CRANBERRY ISLES — Ron Axelrod, former chairman of the town’s Transportation Task Force, has accused the Board of Selectmen of ignoring the will of voters by not soliciting proposals for the operation of a new ferry service between the Cranberries and Mount Desert Island.
The selectmen have responded that circumstances have changed, and that pursuing a new ferry service now is neither necessary nor feasible.
At a May 14 special town meeting, residents voted 33-3 to have the town contract with a private operator to provide year-round service to both Northeast Harbor and Southwest Harbor. Following that vote, the selectmen created a committee to develop a request for proposals (RFP) to send to prospective ferry operators.
Beal & Bunker has operated a ferry service between the Cranberries and Northeast Harbor since 1952. Company owner David Bunker said last year that he wanted to sell the ferry operation and retire. And earlier this year, he said he did not plan to continue the ferry service past October.
But then in late June, he said in a letter to town officials that Beal & Bunker would continue year-round operations. His son James, who is now running the company, confirmed that commitment.
Even so, the Board of Selectmen (BOS) decided July 5 to continue with the development of an RFP for a new ferry service so that it could be issued in the event that Beal & Bunker discontinues its service.
“We should have something in our hip pocket in the form of an RFP to reach out and see if there are other options,” board Chairman Richard Beal said.
But in a July 26 email to the selectmen, Axelrod, who chaired the Transportation Task Force for two years, criticized the board for their decisions “to continue using Beal & Bunker … for the foreseeable future” and to have the RFP committee “continue creating an RFP ‘just in case’ it is needed.”
“As I am sure you realize, this arrangement goes against the stated wishes of the voters and the recommendations of the Transportation Task Force …,” he wrote.
Axelrod also objected to the fact that, although voters endorsed the concept of a year-round ferry operation that would serve both Northeast Harbor and Southwest Harbor, the selectmen asked the RFP committee to draft an RFP for service to Northeast Harbor only.
Axelrod has been a member of the RFP committee that the selectmen created following the May 14 town meeting. But said in his email that he was resigning the seat because, given the board’s decisions regarding Beal & Bunker and the RFP process, he saw “no reason to contribute any additional time and effort to securing a safe and professionally run ferry service for the islands.”
Beal, the Board of Selectmen chairman, said that Axelrod and nearly 20 other town residents attended the board’s meeting Tuesday morning.
“A number of people in the audience responded [to Axelrod’s accusations] before the board could even chime in,” Beal said.
He said audience members reminded Axelrod that the special town meeting was held because, at the time, “it was practically a given that there would be no ferry service” after October.
“Circumstances have changed,” Beal said, referring to Beal & Bunker’s commitment to continue year-round service. “Things are not the same as they were when we held the special town meeting.”
He said the selectmen on Tuesday authorized the RFP committee to retain the services of marine transportation consultant Paul Pottle, formerly of the Maine Department of Transportation, to help draft an RFP for the town to have at the ready in case it is needed. Beal said he expects the draft to be completed within a couple of months.