Cambridge Civic Journal Forum

July 28, 2009

The Big Circus was in town last night

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: — Robert Winters @ 12:32 pm

July 28 – The Big Circus was in town last night

The Cambridge City Council midsummer meeting last night was interesting in its political speechmaking and the presence of news cameras in the wake of the Most Overblown Story of the Year. The best thing was watching the local network news reporters sit silently for hours in the sweltering Sullivan Chamber while almost all public comment was about everything but the Great Gates Caper. The reporters were treated to heavy doses of comment on taxicab regulations, curb cuts, the closing of Il Panino, Harvard employment practices, the McCrehan pool, water parks, bedbugs, and other matters that affect Cambridge residents far more than The Big Controversy. Yes, there were a few people who commented on The Great Ware Street Confrontation, but these were primarily the usual suspects and their total testimony took up at best one tenth of public comment. Most comical was how the TV cameras would whirl into action whenever the topic of the Gatescapades came up. I didn’t catch the 11 o’clock news to see how much of the video was aired, but there’s little doubt that it must have been one of the least representative samples of Cambridge and of what occurred at the meeting that you’ll ever find.

When public comment was finally over, the political posturing commenced. It opened with Councillor Kelley moving Tabled Item #2 – an Order and a Substitute Order relating to the ongoing appeal of the Monteiro v. City of Cambridge case. Ultimately, it was Councillor Toomey’s substitute language that passed requesting an opinion from the City Solicitor on the propriety of providing the City Council with funds to hire their own legal counsel for this matter. It is clear to this observer that Councillor Kelley’s sole motivation is to challenge the City Manager regardless of the merits of the case or its appeal. The other two sponsors of the original Order, Councillor Reeves and Mayor Simmons, have their own motivations.

Regardless of motivation, there is an important charter-related issue here. It is absolutely clear that ALL personnel matters are to be handled by the City Manager, and this includes any complaints or lawsuits filed by present or former employees against the City. On the other hand, the City Council ultimately has to vote, albeit indirectly, on all appropriations including legal settlements. Ideally, the City Council would pass a resolution or discuss in Executive Session its preferred policies on where to draw the line on legal appeals or settlements in this case. One would think that they would have already done this in their multiple Executive Sessions on this matter, but the public is (supposedly) not privy to those conversations. This conversation with the Manager, the City Solicitor, and the City Councillors should have already taken place and probably has taken place, and presumably some consensus should have been reached. Is there actually a majority opinion among city councillors on this matter? Maybe not.

The actual votes on Monday were somewhat interesting. It was a 5-4 vote to remove the matter from the Table with Councillors Decker, Kelley, Reeves, Seidel, and Simmons voting in favor. Kelley’s intention was to vote on the original Order requesting funds for legal counsel, but procedurally Councillor Toomey’s substitute had to be voted first. Councillor Toomey made clear that the issue was distinguishing the proper roles of the City Council and the City Manager under the City Charter. Councillor Decker wanted the City Solicitor to give his opinion now. On substituting Councillor Toomey’s language for the original language of Councillors Kelley, Reeves, and Simmons, the vote was 5-4 with Davis, Decker, Maher, Toomey, and Ward voting in favor, and Councillors Kelley, Reeves, Seidel, and Simmons opposed. The main motion with the substitute language then passed 8-1 with Councillor Decker as the sole dissenting vote.

Next came statements from City Manager Robert Healy and Police Commissioner Robert Hass on The Great Gates Affair. Mr. Healy gave a comprehensive chronology of what had transpired from the original July 16 incident to the present. Several councillors expressed dissatisfaction about not being included in every aspect of the matter and of having to learn some things only through the public media. As an observer, I detected some unhappiness at their not being asked to share in the public spotlight in a matter that garnered national attention. However, this was fundamentally an operational matter which, objectively, would have been completely routine save for the fact that some people chose to turn it into a media circus. Regarding the notion that the city councillors were not kept informed, why didn’t each and every one of them, as Councillor Ward wisely suggested, just pick up the phone and call the Manager? Unless the Manager was refusing their calls (which certainly did not happen), the councillors had every opportunity to be kept abreast of every aspect of this whole silly affair. This suggests that this was not about being informed but about sharing the spotlight.

What happens next should be interesting. Mayor Simmons will surely want to have yet another “Race and Class Forum,” though it seems doubtful that Charles Ogletree, the lawyer for Mr. Gates, will be the chosen moderator this time. This is also a municipal election year, so will the other councillors be completely OK with again giving Mayor Simmons the spotlight? Considering how vehemently Councillor Reeves was taking sides on the issue, it’s doubtful he will want to again cede the political stage to Simmons or anyone else. Opportunity knocks. – Robert Winters

July 26, 2009

July 27, 2009 City Council Agenda Highlights

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: — Robert Winters @ 10:00 pm

July 27, 2009 City Council Agenda Highlights

The City Council will hold its Midsummer meeting this Monday, July 27 and, believe it or not, there are agenda items not relating to real or imagined incidents on Ware Street. (There are also a few Orders on the Most Overblown Story of the Year.)

City Mgr’s Agenda #5. Transmitting communication from Robert W. Healy, City Manager, relative to Awaiting Report Item Number 09-67, regarding the potential use by City departments and staff of social networking programs such as Twitter and Facebook.

This sentence sums it up: “Social networking sites on the Internet are not regulated or secure. Information posted on these sites may not be accurate or current. Therefore it is not recommended that they be used for official City business.” The one thing the City needs to have is a web person in each and every department who will keep their website fresh, accurate, and useful. Leave twitter to the twits.

Perhaps the most substantial agenda item is the proposal for new taxes:

City Mgr’s Agenda #6. Transmitting communication from Robert W. Healy, City Manager, relative to the recommendation that the City Council vote to accept G.L. c. 64L, Section 2(a), in order to impose a local meals excise and I further recommend the City Council vote to amend the local room occupancy excise, under G.L. c. 64G, section 3A, to the new rate of 6% from the current rate of 4%.

Committee Report #1. A communication was received from D. Margaret Drury, City Clerk, transmitting a report from Councillor David P. Maher, Chair of the Finance Committee, for a meeting held on July 15, 2009 to receive updates on the status of the FY 10 budget particularly with regard to the effects of federal stimulus funding, the state budget and the hotel/motel and meals tax.

If this were any place but Cambridge, a proposal for new taxes would be debated – perhaps fiercely. This proposal will likely pass on a 9-0 vote.

Tabled Item #2. That the City Manager is requested to make available adequate funds to the City Council so that the City Council can hire its own legal expert to review relevant issues in pending litigation.

Nothing new to report, but the City’s legal appeal of the case in question continues to make its way through the courts. The underlying political motivations of some councillors and other political players are what continues to make this interesting. Meanwhile, on the Crimson side of town:

Committee Report #3. A communication was received from D. Margaret Drury, City Clerk, transmitting a report from Councillor Larry Ward, Chair of the University Relations Committee, for a meeting held on May 20, 2009 to to discuss the committee’s agenda for the remainder of the term, Harvard’s termination of the leases with Three Aces Pizza on Massachusetts Avenue and the layoffs of low paid workers by Harvard and MIT.

Order #5. The City Council go on record asking Harvard University to be patient, to abstain from these radical employment cuts which will deeply injure the most susceptible members of our community, restore valuable workers, and proceed in alignment with its claim to be a world-wide leader in both the business and educational community.   Councillor Ward and Councillor Decker

Order #9. That the City Council recommend that Universities increase their Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) payment by 2%.   Councillor Decker

We can always hope that University Relations will some day get back to something other than meddling in internal affairs and begging for cash. The committee reports this week also indicate that Councillors Seidel and Ward now have campaign workers on the City payroll as “aides”. With all but one of the other councillors reveling in the joy of political patronage, I suppose you can’t blame these councillors for grabbing a piece of the City pie as well. I had hoped for better.

Meanwhile, the Gates-Crowley saga continues and our local political incumbents and aspirants will now have their opportunity to capitalize on the controversy. Will any of them be enjoying a beer with the Cop, the Professor, and the President? I hope they don’t feel too left out.

Order #18. That the City Manager is requested to report on the measures being taken to expedite a peaceful resolution to the matter involving the police and Professor Gates.   Mayor Simmons

Order #25. That the Cambridge City Council hereby goes on record in support of the statement issued by the City of Cambridge, the Cambridge Police Department and representatives for Professor Gates.   Councillor Ward

Order #27. That the City Manager be and hereby is requested to report on whether wearing nameplates and badges is still required by Police Officers.   Councillor Reeves

The first of these Orders seems like an initial request for a report on what’s being done “to expedite a peaceful resolution to this matter”, so it appears to be a moot request now that it appears to have been resolved via presidential intervention. The second Order is just a confirmation that the City Council agrees with the dropping of all charges and calling it a day. The third Order is just an inquiry but, along with the other two Orders and the feeding frenzy we’ve been subjected to for the last ten days, political speeches should be in no short supply on Monday night – especially with the likelihood of news cameras at the meeting.

The question that will likely not be answered and which probably won’t even be addressed on Monday is what effect this controversy will have on public safety. Will someone now think twice about calling in a suspected break-in or other crime? The witness who made the initial phone call was named in police reports and brutalized in blog comments for doing what she thought was the right thing. Do you think she’ll make a call again? Does anyone seriously believe that reports of suspected break-ins will not drop as a result of this, especially in cases where an alleged perpetrator is identifiable in any way that might lead to accusations of racial profiling? – Robert Winters

July 18, 2009

June 29, 2009 City Council Agenda Highlights

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: — Robert Winters @ 3:17 pm

June 29, 2009 City Council Agenda Highlights

This is the last City Council meeting before the summer break. (The next meetings will be on July 27 and Sept 14.) Significant agenda items include:

City Mgr’s Agenda #4: A Planning Board recommendation on the Vehicle-sharing Parking Facilities Petition (which today means ZipCar but which could involve other companies in the future).

City Mgr’s Agenda #6: A proposed Home Rule Petition to be submitted to the State Legislature entitled “An Act Relative to the Provision of Services to the City of Cambridge by the Cambridge Energy Alliance”. [Follow the link for the complete text of the Home Rule Petition.]

On the Table #2: That the City Manager is requested to make available adequate funds to the City Council so that the City Council can hire its own legal expert to review relevant issues in pending litigation.

This matter is still not resolved and this could be taken from the table and taken up if there are five votes to do it (and there won’t be further discussion about it – except on the campaign trail – until the next meeting at the end of July).

Order #2. That the City Council go on record requesting that the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities, and Energy maintain the existing State laws governing cable licensing, which adequately protect cities and towns, residents of the Commonwealth by defeating House Bill No.3765 and Senate Bill No.1531, An Act Promoting Consumer Choice and Competition.   Councillor Davis

This Order would oppose a bill promoted by Verizon that aims to minimize the cable licensing process and, some would argue, give Verizon a competitive advantage over Comcast. The current process now obliges Comcast to provide funding for local cable access provider CCTV, and its Executive Director Susan Fleischmann has been making the case that Verizon should have to fulfill similar obligations. Lest anyone try to portray Verizon as the bad guy and Comcast as the good guy, it’s worth noting that Comcast just sent out a letter to its analog cable customers informing them that their service is about to be “enhanced” to the “World of More.” What Comcast means by the “World of More” is that analog cable customers will be seeing their cable TV bills quadruple this October or else have most of their stations disappear when Comcast will eliminate its analog cable option. Comcast has mastered Orwellian language. They actually say they will enhance your cable TV package by eliminating service and dramatically increasing the cost of service. Welcome to the World of More. – Robert Winters

Two bits of interest

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: — Robert Winters @ 3:12 pm

June 26 – Journalism in the era of Twitter (Ellen Goodman, Boston Globe)

June 24 – Boston to begin single-stream recycling starting July 1 (Boston Globe)
Note: This may also be coming to Cambridge at some point.

Lesley/Porter Zoning Petition Adopted

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: — Robert Winters @ 3:08 pm

June 23 – Lesley/Porter Zoning Petition Adopted (reported by John Howard, Porter Square Neighbors Association)

On June 22 the Cambridge City Council voted 8-1 to create a Lesley Porter Overlay District. This new overlay district rezones Lesley University’s Porter Square campus, including the former North Prospect Congregational Church site, to allow Lesley to bring the Arts Institute of Boston to Porter Square. It limits what Lesley could eventually build on the parking lots behind and across Massachusetts Avenue from University Hall, although Lesley has not proposed any specific plans for those sites. It also has provisions to require open space and to encourage ground floor retail.

The City Council also granted landmark status to the church, meaning that any alteration to the church’s exterior, or relocation of the church on its lot, will require approval by the Historical Commission.

Lesley University has submitted a related memorandum of understanding which commits them to working with neighbors on construction mitigation, providing courtesy parking during snow emergencies, ensuring adequate parking during events, contributing to beautification along Massachusetts Avenue between Harvard and Porter Squares, giving the public access to Lesley facilities such as an art library, and long-term engagement with the neighborhood.

This is the outcome of nearly three years’ negotiation by Lesley University, City of Cambridge planning staff, neighborhood associations including PSNA and Agassiz Baldwin, abutters, and other concerned citizens, to develop an acceptable rezoning plan.

Discussion by the City Council included the usual questions about traffic and parking, impact on immediate abutters, construction mitigation, worry that economic problems could cause the project to be suspended halfway through, retail issues, and open space. Many of these concerns were addressed by amendments worked out in an intensive dialog between Lesley, the City’s planning staff, and neighbors and abutters over the last several weeks. Most of the councillors praised the civil tone of the dialog, the dedication of both supporters and opponents, and the hard work of all participants, and called for continuing engagement of all parties.

The next major step in the process will be for Lesley to develop a specific design for the Arts Institute of Boston project, for submission to a special project review before the Planning Board as well as Historical Commission review. That will take a while. There is lots more coming, but at the moment we can hope for a respite. – John Howard

Atlanta Adopts New Housing Model

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: — Robert Winters @ 3:06 pm

June 21 – Atlanta Adopts New Housing Model – Boston Globe [….just something to think about….]

June 22, 2009 City Council Agenda Highlights

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: — Robert Winters @ 3:04 pm

June 22, 2009 City Council Agenda Highlights

It is expected that the Lesley/Porter zoning proposal will be voted at this meeting. There has been plenty of public comment on the proposal – both in support and in opposition. The related landmarking of the former North Prospect Church at Roseland and Mass. Ave. is also expected be taken up.

There was an aborted attempt at the last meeting to take off the Table the item (#3 this week) that requests “to make available adequate funds to the City Council so that the City Council can hire its own legal expert to review relevant issues in pending litigation.” The item also includes Councillor Toomey’s substitute motion, and both relate to the matter before last week’s Executive Session that lasted more than two hours. I expect there will be another attempt to take up this matter this Monday or next week – the last meeting before the summer recess. A simple majority is required to take any item from the Table and there appeared to be five votes last week to take up this matter except that one member was absent at the time of the vote, and a motion to reconsider the vote failed. If the matter is taken up, things could get very contentious.

Speaking of contentious, there’s this:

Order #4. That the City Manager is requested to review whether the City of Cambridge, including the Cambridge Retirement System, has any investments in which Evergreen Investment Management Company and its affiliates are involved, and is further requested to divest itself of any such investments that may exist, and to report back to the City Council on his findings at the City Council Meeting on July 27, 2009.   Councillor Toomey

What makes this Order interesting is the fact that one of the vice-presidents of the company named in the Order apparently just co-authored a commentary in “America’s oldest weekly newspaper” ripping into the City Manager and all nine city councillors over the matter of the City’s AAA bond rating. These co-authors imply in their screed that the City is being mismanaged by its “reprehensible” city manager. This is an interesting charge coming from someone in the leadership of a company that just shelled out over $40 million to settle charges from the Securities and Exchange Commission on top of a previous $32.5 million settlement (according to the statement of Order #4). It is worth noting that the aforementioned vice-president is a resident of East Cambridge who reportedly intends to run for a Cambridge City Council seat this year. This could be an interesting election season.

The meeting agenda is actually quite short, but with the zoning vote and one or two potentially incendiary items, there may be a good show Monday night. – Robert Winters

June 15, 2009 City Council Agenda Highlights (and a few other observations)

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: — Robert Winters @ 3:00 pm

June 15, 2009 City Council Agenda Highlights (and a few other observations)

I had an opportunity several days ago to run through the new Main Library building, and it really is spectacular. It won’t be open for a while yet, but this is sure to be one of the grandest of all civic spaces in Cambridge. Not only is the new addition breathtaking, the restoration of the main reading room in the old building would make Frederick Hastings Rindge quite pleased about what the current City leadership has done to honor his remarkable gift. The landscaping outside the library is shaping up to be more beautiful than I could ever have imagined.

It’s now just a little more than two weeks until the official kickoff of the biennial local political season when candidates can pull nomination papers for City Council and School Committee (Wed, July 1). With the pulling of papers also comes the summer recess from City Council and School Committee meetings. In the meantime, here are some items of interest on this week’s agenda:

City Manager’s Agenda #1. Transmitting communication from Robert W. Healy, City Manager, relative to a request for the City Council to vote to move to Executive Session immediately following the conclusion of public comment for the purpose of discussing litigation.

This almost certainly relates to:

Tabled Item #2. That the City Manager is requested to make available adequate funds to the City Council so that the City Council can hire its own legal expert to review relevant issues in pending litigation.

The matter at hand continues to be what happens next in the City’s appeal of last year’s curious jury decision in the Monteiro v. City of Cambridge case. In addition to the financial considerations and what strategies may now be appropriate, there is some evidence of political gamesmanship among some of the councillors as they try to capitalize on the situation for political ends. The opportunism doesn’t stop at those councillors, of course. There are also political puppeteers trying to capitalize on the case – people who have contributed nothing toward the city or its citizens and have nothing but disrespect for all of our elected officials and everyone in the City administration. Criticism of elected officials and of those who manage the city is fair game (I do it myself now and again), but these words have little meaning when spoken by those who have contributed nothing.

It’s anyone’s guess how long the Executive Session will last this time, nor does the agenda give any indication whether the substance of Tabled Item #2 will be part of that discussion.

There are five more citizen letters of support for the proposed Lesley/Porter Overlay District zoning petition which is expected to be voted at the June 22 meeting.

Among the City Council Orders, the first one stands out:

Order #1. That the City Manager is requested to report back to the City Council on the potential use by City departments and staff of social networking programs such as Twitter and Facebook.   Councillor Kelley

The Manager’s response on a related Order last week makes one wonder if Councillor Kelley was even listening. Councillor Decker, the City Manager, and one department head took Councillor Kelley to school at that meeting on the topic of City programs making good use of listservs and of the potential perils of using other “social networking” devices. I expect we’ll be hearing additional lessons directed at Councillor Kelley by his colleagues at this meeting. My suggestion is that when they start talking about this topic everyone should call the City Council phone number or pummel them with text messages.

Order #10. That the City Manager is requested to direct the Cambridge Police Department and the Department of Human Services to convene a series of meetings with the Civic Unity Committee immediately in Jefferson Park and invite the surrounding neighbors to discuss the Boston Globe article concerning violence in the neighborhood – the goal of the meeting is to provide a forum to listen to resident concerns, provide current information and resources available to help promote a safe and healthy neighborhood.   Councillor Decker

Two weeks ago, an Order from Councillor Decker regarding banning the use of cell phones while driving was referred to the Civic Unity Committee rather than to the more appropriate Ordinance Committee. There’s a meeting of the Civic Unity Committee on July 1 “to explore the possibility of creating small scale solar panels that would enable the powering of small household items.” Now comes another Order calling for the Civic Unity Committee to take up a matter that seems more appropriately referred to the Public Safety Committee. Are the functions of these City Council committees completely arbitrary?

There are other items of interest on the agenda, but we’ll leave it at that for now and wait to see what, if anything, comes out of the Executive Session on Monday night. Election year politics can be ever so ridiculous. – Robert Winters

« Newer PostsOlder Posts »

Powered by WordPress

%d bloggers like this: