Connecticut River ferry workers get two-week reprieve

New Britain - Crew members of the two Connecticut River ferries planned for closure were notified Thursday afternoon that their layoffs, originally set for Aug. 25, would be pushed back two weeks.

The notification, which came hours after a Superior Court judge dismissed a lawsuit seeking to keep the ferries running, means the ferries will likely continue to operate through at least the end of the month.

The eight crew members will receive new layoff notices effective Sept. 8, said Tom Darcy, a captain of the Chester-Hadlyme ferry.

Kevin Nursick, spokesman for the state Department of Transportation, confirmed the new date.

"I'm happy to be working another couple of weeks, I guess," Darcy said. But uncertainties surrounding his and his wife's jobs - both work on the Chester-Hadlyme ferry - remain, and no one at the DOT will give them a straight answer about the future of the ferries, he said.

The eight positions on the Chester-Hadlyme and Rocky Hill-Glastonbury ferries are part of the thousands of positions Gov. Dannel P. Malloy is eliminating to fill a $1.6 billion hole in the state budget. Though a pending vote on union concessions could revoke the layoffs, ferry employees have been working under the assumption that they will lose their jobs later this month.

The DOT will run a notice in various newspapers today that says members of the public have until Sept. 5 to submit comments about the DOT's plan to close the ferries. The state said it would likely extend the layoff date while it gave the public time to comment on the issue.

The public notice is required under state law for any changes the state plans to make on scenic roads. It was a step the DOT had not yet taken when the town of Lyme took it to court, and one Lyme took issue with in its July 22 lawsuit.

Earlier Thursday, New Britain Superior Court Judge Henry S. Cohn dismissed Lyme's attempt to legally stop both the layoffs and planned termination of ferry service. The lawsuit named DOT Acting Commissioner James P. Redeker and Comptroller Kevin Lembo as defendants.

Cohn said the lawsuit was pre-emptive in that it requested a stay on a "final decision" that had not yet been made.

In the hour-long hearing, Lyme Town Attorney Ken McKeever argued that the town had no option but to file the lawsuit when it did because "the whole thing is happening in reverse," with the public comment period just beginning now and no guarantee that the ferries wouldn't be taken off-line in the meantime.

But Jane Rosenberg, of the attorney general's office, said the lawsuit had no merit because the ferries are, today, still on the river and running.

"We don't have any definitive decision to close anything," Rosenberg said. "There's nothing to enjoin yet."

Rocky Hill Town Manager Barbara R. Gilbert and attorney Morris Borea were in court to petition for intervener status, but Cohn recommended that they file their own suit if they hoped to prevail.

"I'm disappointed," Lyme First Selectman Ralph Eno said of Cohn's decision. "And I think, as we anticipated, from our point of view, I don't think the case was decided on merits."

What Eno called "arcane case law" on sovereign immunity, which generally shields governments from being sued, gave the state an easy out and let it "skirt the issue," he said. Eno said he and McKeever would review the case and may return to court with a new argument to keep the ferries running.

Humphrey Tyler, a Hadlyme resident who is leading the public "Save the Ferries" movement, said the judge's decision did not address any of the uncertainties surrounding the fate of the ferries. Tyler said his group would continue to encourage passengers and neighboring residents to call the governor's office in support of keeping the ferries operating.

j.cho@theday.com

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