Steamship Authority general manager Bob Davis received a glowing performance review during his annual evaluation Tuesday, with governing board members unanimously praising his steady handling of not one — but two — viruses that threatened nearly all facets of the ferry service’s operations.
“I am so blown away by [Mr. Davis’s] ability to remain unflappable,” New Bedford governor Moira Tierney said during her evaluation. “This year has been atrocious . . . the pandemic, the ransomware attack . . . I am amazed at management’s ability, under Bob’s direction, just to keep things going.”
The SSA board also discussed a number of summer traffic concerns, making changes to the preferred space program to temporarily increase Islander access and mulling Woods Hole congestion issues.
But board members were most outspoken during Mr. Davis’s evaluation. Ms. Tierney, often a strong critic of SSA management, gave Mr. Davis a perfect 100 out of 100 score on his evaluation.
“I think I made a comment once that Jesus Christ wouldn’t deserve a 100,” Ms. Tierney said. “But I have to take that back.”
Hired as general manager in 2016 after previously serving as treasurer, chief auditor and comptroller positions for the boat line, Mr. Davis took stepped into the shoes of retiring general manager Wayne Lamson in June of 2017. The board has made a habit of providing Mr. Davis positive performance evaluations, also assigning him high grades during his 2018 and 2019 reviews.
During the past year, Mr. Davis has shepherded the boat line through the pandemic and a ransomware attack, steadying finances with federal CARES Act funding after traffic plummeted last spring, and getting IT systems operational after they were down for nearly a week.
Other governors were less messianic but equally glowing in their praise. Nantucket governor Robert Ranney gave Mr. Davis a 97 in his review, saying that Mr. Davis weathered challenges with poise and professionalism, and added that his work was often underappreciated.
He highlighted Mr. Davis’s sense of responsibility to the ferry service and its customers, and said Mr. Davis was always available and responsive to criticisms and concerns.
“Bob has this duty, this responsibility, this . . . I don’t know, it’s indescribable. But he handles all this with this grace,” Mr. Ranney said.
Barnstable governor Bob Jones gave Mr. Davis a 95 in his review, piling on Ms. Tierney’s praise.
Vineyard governor James Malkin and Falmouth governor Kathryn Wilson also gave Mr. Davis high marks, each giving him a 90 on their evaluations, but they did note areas of improvement. Both said he could do a better job delegating within the agency, allowing himself to focus less on operations and more on being a senior executive.
“You’re so involved, on so many different levels, that you don’t really have the opportunity to step back a little bit and work with a bigger eye towards long range planning,” Ms. Wilson said.
Mr. Malkin suggested the organization look toward hiring a chief operating officer, a suggestion made in the 2019 SMS consultant report that was critical of internal operations at the ferry service. Mr. Davis has been resistant to the hire.
“I don’t think [Mr. Davis] needs to be involved in every decision. I think he needs to be able to step back and let people learn. And I think that makes for a better organization,” Mr. Malkin said. “So, with those caveats, I think his performance has been terrific.”
Mr. Davis was visibly flushed by the praise, thanking the governing board and his staff at the Zoom meeting Tuesday.
“It really is a team effort here,” he said.
In other business, governors also authorized management to institute a variety of temporary measures to increase the preferred space allocation for Island ferry passengers, in response to the crunch of heavy summer traffic at the boat line this year.
In a memo, Mr. Davis wrote that a shift to a higher percentage of use by standard fare vehicles versus excursion fare vehicles during the pandemic, as well as vehicle bookings being made farther in advance of travel, have created problems for Island residents in booking travel
The preferred space program sets aside 120 vehicle spaces for Island excursion customers, with 91 spaces available seven days before departure and the remaining 29 available one day in advance. If those spaces aren’t used after three days, the ferry service makes them available to the general public.
But at the suggestion of management governors authorized the boat line to suspend the so-called borrow-down feature, allowing preferred space allocations to remain solely eligible for Island residents up to the day before boat sailings. They also voted to approve recommendations that five preferred space trips are added to any unscheduled ferry crossing, and to better utilize unsold truck space, as well as the Island Home’s lift-deck, subject to weather load conditions.
Mr. Davis said at the meeting that a broader analysis of the preferred space program was also in the works.
“These are all things that we are looking at . . . to help make the situation a little bit more palatable for everyone,” he said.
With traffic concerns at the forefront, governors also discussed a letter from the Falmouth select board requesting that the SSA hire a facilitator for long-range planning discussion, and that New Bedford appoint a representative to the boat line’s long range planning committee, among other things.
The letter also expressed “strenuous objection” to the 5:30 a.m. freight ferry, which has become a sticking point for Woods Hole residents.
Although governors took no formal action, discussion included the idea of possibly staging cars at the Palmer avenue lot. SSA shoreside operations Alison Fletcher acknolwedged the problems with traffic backups in Woods Hole this summer.
“We are short-staffed down there,” Ms. Fletcher said. “There is a large volume, with cars showing up with reservations days in advance, or open tickets. It’s definitely a trend we’ve been seeing more and more.”