Cambridge Civic Journal Forum

February 7, 2011

Feb 7, 2011 City Council Agenda – AAA bond ratings, community benefits, and City boards and commissions

Filed under: City Council — Tags: , — Robert Winters @ 12:03 am

Feb 7, 2011 City Council Agenda – AAA bond ratings, community benefits, and City boards and commissions

City Manager’s Agenda #3. Transmitting communication from Robert W. Healy, City Manager, relative to the City of Cambridge receiving three Triple A ratings from the nation’s major credit rating agencies.

It’s become almost routine that the City of Cambridge receives the highest possible bond ratings. Expect all the councillors to make the usual flattering speeches, and possibly the usual suspects during public comment suggesting that the City administration has somehow sacrificed quality of life on the altar of municipal bond ratings. It’s worth noting that with so much attention being paid nationally to the matter of unfunded pension liabilities (and other post-employment benefits), Cambridge would not be receiving the bond ratings that it does if it was on particularly shaky ground in these areas.

Order #1. That the City Manager is requested to confer with the Police Commissioner regarding the increase of graffiti in the vicinity of Chatham Street, Dana Street, Broadway and Massachusetts Avenue with the view of increasing police patrols in the area and increasing efforts to make residents aware of the graffiti hotline.   Mayor Maher

Making more people aware of the graffiti hotline may not necessarily lead to productive results. Here on Broadway we made such a call and didn’t get a call back until about a month later. The message essentially was that the City can’t do anything regarding private property, and for the tagging on utility poles, mailboxes, etc., nothing would be done until at least next Spring. The City should be applauded for its good intentions, but things do sometimes fall flat in the execution.

Another example is the Rodent Hotline. Several years ago, I called in about an infestation of several foot-long rats in my neighbor’s yard/junkpile. That led to Inspectional Services addressing that problem, but also requiring me to remove my old VW Bus (parts car) from my yard even though this was unrelated to the rodent problem. My tenants and I like that my backyard is a better place now, but the immediacy of the directive meant that I didn’t have time to harvest the parts I would have liked to keep. I no longer recommend calling the Rodent Hotline to anyone due to the possibility of unintended consequences.

Order #3. That the City Manager is requested to confer with relevant State and City staff about the possibility of retaining the pedestrian light to allow at-grade crossing of Memorial Drive after the completion of the footbridge.   Councillor Kelley, Councillor Cheung and Councillor Seidel

Considering the distance between traffic signals on Memorial Drive west of this location, this would not be a burden on traffic and it would be a good alternative for many people, including cyclists. If the DCR has issues with this, perhaps they might accept relocating the traffic signal from Pleasant Street to Magazine Street.

Order #4. That the City Manager is requested to inquire into the feasibility of instituting a phone book opt-out program in Cambridge to reduce waste and the costs associated with that waste.   Councillor Decker and Councillor Cheung

Great idea – and essentially identical to the March 17, 2008 Order from Councillor Seidel. Whatever became of that Order? Phone book publishers make their money on how many of these obsolete books they can spread around, so I imagine there will be resistance to cutting back. Yellow Book is famous for its deceptive mailings that fool unwary businesses into spending hundreds of dollars per year for these useless listings.

Order #5. That the Mayor convene a Roundtable meeting with the Planning Board to discuss issues of mutual interest and concern.   Councillor Seidel, Councillor Reeves, Councillor Kelley and Councillor Cheung

Considering the fact that the most controversial matters that come before the City Council are zoning petitions which also come before the Planning Board, you have to wonder why the two bodies don’t meet more often just to better understand the priorities of the respective bodies. That said, city councillors have not shown any particular mastery in zoning matters other than how to shake down an applicant for "community benefits" (see below).

Order #7. That the City Manager is requested to direct the Department of Public Works to make accessible to the public, either on the city’s website or by constituent request, all un-cleared sidewalk complaints received, and all violations issued either due to those complaints or otherwise.   Councillor Cheung

This clearly is in reference to the requests from Saul Tannenbaum for this data that he put into publicly accessible maps [Jan 14 report], [Jan 29 report][Jan 31 report]. His actions are civics at its best. Not only should Saul (and others) have access to this data at no cost, any previous charges should be refunded. Better yet, the City should post this information and create these maps.

Order #11. The Cambridge City Council should begin as soon as possible to develop principles which will guide future community benefit negotiations for future development projects where large renovations are requested.   Councillor Reeves

This is not the first Order on this topic. However, the more fundamental issue is the erosive effect of this practice of shaking down developers for "community benefits" in exchange for votes for zoning petitions. It’s difficult to imagine the current City Council ever voting down an upzoning petition from a major developer with deep pockets who is in a position to effortlessly donate a few million dollars in exchange for gaining many millions of dollars in value to their project. The sky is literally the limit. Planning goals are often in direct conflict with the promise of a bonanza of "community benefits." Rather than working out policies for guiding future community benefits negotiations, perhaps the City Council should consider eliminating or severely limiting the practice.

Committee Report #1. A communication was received from Donna P. Lopez, Deputy City Clerk, transmitting a report from Councillor Leland Cheung, Chair of the Economic Development, Training and Employment Committee for a public meeting held on Jan 6, 2011 to receive a draft Request for Proposal (RFP) for a development consultant for Kendall and Central Square and the transition area (Lafayette Square).

This was an interesting committee meeting that tested the limits of the City Charter. Normally, elected councillors have to be very careful about leaning on City departments in matters involving any kind of hiring. The meeting was informative regarding both the scope and limitations of the RFP. It also remains quite clear that the greatest impact (or lack of impact) on Kendall Square and Central Square and all points in between will come from the property owners who make the investments in their properties. Except for zoning restrictions, the City’s role will be limited to supporting these initiatives and trying to influence them to whatever degree they can.

Committee Report #2. A communication was received from D. Margaret Drury, City Clerk, transmitting a report from Councillor E. Denise Simmons, Chair of the Civic Unity Committee for a public meeting held on Jan 5, 2011 to hold a discussion between the Civic Unity Committee and the Civic Unity Advisory Committee.

Councillor Simmons submitted a document entitled "The Civic Unity Committee" (Attachment A) and provided a brief history of the Civic Unity Committee. It was very interesting to read about the history of this advisory committee during the 1940s and 1950s, and it’s worth considering what role such an advisory committee might play today. However, if City officials really wish to revisit what role, if any, this committee should be playing, the process should not end with this one committee. Though it would require the kind of leadership this City Council most likely does not possess, there is some wisdom in revisiting the missions of the Peace Commission, the Human Rights Commission, and several other City boards whose missions overlap. Indeed, perhaps there should be a process in which ALL of the City’s boards and commissions revise their missions and are consolidated as appropriate for greater effectiveness. – Robert Winters


  1. I can’t make this meeting, so if anything interesting happens feel free to write about it here.

    Comment by Robert Winters — February 7, 2011 @ 11:46 am

  2. Do you have any word on what the results of the Executive Session were? Word is they were going to discuss acquisition of the Community Garden parcel owned By Fawcett Oil in No. Cambridge. A lot of folks are interested in this.

    Comment by Mark Jaquith — February 10, 2011 @ 12:23 pm

  3. I have no idea what came out of the Executive Session, nor do I want to know just yet. Presumably, there’s a reason this was not an open meeting, and that should be respected.

    I imagine the City Council and the City Manager wanted to come to some understanding about how to approach the potential acquisition, and that may involve bargaining over price. I just hope the City is able to preserve the community garden. Not every parcel in Cambridge needs to be developed to the maximum conceivable economic potential.

    Comment by Robert Winters — February 11, 2011 @ 12:10 am

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