Cambridge Civic Journal Forum

June 9, 2014

Open data, bottle bans, and minimum wages – Interesting items on the June 9, 2014 Cambridge City Council Agenda

Filed under: Cambridge,City Council — Tags: , — Robert Winters @ 12:19 am

Open data, bottle bans, and minimum wages – Interesting items on the June 9, 2014 Cambridge City Council Agenda

In addition to 17 all-important birthday resolutions from Councillor McGovern and various other business items, there are the following items that piqued my interest:

Manager’s Agenda #20. Transmitting communication from Richard C. Rossi, City Manager, relative to Awaiting Report Item Number 14-13, regarding a report on putting information on traffic enforcement, accidents and parking tickets online in a format that would allow electronic data analysis by the general public. [In particular: On June 4, the City launched its new open data site ( This web based tool will be ever evolving; current datasets will be updated with new information on a regular basis, new data sets will be published as they come available, and datasets requested by the public will be reviewed and made available when feasible.]

The new data site is pretty interesting and the promise of it being "ever evolving" is bound to please many who are just itching to crunch some numbers. So far I’ve only scouted out the Assessing data which is a big improvement over the existing tool that’s been on the City website for a number of years. You can sort on any of the fields and export data in 8 different formats. You can even check out the location of all the fire hydrants in the city.

Manager’s Agenda #23. Transmitting communication from Richard C. Rossi, City Manager, relative to Awaiting Report Item Number 14-18, regarding the Foundry Building.

The essential elements of this communication consist of a possible timeline for redevelopment of the Foundry building, a framework for a cooperative arrangement with the Cambridge Redevelopment Authority, and a list of the next few opportunities for public input.

Order #3. That the City Manager is requested to instruct the City Solicitor to prepare a draft ordinance that will limit the sale of single-serving polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles of 1 liter or less in the City of Cambridge.   Councillor Cheung, Councillor Simmons, Councillor Mazen and Vice Mayor Benzan

The proposed ban on plastic bags is still pending under Unfinished Business and our restless City Council certainly can’t let too much time pass without banning something. However, in spite of the co-sponsorship by four councillors and the magnificent expertise of their personal aides, I honestly can’t tell what exactly they wish to ban other than the fact that it will be a container that holds less than one liter. The language in the Order prominently refers to "non-carbonated beverages, water, iced tea, juice and sports drinks" in one section referencing to state’s proposed Updated Bottle Bill, but there is a later reference to "limiting the sale of non-sparkling, unflavored drinking water in single-serving polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles of 1 liter or less." The specific directive in the Order says only "to prepare a draft ordinance that will limit the sale of single-serving PET bottles of 1 liter or less." So, does this refer only to bottled water or to all of the other non-carbonated beverages? Does it ban smaller-size carbonated beverages as well? There is a reference to "expansion of alternative water sources, including public drinking fountains" that might lead one to believe that only bottled water is covered under this proposal, but that’s not what the Order actually says. Surely eight people could have drafted an Order that’s as transparent as water.

Ban or no ban, many people will continue to stock up at Market Basket in Somerville. Clever marketing people may also come out with a new 1.01 liter bottle to allow people to refresh themselves. Meanwhile, I’m taking bets on what next this City Council intends to ban.

Order #7. That the City Manager is requested to confer with the Law Department to determine the feasibility of instituting a fifteen dollar an hour minimum wage ordinance for the City of Cambridge, with special provisions for small businesses.   Councillor Mazen

Despite what may have occurred in places like Seattle, San Francisco, and Santa Fe, it seems perfectly clear that without enabling legislation from the state legislature, the City of Cambridge does not have the authority to institute its own minimum wage law. It also seems pretty certain that any Home Rule authority granted by the legislature would most likely require approval by local voters. Maybe that’s really the intention of the sponsor – the tried-and-true political organizing tool of a ballot question.

The only way a proposal such as this might make sense would be as a statewide proposal. The proposal also focuses almost exclusively on wage earners who are covering the costs for a household (which is where a "living wage" is meaningful). There are a lot of other people working jobs only to generate some extra spending money, including many students working in various campus jobs. Is the proposed $15/hour minimum wage appropriate across the board? Probably not. In any case, enacting this in one relatively small city could do more harm than good. – Robert Winters

June 4, 2014

Cambridge InsideOut Episodes 61 and 62 – News and Commentary

Cambridge InsideOut Episode 61 – News and Commentary (Part 1).

This episode was broadcast on June 3, 2014 at 5:30pm. Co-hosts are Susana Segat and Robert Winters. The main topics we touched on were (1) upcoming events [including the Cambridge River Festival in Central Square (June 7) and the Citywide Dance Party (June 27)], (2) a proposal “to prohibit the use of wild and exotic animals in traveling shows and circuses”, (3) the migration of fish in the Charles River, (4) the upcoming Democratic convention, (5) updates on several municipal election reform proposals). [On YouTube]

Cambridge InsideOut Episode 62 – News and Commentary (Part 2)

Broadcast June 3, 2014 at 6:00pm. Co-hosts are Susana Segat and Robert Winters. Topics include (1) “Cambridge Conversations” conducted by Community Development prior to future “master plan” process, (2) a variety of matters relating to Central Square including the possibility of pushcart vendors and food trucks, (3) proposal to build low/middle income housing on a Central Square parking lot, (4) possible future uses for the Cambridge DPW Yard, (5) updates on the disposition of the Sullivan Courthouse and the prospect of future lawsuits, and (6) the approval of the FY2015 Budget and upcoming City Council meetings. [On YouTube]

June 2, 2014

On the Menu at the June 2, 2014 Cambridge City Council meeting

Filed under: Cambridge,campaign finance,City Council — Tags: , , — Robert Winters @ 2:53 pm

On the Menu at the June 2, 2014 Cambridge City Council meeting:

Money!The central item on this week’s agenda is the approval of the FY2015 Budget.

Unfinished Business #6-12: Public Investment loan authorizations totaling $15,405,655. In addition to funds for a variety of other essential investments, this sum includes $9,205,655 for various water pollution abatement projects, including construction of sewer separation, stormwater management and combined sewer overflow reduction elimination improvements within the City’s Western Avenue and Agassiz areas as well as the Sewer Capital Repairs Program and public toilet installation at Harvard Square.

Committee Reports #1-3: Finance Committee reports for public hearings held on May 8, 2014, May 15, 2014 and May 21, 2014 relative to the General Fund Budget ($488,932,550), the Water Fund Budget ($13,964,275), and the Public Investment Fund ($16,548,370) for the City of Cambridge for Fiscal Year 2015.

Perhaps the only loose end is the tempest over the Cambridge Health Alliance plan to merge its Psychiatric Emergency Service (PES) and main emergency room at Cambridge Hospital. As is often the case, the submitted Budget will likely be passed with little or no change.

Reconsideration #2. [Order #13 of May 19, 2014]: That the City Manager is requested to confer with the Law Department, the Election Commission, and the Massachusetts Office of Campaign and Political Finance to determine the feasibility of publicly funded elections for Cambridge, taking into account models for implementation from other municipalities as well as the exploration of new publicly funded models. Councillor Mazen and Councillor Carlone [Order Adopted as Amended, Reconsideration Filed by Councillor Mazen; Motion to refer to Gov’t Operations approved on a 5-3-1 Roll Call vote with Benzan, Cheung, Simmons, Toomey, and Maher voting YES; Carlone, Mazen, McGovern voting NO; Kelley ABSENT]

Communications #7-62 (56 in all): Sundry communications regarding public financing of elections.

This is a bizarre choice on the part of Councillor Nadeem "Occupy" Mazen. Introducing the May 19 Order to look into the possibility of public funding for Cambridge municipal elections was a perfectly reasonable thing to do, and the matter was appropriately referred to the Government Operations Committee for further discussion and possible action. The content of the Order was not amended at the previous meeting, so the objection here is purely about whether the matter should have been referred to committee. Apparently, Councillor Mazen wants this matter to only be discussed before the full City Council during its televised regular Monday meetings and he feels so strongly about this that he filed for Reconsideration and organized an email campaign to have his way. I expect there will be some public comment on this, but it’s hard to imagine a majority of the City Council reversing its sensible choice to refer this matter to the committee where it belongs. My sense is that Councillor Mazen would prefer to have the discussion "out in the streets", but he will likely have to settle for "in committee".

The matter of publicly funded municipal elections is interesting for a number of reasons, though it’s not at all clear whether any are applicable in this context. The chief motivations seem to be (a) lowering the barrier for entry for candidates, (b) increasing the ideological and socio-economic diversity among candidates, (c) expanding the range of policy positions put before the electorate, (d) making elections more competitive, and (e) reducing the influence of private contributions on both candidates and officeholders. Well, at least this is what is contained in the text of the Order.

In Cambridge it only takes 50 valid signatures to be a municipal candidate, so there is effectively no barrier for entry. What a candidate does after entry is another matter. Councillor Kelley and School Committee member Fantini run very effective campaigns on very little money simply be maintaining effective communication with their potential voters. Other candidates choose to hire "rent-a-campaigns" from a variety of companies such as Sage Systems and, yes, this requires money. It’s noteworthy that the incumbent candidate who spent the most in the 2013 election was defeated, so it’s clearly not just about the money.

As for ideological diversity among the candidates, anyone who attended any of the 2013 candidate forums will attest to not only a diversity of opinion but also a diversity of competence. It’s also important to emphasize that in a PR election it’s possible to target your campaign to ultimately achieve the 10% of ballots (14.3% for School Committee) necessary for election, but you do have to be a match for some constituency. In this regard the barrier to election is not nearly so high for candidates representing diverse points of view. Proportional representation facilitates diverse points of view. I worry that public funding in a PR election might translate into a group getting a dozen or more people to run as a slate where the individual candidates receive public funds and then pool their resources to fund their slate. There is clearly a lot of detail that warrants further discussion before wandering down this road.

The real problem in the Cambridge municipal elections is the difficulty in getting a less-than-interested electorate to spend a minimum amount of time getting familiar with the candidates. It’s also not so appealing for a resident to actually choose to be a candidate – and this is not primarily because of the associated cost. I get the feeling that the role of campaign contributions from people associated with real estate interests may be a major factor in why some people might support publicly funded elections, but if we are to question this practice then we should also raise questions about money from unions, money from outside of Cambridge, and money from various other sources having nothing to do with municipal governance. The fact that campaign managers are subsequently hired as "Council Aides" should also be on the list of practices in need of closer scrutiny. If there’s any one reform I would welcome it would be a cap on spending, but that would almost certainly run afoul of constitutional rights.

Manager’s Agenda #10. Transmitting communication from Richard C. Rossi, City Manager, relative to proposed amendments to the Tobacco Ordinance (Chapter 8.28, Restrictions on Youth Access and Sale of Tobacco Products and on Smoking in Workplaces and Public Places). This amended ordinance includes recommendations previously transmitted to the City Council on July 29, 2013 and includes additional amendments that have subsequently been added. [Read Report]

While I imagine the proposed amendments will ultimately be supported, I expect there will be some lively discussion in the Ordinance Committee specifically on the proposals (a) to prohibit smoking in all parks and municipal open space, and (b) to prohibit smoking in all outdoor seating areas adjacent to restaurants where food is served.

Resolution #15. Urging members of the Cambridge community to participate in the Charlene Holmes memorial walk on June 3rd, 2014.   Councillor Cheung

I’m grateful that some people are keeping this matter in the public eye. To the best of my knowledge there have been no arrests in the murder of Charlene Holmes even though many have suggested that the killer may be known to witnesses of the murder.

Order #1. That the City Manager work with the Police Commissioner to ensure that only in cases where immigration agents have a criminal warrant, or Cambridge officials have a legitimate law enforcement purpose not related to immigration, will Cambridge Police comply with federal ICE detainer requests to hold persons solely for immigration purposes.   Councillor Carlone, Vice Mayor Benzan and Councillor Cheung

Cambridge follows Mayor Curtatone of Somerville. Even if this change in policy is a good idea, it would be very helpful to hear the perspective of the Cambridge Police Department prior to implementing such a policy.

Order #2. That the City Manager is requested to consult with the appropriate City Personnel and with the Central Square Business Association in order to establish a Central Square Action Team that will be charged with recommending and helping implement strategies that will help Central Square to capitalize on and enhance its designation as a Cultural District in the months and years to come.   Councillor Simmons

Order #9. That the City Manager is requested to confer with the appropriate City departments to determine the feasibility of installing a large screen at a central location, like Lafayette Square, in order to project a number of soccer matches involving the United States and countries that are representative of the Cambridge resident population and determine the feasibility of granting special permits to food trucks and other food vendors during the duration of these games.   Vice Mayor Benzan and Councillor McGovern

Order #13. That the City Manager is requested to confer with the appropriate City departments to determine the feasibility of developing units of up to 100% affordable, middle-income, senior, and family housing units at the corner of Bishop Allen Drive and Norfolk Street and a plaza in Central Square with affordable food and retail space.   Vice Mayor Benzan and Councillor McGovern

The potential of Central Square appears to now be a high priority for some of our city councillors. On a related note, the Cambridge River Festival will take place this Saturday, June 7 from noon to 6:00pm in Central Square (due to construction along Memorial Drive). Order #13 will require a lot more discussion – especially in the context of the range of recommendations presented during the recent K2C2 process.

Order #4. That the City Manager is requested to report back to the City Council with an update on the City’s composting pilot program.   Councillor Toomey

I’ll be interested to see the numbers, but the pilot program was only recently begun and it’s doubtful whether the data will be sufficiently informative to draw any conclusions at this point.

Order #6. That the City Manager confer with the Community Development Department, the Public Works Department, the Traffic, Parking and Transportation Department and any other relevant City Departments to discuss ways in which the city can improve the design of New Street for both pedestrians and vehicles, and report back to the City Council with recommendations.   Councillor McGovern, Councillor Carlone and Mayor Maher

I wandered around the New Street area after spending the afternoon at the very well-attended Fresh Pond Day event on Saturday. This Order addresses what the obvious deficiencies are for this street – insufficient sidewalks, very poor parking practices, and the basic fact that it was not originally laid out as a typical residential street. Contrary to the general alarm about new housing being developed on New Street, I would characterize the housing built to date as maybe being a little on the bland side but I simply cannot fathom why people see this moderate scale housing as constituting some kind of a crisis. If some features of the street, the sidewalks, and the parking are reconfigured, and if laws regarding blocking the public (pedestrian) way are enforced, this could be a dandy residential street right across from the city’s biggest park. Then again, actual solutions do often get in the way of political organizing.

Order #8. That the City Manager confer with the Community Development Department to work with local banking institutions to ensure financing opportunities are available for residents wishing to purchase shares in limited equity cooperative housing within Cambridge and also research and explore options for expanding the limited equity cooperative housing stock with Cambridge.   Councillor Mazen

I remember when limited equity coops were all the rage during the rent control era. I’d be interested to see just how many of them were actually established and if all of them are still active. It may be a good alternative today and could potentially provide some of the affordable housing that City officials desire with minimal need for City involvement. I’d love to hear what objections the banks may have to financing them. Perhaps it’s the potential difficulties associated with the restrictions on re-sale, but surely this is something the lawyers and banks should be able to work out. Buying into a limited equity coop may not be for everyone, but it’s probably a good option for some.

Order #10. That the City Manager confer with the Cambridge Community Development Department and the Traffic, Parking and Transportation Department on the feasibility of creating designated parking stalls for food truck vendors in areas that allow them to sell their food but not harm established brick and mortar restaurants, and proactively finding spots on private roadways willing to host food trucks, and to compile a comprehensive list that offers clarity and certainty on available and suitable locations.   Councillor Cheung

Having once worked on a hot dog truck as an adolescent, I hope we can find a way to accommodate a wide variety of food vendors – trucks, carts, stands, etc. The Order refers to "culinary entrepreneurs" and "restaurant quality food." I do hope this includes such things as hot dogs, bagels, pretzels, sausages, and maybe even a cold fizzy drink on a hot day.

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