Cambridge Civic Journal Forum

December 20, 2010

Dec 20, 2010 City Council Agenda Highlights – One Less Chair

Filed under: City Council — Tags: , — Robert Winters @ 1:26 am

Dec 20, 2010 City Council Agenda Highlights – One Less Chair

This is the last meeting of the year – marking the half-way point for this City Council term. What better way to celebrate this occasion than to stomp and pout and take your bat and ball and go home. To call the legislative tantrum thrown this week by Councillor Toomey adolescent would be generous. Specifically, there was a zoning petition from developer Rich McKinnon and Education First (EF Foundation) that came to a vote at last week’s City Council meeting along with a commitment of $914,000 in "mitigation" (gold, frankincense, myrrh?) to be donated by EF Foundation. Councillor Toomey had preferred to extract benefits specific to East Cambridge residents in exchange for a positive City Council vote. Instead, Mayor Maher and other councillors agreed to an arrangement where a rational process would be established by the City Manager to determine how the donated $914,000 would be distributed – a good idea that should have been the rule for other recent petitions that produced "mitigation" funds. The zoning amendment was approved 8-1 with Toomey emphatically voting NO.

The greater issue is the questionable practice of this City Council (or any other legislative body) using zoning relief essentially as currency to "buy" community benefits, but Toomey’s specific objection was to having an inclusive process established rather than the usual negotiated payouts (kind words for legislative shakedown) to individual councillors’ pet projects. In response, Toomey 1) quit as Co-chair of the Ordinance Committee, 2) filed an Order challenging the legitimacy of the tax-exempt status of Education First, and 3) filed another Order calling for a new Ordinance requiring hiring preferences for Cambridge labor union members on union-built projects within the city (including the EF Foundation project). Certainly one couldn’t blame other cities if they responded by making it much more difficult for those same Cambridge labor union members to work outside of Cambridge.

Order #1. That the City Manager confer with the City Assessor and report back with an opinion on the legitimacy of the tax exempt claim of Education First.   Councillor Toomey

Order #3. That the City Manager is requested to confer with the City Solicitor to draft a City ordinance which will give a priority to union Cambridge residents on union projects within the City of Cambridge.   Councillor Toomey

Communications and Reports from City Officers #1. A communication was received from City Councillor Timothy J. Toomey, Jr., transmitting his formal resignation as Co-Chair of the Ordinance Committee. (dated Dec 14, the morning after last week’s meeting)

The best course of action may be for Mayor Maher to leave Councillor Seidel as the sole Chair of the Ordinance Committee and not appoint a new Co-chair. The whole practice of having co-chairs of Council committees is relatively recent and not really justified in terms of either workload or complexity. There may have been some justification during the days of citywide or large-scale rezoning efforts, but it makes little sense now.

There’s not a whole lot more on this Agenda. Perhaps Councillor Kelley will again bring up Tabled Item #2 involving School Department clerical positions. Councillor Kelley has now moved to take it from the table four times without success – on May 10, 2010 (failed 2-7-0), Sept 13, 2010 (failed 4-4-1), Sept 27, 2010 (failed 3-5-1), and Dec 13, 2010 (failed 3-6-0). I suspect the kerfuffle between Councillors Kelley and Toomey over the legality of Councillors meeting privately with School Administration officials will also find its way into the speechmaking. That discussion has drawn other councillors into the fray as well for the last two Council meetings. [See Marc Levy’s write up of the Dec 6 meeting, and Brian Nanos’ article on the Dec 13 meeting in the Cambridge Chronicle. You might also want to read this one about last week’s zoning vote.]

"Peace on Earth, Good will Toward Men" – right? Maybe, maybe not. – Robert Winters

December 13, 2010

Dec 13, 2010 City Council Agenda Highlights – Myriad Resolutions

Filed under: City Council — Tags: , — Robert Winters @ 12:48 pm

Dec 13, 2010 City Council Agenda Highlights – Myriad Resolutions

Among the myriad items on this week’s agenda, the one that stood out was this excerpt from a report from the Government Operations and Rules Committee: "Councillors Toomey and Cheung both voiced concern about making a recommendation assigning specific goals to specific committees without providing an opportunity for committee chairs to be involved in a committee discussion on this issue. All agreed that this matter is an important issue that needed further consideration and should not be overlooked in the face of the myriad time demands faced by members of the City Council."

There are myriad comments that could be made here, though myriad time demands restrict what I might say. Certainly, with myriad personal staff assistance now available to councillors for holding their coats, taking their myriad calls, shining their shoes, etc. one would think that such myriad burdens would be lifted from the aching shoulders of the councillors. Certainly no working Cambridge resident or parent could possibly imagine the myriad responsibilities that a part-time city councillor must bear for a mere $72,000+ per year for their Monday night performances and record few committee meetings rarely attended by a full complement of members. There are also the myriad congratulatory resolutions to be filed each week celebrating restaurant openings and newborns. The myriad burdens of shaking hands and getting myriad face time at myriad community events on the myriad roads to reelection must surely bring myriad stress to our elected representatives. We feel their myriad pain.

There are also these items of note:

Charter Right #1. That the City Manager is requested to consult with relevant department staff and report back on the legal limits of the City Council’s involvement in non-budget School Department issues. [Charter Right exercised by Mayor Maher on Order Number Two of Dec 6, 2010.]

This provoked a firestorm at least week’s meeting, especially between Councillors Kelley and Toomey. Perhaps they’ve smoothed things out during the ensuing week. The underlying issue is a significant one. City councillors are not elected to manage or oversee the public schools or to use the City Budget as a vehicle for micromanagement of the School Department. Candidates for public office should be clear about which office they sought in the previous election. Pick one. If you want to influence school policy, run for School Committee or get in line along with every other resident who has something to say. It’s noteworthy that city councillors who have previously served on the School Committee rarely, if ever, engage in meddling in school affairs.

Unfinished Business #6. A communication was received from D. Margaret Drury, City Clerk, transmitting a report from Councillor Sam Seidel and Councillor Timothy J. Toomey, Jr., Co-Chairs of the Ordinance Committee, for a meeting held on Sept 14, 2010 to consider a petition filed by Richard McKinnon, et al. to amend the Zoning Ordinance and Map in the North Point PUD-6 District. The question comes on passing to be ordained on or after Nov 1, 2010. Planning Board hearing held Sept 21, 2010. Petition expires Dec 13, 2010.

Order #1. That the City Manager is requested to confer with the City Solicitor and the Assistant City Manager for Community Development to provide a report on the state of the law relating to community benefits as mitigation in zoning amendment petitions.   Vice Mayor Davis, Councillor Toomey, Councillor Seidel and Councillor Cheung

These are related. The McKinnon petition will likely receive the necessary votes to pass at this last meeting before the deadline. The only question has been the "mitigation," i.e. what other community benefits can be leveraged in return for the zoning amendment. Though perhaps not specifically tied to this matter, the Order from Councillors Davis, Toomey, Seidel, and Cheung is both timely and well-targeted. Where exactly do you draw the line between leverage and legislative extortion? Where does long-term planning enter into the picture? Or does it? We’ve been rapidly descending in recent years toward a system where zoning amendments have become currency to be exchanged for supposed community benefits. The recent amendment in Kendall Square may be the worst such example in which a laundry list of everybody’s favorite pet projects to be funded was generated en route to delivering the votes.

Applications & Petitions #1. A zoning petition has been received from Michael R. Hegarty et al., requesting the City Council to amend the Zoning Ordinance by adding after the title of Section 5.28 the sentence: "No use shall be permitted by any provisions of this Section 5.28 except as set forth in Section 4.30 Table of Use Regulations or the sections that define districts not included in Section 4.30."

This sets up a parallel zoning petition to run alongside the Council petition introduced last week that seeks to clarify the section of the Zoning Ordinance. It is clear that Section 5.28 was written to encourage the preservation of institutional and industrial buildings as housing, but it has now become clear that some unintended consequences have resulted – most recently involving the Norris Street proposed development.

Committee Report #2. A communication was received from D. Margaret Drury, City Clerk, transmitting a report from Councillor Sam Seidel and Councillor Timothy J. Toomey, Co-Chairs of the Government Operations and Rules Committee, for a public meeting held on Dec 7, 2010 to finalize the City Council goals for FY11 and FY12 to present a recommendation on the goals to the City Council.

This report has myriad aspects to it, but the bottom line is that it contains the new biennial Goals & Objectives for FY11 and FY12. To paraphrase the lyrics from The Who: "Meet the New Goals, Same as the Old Goals." – Robert Winters

December 6, 2010

Dec 6, 2010 City Council Agenda Highlights

Filed under: City Council — Tags: , — Robert Winters @ 12:28 pm

Dec 6, 2010 City Council Agenda Highlights

Of interest on this week’s relatively light agenda are these items:

City Manager’s Agenda #5. Transmitting communication from Robert W. Healy, City Manager, relative to Awaiting Report Item Number 10-169, regarding a report on Cambridge residents being labeled "inactive" during the most recent election and listed with wrong or misspelled addresses.

Election Commission Executive Director Tanya Ford reports that there were 14,931 "inactive" registered voters (as of Nov 2). There are now 63,153 registered voters with 48,270 listed as "active" and 14,883 listed as "inactive" (as of Dec 2). There are always some errors in the names and addresses – primarily due to transcription errors from voter registration forms, poor handwriting, etc. On a related topic, if there are any prospective candidates for the 2011 municipal election who need registered voter and voter history data, we’re all up-to-date here at CCJ Central and, as always, all data is provided at no cost to actual candidates.

City Manager’s Agenda #10. Transmitting communication from Robert W. Healy, City Manager, relative to Awaiting Report Item Number 10-56, regarding a report on prohibiting hotels from subcontracting housekeeping services.

This is a slippery slope if ever there was one. The City Solicitor correctly points out that because hotels are licensed, the City may impose certain conditions on such licenses and that this proposed prohibition may be legal (though this would likely be challenged). However, where do you draw the line? Should the City mandate that only righteously healthy food may be served at the continental breakfast for hotel guests?

On the Table #3. Transmitting communication from Robert W. Healy, City Manager, relative to Awaiting Report Item Number 10-32, regarding a report on issues with the development of the former St. John’s property site. [Charter Right exercised on City Manager Agenda Item Number Eighteen of May 24, 2010. Placed on Table June 7, 2010.]

City Manager’s Agenda #9. Transmitting communication from Robert W. Healy, City Manager, relative to Awaiting Report Item Number 10-179, regarding a report on a review of Section 5.28.2 of the Zoning Ordinance to determine whether any changes should be made to the current square footage calculation for the purpose of decreasing the density of converted buildings in already dense neighborhoods.

This item brought out many people at the previous City Council meeting. There do seem to be some unintended consequences in the current zoning law regarding the repurposing of buildings such as this one where the height and density of the building is well in excess of current zoning limits. The intent of past zoning amendments was to encourage that such buildings become housing, but this has sometimes been exploited in a manner that is very detrimental to existing neighborhoods. The Hobson’s Choice often given to neighbors is between an empty, derelict building or one that has overwhelming density.

Unfinished Business #5. A communication was received from D. Margaret Drury, City Clerk, transmitting a report from Councillor Sam Seidel and Councillor Timothy J. Toomey, Jr., Co-Chairs of the Ordinance Committee, for a meeting held on Sept 14, 2010 to consider a petition filed by Richard McKinnon, et al. to amend the Zoning Ordinance and Map in the North Point PUD-6 District. The question comes on passing to be ordained on or after Nov 1, 2010. Planning Board hearing held Sept 21, 2010. Petition expires Dec 13, 2010.

It is expected that this will pass either at this meeting or the next meeting. The issue seems not to be whether the zoning amendment is appropriate but what "mitigation" can be extracted from the developer. On this point, I’ll simply repeat my comments on a related Order at the Oct 25 meeting that seeks to regularize how mitigation is to be extracted:

"It’s interesting that we have now reached the point where the appropriateness of a development proposal is now regularly eclipsed by consideration of what kind of mitigation can be squeezed out of the developer or owner of the property. It makes you wonder if "Long Term Planning" plays any role at all any more or if it’s all about using zoning restrictions to determine the price of doing business. This somehow does not seem consistent with the original intent of the legislation (M.G.L. Chapter 40A) that enabled local zoning ordinances."

Unfinished Business #6. Transmitting communication from Robert W. Healy, City Manager, relative to a recommendation for the approval of a loan order in the amount of $14,535,000 as well as a vote relative to Chapter 2.110 ("City-Owned Land and Buildings".) The question comes on adoption on or after Nov 29, 2010. [
9A Loan order passed to a second reading 9-0-0;
9B order adopted 8-1-0 Councillor Kelley recorded in the negative]

This will finalize the loan authorization and disposition of the property for the re-use of the old Police Station on Western Avenue for the Cambridge Housing Authority and for the City’s Community Learning Center.

Order #1. That the Government Operations Committee be and hereby is requested to hold a hearing on department-head level staff changes that are foreseeable in the next five years.   Councillor Kelley

The key statement in Councillor Kelley’s Order is the first: "A number of department heads, to include the City Clerk and both the City Manager and the Deputy City Manager, are approaching an age where retirement might be an attractive option…" The expressed concern by this relatively youthful councillor is that there might be some kind of "perfect storm" where much of the City Administration is swept away in a wave of simultaneous retirements. It is unclear what the purpose of such a Government Operations Committee meeting would be, except for the hint that Councillor Kelley would like various City leaders to divulge their future intentions now rather than later. Doing so, as should be obvious, could actually create more of a storm that it claims to want to prevent.

Order #2. That the City Manager is requested to consult with relevant department staff and report back on the legal limits of the City Council’s involvement in non-budget School Department issues.   Councillor Kelley

This is a good point. Over the last several years there has been a greater focus among some city councillors on school-related matters. One has to wonder whether these councillors ran for the right office or if they just want to grow their authority using the City Budget as a convenient excuse. It’s true that the structure of the schools impacts things like after-school programs run by the Department of Human Services Programs, but when it comes to educational specifics, a city councillor should be no different than you or me when it comes to leaning on School Committee members or School Department officials to take specific actions.

Order #4. That the City Manager is requested to direct the Police Commissioner to create a program of bicycle education and to step up enforcement in order to protect pedestrians.   Vice Mayor Davis, Mayor Maher and Councillor Toomey

Needless to say, such an educational program would also protect cyclists. It’s also a whole lot better than the misguided plans to move cyclists onto the sidewalk on Western Avenue, Concord Avenue, and elsewhere. – Robert Winters

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