appointing authority [for the Dukes County member of the board], we understand well that our role does not include direct oversight of the board or management,” the letter reads. “We have had concerns about a number of activities in the past, and have allowed our representative to do his job without interference. However, we find this most recent incident to be so egregious, and perhaps indicative of true negligence, that we felt it necessary to spend an hour of our Nov. 15 County Commissioners meeting voicing our concerns to James Malkin, and the Vineyard’s Port Council members, John Cahill and Joseph E. Sollitto Jr.”
According to the service’s bylaws, board members “have charge of, and supervise the management, operation, and direction of all business and affairs of the authority”; Malkin, who has 35 percent of the vote on the board, stressed, “We cannot be effective as a board if we do not have information.”
He said the SSA board, which has not yet met to discuss the revelations of the internal investigation, will be taking up the topic at an upcoming meeting.
“The board will have to make a decision, and I sincerely hope that my other board members understand not only the gravity of the situation, but what it says we need to do with the Steamship Authority,” he said.