Aug 2, 2010 (Midsummer) City Council Agenda Highlights
The one and only City Council meeting of the summer takes place this Monday (Aug 2). As is often the case at the annual Midsummer meeting, the agenda features plenty of death resolutions (21) and congratulations (44) for a total of 82 Resolutions and 32 Orders plus 7 Committee Reports and 38 items on the City Manager’s Agenda. There are plenty of noteworthy items on this Agenda, so let’s get started.
One potentially controversial (and politically juicy) item is a proposal from the City Manager (Manager’s Agenda #36) to raise the annual resident parking permit fee from $8 to $20 for 2011-12 and $25 for 2013 and beyond. As the Manager notes, the annual fee has been fixed by ordinance at $8 since 1992 (18 years) and was $4 per year from the mid-1970s until then. The proposed increase is quite modest when considered in terms of inflation and should be able to garner the necessary 5 votes to pass. By having the Manager propose the increase, the councillors can simply acquiesce with few, if any, political consequences.
It’s worth noting that there’s also a communication from a group called the "Livable Streets Alliance" that loosely uses the term "sustainability" to propose that the permit fee should instead be increased to "$50 for the first vehicle, $150 for the 2nd vehicle, and so on." They would also have additional surcharges in some areas. This same group adamantly supports installing a "cycle track" on Western Avenue and reducing the number of lanes on the Longfellow Bridge to one lane in each direction. Thankfully, the City Manager has a better grasp of common sense and political feasibility. Needless to say, a parked car produces no greenhouse gases and does not contribute to global warming. A motor vehicle is not inherently an evil thing. They’re great for getting to the Blue Hills on weekends to enjoy the great outdoors.
The City Manager was also quite busy in responding to City Council requests for information. The agenda features 20 responses out of 36 pending requests, including a report on "what barriers would prevent residents from raising chickens and what could be done to remove these barriers." That’s Manager’s Agenda #27.
Perhaps the most significant business items on the Council agenda are three pending zoning petitions all of which are due to expire in early August. These are items #5, #6, and #7 in Unfinished Business. The Green Building/Zoning Task Force proposal (#6) will likely pass without objection, and the Boston Properties petition (#7) relating to the Kendall Square MXD District and the Broad Institute will also likely pass now that the necessary "mitigation" commitments have been extracted from the proponents. [Details in Committee Report #6 and Committee Report #7.]
The City Council Orders should provide for plenty of speechmaking, controversy, and comedy. Here’s a sampler:
The Rain Orders:
Order #1. That the City Manager is requested to report to the City Council on what safety plans exist to contain a city-wide disaster or to mitigate the impact on Cambridge of natural or man-made disasters occurring elsewhere in the United States or abroad. Councillor Simmons
Order #5. That the City Manager is requested to direct the appropriate departments to investigate the problems that the heavy rains have caused the city and report to the City Council appropriate remedies. Councillor Simmons, Councillor Toomey and Councillor Cheung
Order #13. That the City Manager report back to the City Council on summer rains and flooding, neighborhood stormwater systems and the proposed Wetlands Protection Ordinance. Councillor Kelley
It was, of course, inevitable that there would be a flood of City Council Orders in the wake of the recent rains. The damages sustained by some are a reminder that with homeownership comes certain risks and responsibilities, including the risk of water flowing into a basement or up through basement walls and floors. This is why people buy insurance, keep rainy day funds in the bank, and undertake preventive maintenance. Nobody wishes storm damage on anyone, but it is ridiculous when some people blame the City or demand restitution from the City for damage suffered from a freak storm. Perhaps we would all be well-advised to keep a few sandbags handy for any ground-level or below-grade entries to our property.
The City Website Orders:
Order #3. That the City Manager is requested to direct the IT Department to present a plan within 2 months time for addressing an alternative Common Ground Web Content Management System to all departments currently approved to manage their own web pages. Councillor Simmons
Order #22. That the City Manager is requested to confer with the Director of Information Technology to arrange for a portion of the website to be dedicated to information for college students and development of a flyer that advertises the website. Councillor Cheung
Though pretty good compared to a lot of other cities (some neighboring cities actually contract out their web design and maintenance with out-of-state vendors), there is definitely room for improvement on Cambridge’s website. Perhaps the greatest problem is that many departments don’t have the internal talent to maintain their local sites. For example, I recently spent a good deal of time trying to get a more current listing of all the City boards and commissions. Some departments were completely up to date and some even sent me the information without having to ask. On the other hand, there are entities such as the "Kids Council" which hasn’t updated anything in ages, and when I requested the information from Executive Director Mary Wong, all she did was blame others for her inactivity. In an ideal world, every division in every City department should have the in-house expertise to maintain and make the best use of their web page(s). Alternatively, the City should install a simple-to-use content management system so that existing staff can take care of their page(s) without having to go running to the City webmaster for every little task. In the case of the Kids Council, the system should be simple enough for a 4-year-old to manage.
The "Story That Will Not Die" Order:
Order #12. That the Mayor is requested to convene a special meeting of the City Council in September 2010 to review the findings of the Cambridge Review Commission. Councillor Kelley and Councillor Reeves
This is the anticlimactic and overly expensive report that grew out of "The World-Shaking and Unforgettable Gates-Crowley Event" from last summer. Old news, but very handy for political campaigning or for selling books if your last name is Ogletree.
The Leland Cheung "Get Out the Vote" Orders:
Order #18. That the City Manager is requested to work with the Election Commission to develop a bi-annual program (once during fall semester, once in spring) that would allow Election Commissioners and staff to visit every student dorm in Cambridge to educate students on their voting rights and encourage them to participate in local government and state elections. Councillor Cheung
Order #19. That the City Manager is requested to confer with the Executive Director of the Election Commission to produce a one page flyer that will be distributed to the universities via PDF that will provide voter information, summary of how we elect our local government officials and a fact sheet answering common questions about what reregistering in Massachusetts entails. Councillor Cheung
These Orders are all great and wonderful, but you certainly shouldn’t fault any of the other 8 city councillors for raising an eyebrow or two at Leland Cheung’s initiative to increase voter turnout in the demographic group that has and will again most likely benefit him in future elections. Perhaps Tim Toomey should advocate for a similar initiative among East Cambridge residents.
The "If the State Won’t Do It, We Will" Order:
Order #20. That the City Manager is requested to confer with the appropriate department heads to draft our own station plan for the relocated Lechmere Station and to work with the East Cambridge community and neighborhood groups to advocate for the inclusion of Cambridge needs in the final MassDOT green line extension plan. Councillor Cheung
The Order is self-explanatory, but the basic notion here is that if a good all-around plan for Lechmere is put under the noses of state transportation planners, they might actually like it and act on it. That may be a better option than waiting for transportation planners to spend years on an inadequate plan that may not be favored by residents or other interested parties.
The "We Don’t Trust the Cambridge Health Alliance" Orders:
Order #27. That the City Manager be and hereby is requested to provide this City Council with appropriate notice of considerations, conversations and discussions he and his senior staff have regarding the City’s primary health institution. Councillor Decker, Councillor Cheung and Councillor Reeves
Order #28. That the City Manager is requested to report no less than quarterly to the City Council about the conversations that have taken place about the Cambridge Health Alliance relative to service charges and other matters that impact our community. Councillor Decker and Councillor Cheung
I’ll let the councillors hash this one out, but it should be obvious to anyone who has been following the news that the Cambridge Health Alliance and other health care providers that were previously dependent on federal reimbursements and the state’s Free Care Pool have been struggling in the new world of mandatory health insurance and greater freedom in the choice of health care providers. Some councillors have railed against Cambridge Health Alliance officials for necessary cutbacks, but economic survival is a serious matter and elected officials should not be so quick to brush these concerns aside.
Related Story: Cambridge Health Alliance seeks buyer or partner (Boston Globe, Aug 13, 2010)
The "40B or not 40B, That is the Question" Order:
Order #29. That this City Council go on record urging its residents to vote no on 2 to preserve the affordable housing law. Councillor Decker and Councillor Cheung
This Order will likely pass 9-0, but it’s worth noting that Chapter 40B has often been abused by developers who threaten to build a 40B project as a means of ramming through other projects. Ideally, there should be a compromise that maintains the good aspects of this law but which limits the ability of developers to use it as a blunt instrument to leverage other large projects.
The "I Saw It On YouTube" Order:
Order #32. That the City Manager is requested to investigate with the MBTA the possibility of installing a long flat tube slide (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W4o0ZVeixYU) at a Cambridge MBTA station to add a bit of personality to a subway stop. Vice Mayor Davis
Have fun, boys and girls, and watch the video. – RW