Cambridge Civic Journal Forum

July 18, 2009

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

June 8, 2009 City Council Agenda Highlights

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: — Robert Winters @ 2:54 pm

June 8, 2009 City Council Agenda Highlights

There not a whole lot on the agenda this week. Perhaps the meatiest item is the pending ordination of the zoning amendment for the Lesley Porter Overlay District. All 15 of the Communications are from residents expressing their points of view both for and against the proposed zoning change. The City Council has until the end of the month to vote on this (the last meeting before the summer break is June 29), and though there are few outstanding issues, the Ordinance Committee report on the matter indicates that the vote on ordination will likely take place at the June 22 City Council meeting. There’s also a new zoning petition received from Jean Connor, et al., requesting the City Council to amend the Zoning Map from its current designation as a Residence C-1 to a Residence B District in the area of Garden, Winslow, Fenno, Stearns, Esten, Sherman Streets and Upland Road. This was the subject of much public comment last week.

Of the Council Orders, the only one that jumps out is Order #8 from Councillor Decker that proposes a smoking ban in all Cambridge public parks. The complete text of the order is:

O-8 June 8, 2009
WHEREAS: We are aware of the negative health effects of second hand smoke; and
WHEREAS: Cambridge was one of the first cities to ban smoking in restaurants and public buildings; now therefore be it
ORDERED: That the City Manager be and hereby is requested to confer with the appropriate departments to implement the immediate ban of smoking in all Cambridge public parks; and be it further
ORDERED: That the City Manager be and hereby is requested to report back to the City Council on this matter.

You would be hard-pressed to find anyone more anti-smoking than me, so I’m not so alarmed by this Order. However, there is a certain irony in how this City Council raises red flags about the perceived infringement of civil liberties with surveillance cameras and red light enforcement cameras, yet they may embrace a ban on this relatively benign activity in public parks which are, dare I suggest, rather well ventilated. I think it’s fair to characterize the second hand smoke argument offered here as “just blowing smoke.” – Robert Winters

Once upon a time there was a civic organization

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: — Robert Winters @ 2:44 pm

June 7, 2009 – Once upon a time there was a civic organization in Cambridge known as the Cambridge Civic Association (CCA). It was formed in 1945 out of several organizations that had been existed through the 1930s and that had lobbied the state legislature to create the Plan E Charter option (1938) which featured a city manager form of government and proportional representation elections for city council and school committee. These reforms were central to model charter reform movements active in the United States from the early 1900s. The central theme of the CCA in its early days was “good government” in the sense of being anti-patronage and for professionally managed local government. This changed with the introduction of rent control at the end of the 1960s after which the CCA shifted leftward and became permanently lashed to the mast of the rent control vessel. Though the CCA still exists on paper (I believe), it rapidly declined after the statewide abolition of rent control (late 1994) and essentially disappeared a decade later (early 2005).

I bring up the ghost of the CCA today only to point out that when it was created it had some very admirable goals. Here’s the original Mission Statement of the CCA:

Purposes: This association is formed for the following purposes:

1. To promote businesslike, honest, and efficient conduct of local government, open to public scrutiny.

2. To induce residents to take an active interest in the affairs of the City of Cambridge.

3. To encourage and support the candidacy of men and women seeking election to public office and to support intelligent, wholesome leadership in public affairs.

4. To assure that the best qualified persons are appointed to positions in the City government after consideration of all qualified candidates.

5. To promote among the citizens of Cambridge equitable distribution and benefit of public services and equal opportunity for economic security, education, and social advancement.

These are pretty good founding principles for a civic organization and I’m tempted to say that some should be incorporated into the recently adopted City Council’s Goals for FY2010 (adopted Feb 2, 2009). In fact, of the 22 current goals, the only one that comes close is: “An increased level of recruitment and opportunities for membership on boards and commissions.” The current Council goals emphasize things like “fostering community” via block parties and such, though one has to wonder if the City should be promoting these activities or just getting out of the way so that people can foster community on their own. The goals also seem to put some emphasis on developing “successful nightlife campaigns” while mentioning nothing about promoting ordinary “daytime” economic activity that supports the everyday needs of residents.

One founding principle of the CCA that fell into disuse over the years is listed above as #3: To encourage and support the candidacy of men and women seeking election to public office and to support intelligent, wholesome leadership in public affairs. Indeed, I can personally testify to the fact that in its dying years the only reason the CCA made endorsements at all was because the CCA-endorsed incumbents wanted the benefit of having an advertised CCA slate of candidates that would help secure their reelection. There was precious little effort to recruit new candidates or to support them. Today, the benefits of incumbency are greater than ever. The cost of political campaigns have become absurdly high and most of the incumbents now have (City paid) staff who are inevitably political appointees who directly or indirectly assist in the reelection efforts of their bosses. The deck is increasingly stacked against challengers. Furthermore, the salary and benefits for elected councillors are now so sweet that it is unlikely that any of them would ever want to move on to another job.

With this background in mind, I would like to encourage all Cambridge residents to help level the playing field by finding out about this year’s challengers for seats on the Cambridge City Council and the Cambridge School Committee. This is not meant as a dig against any particular incumbent as much as an appeal to support the challengers in what is a difficult and laudable effort. Please see the Cambridge Candidate Pages for the current list of expected candidates. Then use your own judgment – don’t expect me or anyone else to do it for you.

Speaking of this year’s municipal election, there are some activists who are now expending great effort to attack the City Manager and most of the current City Council. That is not nor has it ever been the intention of the Cambridge Civic Journal or its editor. Candidates are now being seduced by financial promises from one angry fellow with a Brattle Street address and a basketful of grudges. Former CCA Executive Board members from its darkest and most manipulative days are oozing up from the civic swamp trying to at last make good on their failed campaigns of the early 1990s to oust city manager Bob Healy.

It’s entertaining to watch people who have primarily earned disrespect in their civic efforts try to capitalize on the recent Monteiro jury decision as a means of realizing their decades-old vendettas. Conveniently forgotten in their recent letters to Cambridge’s “oldest weekly newspaper” are the many achievements of City Manager Bob Healy, the strong financial position of the City, and the recent 8-1 vote of confidence bestowed upon Mr. Healy in granting him a three year contract extension. Also missing in this testimony is the fact that virtually all affirmative action in the hiring of employees and department heads has taken place on Mr. Healy’s watch. These letters also fail to divulge how long these writers have been carrying their jealousy and anger toward Mr. Healy for actually orchestrating progress in Cambridge while the best they could ever do is snipe from the sidelines. – Robert Winters

Cambridge Boards and Commissions

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: — Robert Winters @ 2:29 pm

Updated List of all Cambridge Boards & Commissions and their current members (as of June 3, 2009)

June 1, 2009 City Council Agenda Highlights

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: — Robert Winters @ 12:55 pm

June 1, 2009 City Council Agenda Highlights

The 800 pound gorilla in the room this week is the unresolved matter of the Council’s challenge of the City Manager over continuing legal action after the recent jury decision in the case of Monteiro v. City of Cambridge. When the FY2010 Budget was voted at the May 18 City Council meeting, Councillor Kelley moved that the portion of the Law Department budget that covers the cost for outside legal counsel not be approved. After the City Manager pointed out that this Budget is used for a range of activities having nothing to do with this specific case, the motion was defeated on a 4-4-1 vote with Councillors Kelley, Reeves, Seidel, and Simmons voting YES; Councillors Davis, Maher, Toomey, and Ward voting NO; and Councillor Decker voting to ABSTAIN. While the ultimate intentions of Councillor Decker are unknown, she is to be congratulated for preventing this reckless action.

The matter didn’t stop there. There was still Order #2 by Councillors Kelley, Simmons, and Reeves (such good friends) which stated: “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.” Anyone familiar with the Plan E Charter knows that the City Council is prohibited from directly engaging in personnel matters, so this Order is highly problematic. Unstated in the Order was how a Council not known for its mutuality might actually decide on legal counsel. There is also the question of what would happen if the Council’s counsel (sorry, couldn’t resist) radically disagreed with the opinion of the City’s Law Department.

It is the proper role for the City Council to establish general policies not particular to any specific case, and that includes legal and employment matters. They can do this by an Order (really a formal request) or by Ordinance (such as when they establish a commission with staff – arguably the reason we find ourselves in this mess in the first place). Councillor Toomey, to his credit, understands the Charter and the potential hazards of publicly discussing pending litigation. He introduced a Substitute Order which referred the matter to the City Solicitor for a legal opinion. After an extended Executive Session, the Council unanimously voted to table both the original Order and Toomey’s substitute. That matter could be taken up this week and more Executive Sessions will surely follow. Meanwhile the City has filed an appeal of the most recent court ruling now that post-trial motions appear to have run their course.

This is probably not the place to go into the whole history of the Monteiro v. City of Cambridge case, but since the newspaper reports have been so thoroughly lacking, there are a few things that should be stated. Malvina Monteiro was the Executive Director of the Cambridge Police Review & Advisory Board (PRAB) which was established by a 1984 ordinance. The job of the executive director was established as a full-time job with duties that were part-time at best. At some point, perhaps out of boredom or a desire to move up, Monteiro enrolled as a full-time student at Tufts while still working “full-time” at the PRAB. She also sought a City scholarship. When she did not receive the scholarship, she filed a joint (racial) discrimination complaint (1998) along with Marian Hampton (Library Dept.) and Mary Wong (Kid’s Council). At the time of the discrimination complaint, the City Manager stated that the City must on occasion “take corrective action when performance and expectations are not met. In those cases we attempt, whenever possible, to work with the employee to improve performance. . . . If that is not successful, disciplinary action may be required.”

By early 1999, Linda Stamper of the City’s Law Dept. joined the complaint. Eventually, several others joined the complaint that was being pursued by lawyer Ellen Zucker, formerly the president of the Boston Chapter of the National Organization of Women (NOW). [As a side note, Zucker’s spouse is Ellen Clegg who was until recently the deputy managing editor for news operations for the Boston Globe and previously served as the editor of the Globe’s City Weekly.] Florencia LaChance who briefly worked for the City as Manager of Employment Services also joined the complaint.

The City filed for Summary Judgment and in February 2003 a Justice of the Superior Court ruled that the LaChance and Hampton complaints should be dismissed. However the Wong, Monteiro, and Stamper cases were allowed to proceed through the legal system. By this time, the Monteiro complaint also included a charge of retaliation (she was fired) for having filed the original complaint. Consequently a jury failed to reach a verdict in the Monteiro case, but a subsequent jury trial led to a May 23, 2008 award of $962,400 in back and front pay and damages, $100,000 for emotional distress, and (ch-ching!) $3,500,000 in punitive damages. The City, of course, filed motions challenging this jury award. Nonetheless, in April 2009 a different Superior Court judge denied the City’s motion. This only sets the stage for an appeal to a higher court. The question that is now being tossed about and politicized is whether the City should pay the judgment even if it is believed to be excessive and improper and avoid any future legal costs. The Stamper complaint and the Wong complaint (Wong is still Exec. Director of the Kid’s Council) are still pending. [By the way, I’m a mathematician and not a lawyer, so please forgive (or correct) any misinterpretations of all the legal mumbo-jumbo.]

There are other policy aspects to this matter that should be discussed by the City Council but will almost certainly not be discussed. The administrative functions of the Police Review & Advisory Board were merged with the Human Rights Commission several years ago. Both commissions were established by ordinance in 1984 and always had overlapping functions. This administrative consolidation should have happened long ago, and it can be argued that such a consolidation may have prevented the conditions that led to the Monteiro case in the first place. It is, after all, not so easy to attend a full-time college program when you have actual work responsibilities. At the recent Budget hearings, Councillor Seidel indirectly asked about consolidation of some of the City boards and commissions but them quickly retreated when the City administration expressed interest in the concept. It is a fact that some City commissions (such as the Peace Commission) have become sacred cows whose purpose is rarely questioned by elected officials even though their functions are often vague and could easily be absorbed into other City departments.

Enough said about the 800 pound gorilla. Back to the rest of the agenda:

City Manager’s Agenda #6. Transmitting communication from Robert W. Healy, City Manager, relative to Awaiting Report Item Number 09-53, regarding a report on the status of the Malik Academy lease.

Order #13. That the City Council go on record asking Winn Management and Homeowners Rehab, Inc. to respond immediately to the City Council on their decision to provide Malik Academy, at the very least, a short-term resolution allowing for the continued operation of the pre-school and the child-care facilities for the next school year.   Councillor Decker and Councillor Reeves

Normally, an item like this wouldn’t even attract my attention. However, at the previous Council meeting there was much public comment on this topic and most of it suggested some kind of unfair treatment of this religious school. It was especially interesting to note that in spite of suggestions by councillors and during public comment that the loss of Malik Academy would be a blow to Cambridge pre-school facilities, the new tenant will be another pre-school. According to the response from Homeowner’s Rehab (HRI), Malik Academy was given a temporary sweet deal at $15/sq. ft. and were asked to pay $16/sq. ft., something that should have been no surprise since they were aware at the original signing that they should expect a small increase. When the time came to sign a new lease, they insisted on a decrease. None of this was mentioned at the previous Council meeting. In the end, HRI rented the space to another pre-school at $22/sq. ft.

City Manager’s Agenda #10. Transmitting communication from Robert W. Healy, City Manager, relative to Awaiting Report Item Number 09-51, regarding a report on the status of the Harvard Senior Picnic. [The Harvard Senior Picnic, which is hosted by the Mayor’s Office in conjunction with Harvard University, is scheduled to go forward as planned on Wed, July 29, 2009.]

Again, this item should barely warrant being noticed, but the ALARM expressed at the previous Council meeting was noteworthy. Skeptics other than me have suggested that the real purpose of this event is for local political candidates to work the captive crowd in their relentless quest for votes from a population (senior citizens) who can generally be counted on to vote in local elections. If you’ve even witnessed this event, you will understand the skepticism.

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. [Tabled on motion of Councillor Davis Order Number Two of May 18, 2009 together with motion to amend by substitution submitted by Councillor Toomey.]

See above.

Order #4. That the City Manager is requested to confer with the appropriate departments to explore the possibility of banning the use of cell phones and text messaging while driving in Cambridge.   Councillor Decker

Excellent idea, but unfortunately superseded by state law that permits cell phone use while driving. Fortunately, recent events have motivated the glacial state legislature to ban text messaging while driving. Why anyone would vote to permit this dangerous practice at all is beyond comprehension. Then again, you can’t legislative stupidity away.

Order #5. Urge Governor Deval Patrick to issue an executive order requiring all new homes and businesses to be zero net energy buildings by 2030.   Councillor Davis

This is part of a group of three Orders from Council Davis in this same spirit. A definition of “zero net energy buildings” would be helpful.

Order #9. Urge the Cambridge Legislative Delegation and Governor Patrick to support and vote in favor of updating the Massachusetts Container Beverage Law. Councillor Davis

This is also a good intention and probably a net positive idea, but there is an inefficiency in asking residents to schlep additional containers to supermarkets and redemption centers when they can just put them out in their recycling bins. Many will do just that, so the great beneficiaries of this proposal will be the scavengers raiding residential set-outs for deposit bottles. We can only hope that the survival and expansion and redemption centers are factored into this proposed law. For those of us who already recycle to the maximum extent, this change is actually a net inconvenience. – Robert Winters

Cambridge City Solicitor Don Drisdell takes the Cambridge Chronicle to task

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: — Robert Winters @ 12:42 pm

Cambridge City Solicitor Don Drisdell takes the Cambridge Chronicle to task (May 26, 2009)
[while the Chronicle continues to get its legal advice from the goose guy]
Related documents:
Judge MacLeod-Mancuso’s rejection of post-trial motions (April, 2009)
Monteiro jury verdict (May 2008)
Summary judgment on City’s motion to dismiss (February 2003)

May 18, 2009 City Council Agenda Highlights

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: — Robert Winters @ 12:40 pm

May 18, 2009 City Council Agenda Highlights

The central item of business is the vote on the FY2010 Budget. Even though this was supposed to be “a tough budget year,” this year’s Budget sailed through the Finance Committee’s budget hearings like green corn goes through the new May. The Council will likely take up the Budget vote (Committee Reports #1-3) early in the meeting before taking up the rest of the agenda. There are a few other items of interest, such as:

Order #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.   Councillor Kelley, Mayor Simmons and Councillor Reeves

This is a serious Order with potentially serious consequences. The City is dealing with the consequences of a jury decision to award an absurd amount of money to a former City employee (Malvina Monteiro) who went fishing for cash and reeled in a big one. The City appealed the jury decision, but the latest appeal was denied. Other lawsuits against the City filed by the same lawyer (Ellen Zucker) are waiting in the wings and the City is continuing to spend cash for outside legal counsel in the Monteiro case. Some city councillors have suggested that the City should just pay out this ridiculous jury award, cut its losses, and not pursue any further appeals. The City Manager has stated that he has no intention of paying a dime toward a legal decision he and others in his administration feel is without merit.

One has to wonder how this City Council would go about deciding who its “legal expert” would be if this Order were to pass. Would Councillors Kelley, Simmons, and Reeves make the call? Could there be five votes for someone they could all agree on? The truth is that we have a City Solicitor who is a good lawyer who is very well-versed in the Monteiro case as well as the other pending cases, and it’s likely that the city councillors heard an earful at last week’s Executive Session on this matter. Could it be that the 3 sponsors of this Order simply didn’t like what they heard in Executive Session? It will be VERY interesting to see if this Order gets 5 votes in its current form.

Order #5. That the City Manager is requested to work with the Traffic, Parking and Transportation Department to disseminate information to bicyclists through various methods of communication reminding them of the “rules of the road” pertaining to bicycles and that their adherence is important to the safety of motorists, pedestrians and fellow cyclists.   Vice Mayor Seidel

Been there, done that.

Order #9. That the City Manager and the Mayor are requested to report to the Council on the status of the Harvard Senior Picnic.   Councillor Decker

It should be pointed out that the Harvard Senior Picnic has always been a prime campaign spot for City Council and School Committee candidates. Heaven forbid that the rumor turns out to be true and the picnic is not held this year. Perhaps Harvard could lay off a janitor or two to cover the costs of the picnic. – RW

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