PORTSMOUTH — In a vote that could ultimately influence decision-makers on their choice of a ferry operator into the future, the majority of residents at a meeting Saturday said they have no confidence in Prudence Island Ferry’s long-term commitment to provide reliable service.
Prudence Island Ferry owner Bruce Medley, however, said the 25 people who attended the meeting of the Prudence Island Planning Commission (PIPC) are hardly representative of his passengers.
“My question is, where are the other 50,000?” Mr. Medley asked Monday.
The meeting by PIPC — the liaison panel between islanders and the Town Council — was held in response to the R.I. Division of Public Utilities and Carriers’ (DPUC) request for the town’s opinion on the adequacy and reliability of the current ferry service. Town Administrator John Klimm, who received the DPUC request in a Dec. 10 letter from Terrence Mercer, associate administrator for the division’s Motor Carriers Section, had forwarded the letter on to the PIPC for its input.
According to the unofficial minutes from Saturday’s meeting, a “straw poll” was taken of the 25 people in attendance regarding the operations of Prudence Island Ferry — the island’s sole ferry operator since the 1980s — going forward. Gene Cardin, PIPC secretary, said there were 17 votes of “no confidence,” three votes of “confidence” and five votes of “uncertain.”
“The majority attending do not have confidence in (Prudence Island Ferry’s) long-term commitment to service the island’s needs for a reliable service,” stated Harry Sterling, PIPC chairman, in a cover letter that was included with the unofficial minutes and sent to Mr. Klimm.
The PIPC findings will be used as part of DPUC’s inquiry into whether the quality of service provided by Prudence Island Ferry is “sufficient to meet the public convenience and necessity.”
According to all parties involved, that review is entirely separate from the DPUC’s consideration of a request by A&R Marine — doing business as Prudence & Bay Islands Transport — for a certificate of public convenience and necessity to operate a ferry. DPUC considered A&R’s application during two hearings in October and December that were intended to determine whether or not two ferry providers for Prudence are necessary.
“This is actually not an investigation. This is a periodic review that was set back in 1993,” Mr. Medley said of the DPUC’s inquiry, acknowledging that such a review has not been carried out in some time.
At the December DPUC hearing, however, Christy L. Hetherington, special assistant attorney general, said the review may or may not influence the division’s decision to grant A&R Marine a certificate to operate. The review was prompted after October’s hearing, when some Prudence Island Ferry riders said the ferry’s cabin wasn’t heated, the bathroom was constantly locked and notices of cancellations weren’t appropriate.
Among the biggest concerns raised at Saturday’s meeting was the reliability of service. Last spring Mr. Medley said in an e-mail to town officials that he would stop service Dec. 1, but later withdrew his statement. This left the town scrambling for solutions, and ultimately to A&R Marine’s application to operate its own ferry.
Some islanders also said they need to know whether long-time Prudence Island Ferry employee Eric Leite is taking over operations at some point, as they’ve heard in the past. Mr. Leite did not respond to a request for an interview Monday, but on the “Heard Around the Dock” Facebook page, he expressed frustration with the “cut-throat fiasco” that the ferry issue has become.
“I cannot take over a company while there is so much uncertainty,” Mr. Leite wrote on Saturday, just hours after the PIPC meeting.
On Monday, Mr. Medley said he understood his employee’s frustration. “He went out of his way to help these people and what do they do? They throw mud in his face,” he said.
Other concerns and suggestions raised at the meeting, according to the unofficial minutes:
• The last Christmas Eve run was dropped without public notice other than word of mouth.
• More ferry runs should be added, and the 5:30 p.m. ferry should be changed to 6 p.m. run to accommodate passengers.
• There should be reduced-fair commuter tickets with no expiration date.
• The infrastructure in both Bristol and on Prudence is in disrepair, some claim, while others said the parking lots are not plowed in a timely fashion.
Several comments were made about Mr. Medley himself, with some islanders saying the ferry owner has been known to ban passengers from his boat. One person described being left standing on the dock as she was walking to the ferry. “She was only two feet away from the boat ramp when Mr. Medley told the captain to leave,” according to the minutes.
The PIPC voted 3-1 to send the unedited comments, along with a cover letter, to Mr. Klimm.
On Monday Mr. Medley said the PIPC meeting was just an example of a small minority of people with an ax to grind.
“The fact of the matter is the majority of our customers have no use for the chairman of the Prudence Island Planning Commission. They don’t go to these meetings,” he said, adding that more people would have attended the meeting had it been held the week before “when the island was full of people.”
The ferry owner also accused some of his critics — including Mr. Sterling — of ticket fraud.
“The people that I know who vote against me, I’ve taken expired tickets away from most of them. They try to sneak on the boat,” said Mr. Medley, adding that his detractors have a personal vendetta against him. “It has nothing to do with the quality of service.
On Monday, Mr. Sterling had no comment on Mr. Medley’s allegations of ticket fraud. The PIPC chairman would say only that “Bruce started being angry at me” when the planning commission, seven or eight years ago, formally objected to the state over the ferry company’s wishes to change its commuter ticket policy.
Mr. Medley also took issue with some islanders’ complaints over the existing fares. “They want a reduction in ticket prices, but they support A&R Marine who have already indicated that they want to raise the rates. That makes no sense,” he said.
In addition, the ferry owner said that since the PIPC is a Town Council liaison, by law its letter must be included on a future council agenda for review. Mr. Klimm, however, said he would forward the letter directly to the DPUC without comment. That’s all that’s needed to satisfy Mr. Mercer’s original request, he said. (On the Prudence Island Ferry’s Facebook page Monday, Mr. Medley countered that he has forwarded Mr. Sterling’s letter to his attorney Timothy Dodd “for discussion.”)
For now, Mr. Medley said, he’ll wait to see what action will be taken by John Spirito, Jr., chief of the DPUC’s legal services, who oversaw the December hearing.
Prudence Island Ferry does have many supporters who have rallied around the company and Mr. Medley on social media or through a petition that the company says was signed by about 300 people. Most passengers have had nothing but supportive things to say about crew members, and the ferry company’s good safety record was brought up at Saturday’s meeting.
And, according to Mr. Medley, several town departments that rely on the ferry to get to and from Prudence have had no problem with the current level of service.
The town’s Public Works Department (DPW), for example, uses the ferry for many runs over to the island. Dave Kehew, DPW director, said he was among the department heads who earlier had been asked for input on the ferry service.
“My comments were all positive. From the public works’ standpoint, we have no complaints whatsoever,” said Mr. Kehew, who estimates that DPW makes “over 100 trips a year” to Prudence Island on the ferry.
Mr. Kehew said he couldn’t comment on Prudence Island Ferry’s long-term commitment because he doesn’t have all the facts. However, he said the crew has always been kind and professional when dealing with DPW workers.