“Where’s It Coming From?” Concerns Grow Over New Steamship Legislation

Written By: Jason Graziadei | Photography By: Cary Hazlegrove, NantucketStock.com

Legislation that would place term limits on the Steamship Authority’s Board of Governors and require the boat line to create a chief of operations position is making waves on both Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard. 

Filed by State Representative Dylan Fernandes and State Senator Julian Cyr, the bill has come under fire by town officials on both islands over the past week, who cited a lack of public vetting for the proposal before it was filed, and a perceived rush to get it passed. There is also the fear that opening the Steamship Authority legislation could have unintended consequences, as unwelcome amendments could get tacked on at the State House in Boston. 

The bill did not get a warm reception Wednesday night during the Nantucket Select Board’s meeting. 

“This legislation came out of nowhere and took a lot of people by surprise, and the question is where it’s coming from, why is it being pushed so quickly and why are we being forced to go along with this?” said Rob Ranney, Nantucket’s representative on the Steamship Board of Governors. “I said this to Dylan myself, this should be in the public eye and there should be a public hearing of some sort. If everyone is for it, great. If everyone is against it, we know that too. But no one had the opportunity for that.”

Select Board member Melissa Murphy was even sharper in her criticism of the process by which the legislation was filed, and went as far as calling for a “pause” in effort to get it passed in Boston. 

“My issue is the conversation wasn’t in public,” Murphy said. “I’m not sure Beacon Hill needs to be involved with term limits and I’m a bit disappointed that, in my view, the cart went before the horse…That’s just bad public process. It shuts out the commissioners from having a debate about whether or not this is worthwhile, and I don’t think Dylan got full representation of our views and our community’s views. I don’t understand what the rush is with the term limits either. It’s prudent to pause this, let it go through public discourse.”

Dukes County Commissioners on Martha’s Vineyard expressed similar concerns this week. 

Fernandes and Cyr filed the legislation in early February, citing a 2018 audit of the Steamship Authority’s operations that was conducted in the wake of a series of problems on the Martha’s Vineyard route, including mechanical issues with one of its vessels, that resulted in more than 500 cancelled crossings. While some of the audit’s recommendations had been implemented, others had not, including the recommendation for a COO position. 

At its March 15 meeting, the Steamship Authority Governors voted to pursue the addition of a COO to its administrative team. 

Reached by phone on Thursday, Fernandes pushed back on the some of the criticisms of the legislation and the process, stating he had spoken to several individuals in government on both islands before filing the legislation. He took credit for the Steamship’s move to add the COO position as well, and said he had only received a few messages that were critical of the legislation. 

“I’m surprised about all the concerns,” Fernandes said. “The Steamship Authority, back in 2018, it broke. For Martha’s Vineyard, it stopped running. There were 550 missed ferries, thousand of people were stranded, it was a disaster with huge public safety implications. I would recommend everyone read the quarter million dollar audit report that came out doing a deep dive into the Steamship operations after it failed as a lifeline to the Vineyard. It’s a damning report. Thousands of islanders called for that report and if you look at it, it’s incredibly troubling  how dysfunctional the Steamship is portrayed in it. The report is clear there needs to be management changes to enable a culture of longer term planning and not just putting out daily fires.”

Fernandes told the Current that he rejected any suggestion that the legislation be put on pause. 

During Wednesday’s Select Board meeting, Matt Fee said he was undecided on the merits of the bill, but did suggest a potential motivation for Fernandes’ decision to file it without clear support from the islands. 

“Dylan represents us, but he also represents Falmouth,” Fee said. “What I think is happening is Falmouth thinks the Steamship is not listening to them and just increasing and increasing and is going to sink them. He’s representing their views somewhat at the same time. I sensed that. I haven’t talked to him about that. We have to realize that he has more people to answer to than just us. That’s where he’s from, that’s his family, and I think we have to realize that.”

But Fernandes was adamant there was no ulterior motive, and said anyone who had read the audit would understand the need for the legislation he and Sen. Cyr had filed. 

“There are people who are stoking unfounded fears about this issue, and you see this happen a lot in all sorts of politics,” Fernandes said. “I don’t legislate based on unfounded fears, I do what is right by my constituents, and there’s been an outpouring of people requesting more accountability around the Steamship based on them failing at their job…Just two years ago, we passed Steamship legislation that was a big win for islanders. We’ve shown we care about this lifeline. Any suggestion there’s some ulterior motive , I find deeply offensive. I care deeply about islanders and ensuring they have a secure and safe lifeline, and frankly I have the legislative track record to prove it.”

The Select Board asked town manager Libby Gibson to draft a letter to the state legislature outlining the board’s concerns about the bill.   

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