Cambridge Civic Journal Forum

January 30, 2012

Only 1,318 Ballots To Go – Jan 30, 2012 Cambridge City Council Agenda

Filed under: Cambridge,Cambridge government,City Council,elections — Tags: , , , , , — Robert Winters @ 2:10 am

Only 1,318 Ballots To Go – Jan 30, 2012 Cambridge City Council Agenda

Though not the longest of agendas, there are a few hot items that could provoke either some interesting debate or a hasty exercise of the Charter Right. There’s also the unresolved matter of electing the Chair of the City Council, i.e. the Mayor. Here are the items that drew my interest this week:

Manager’s Agenda #1. Transmitting communication from Robert W. Healy, City Manager, relative to a draft amendment to the GLBT Ordinance increasing the maximum number of commissioners from fifteen to twenty.

Often it’s been the case that City boards and commissions draw too few (acceptable) candidates, but in this case the GLBT folks received enough good applicants that they felt an ordinance change was warranted to increase the number of members on this advisory committee. It’s always good to see a growth in civic interest. More people should apply for City boards and commissions.

Manager’s Agenda #2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 – Various grant-funded appropriations to the Dept. of Human Service Programs.

These items tend to come in bunches and are often not highlighted because the City of Cambridge has become so routinely successful in securing these grants and supporting these programs. We really do have some great people working for our Department of Human Services Programs under the leadership of Asst. City Manager Ellen Semonoff.

Manager’s Agenda #9. Transmitting communication from Robert W. Healy, City Manager, relative to the appropriation of a Grant from the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection for $67,000 to the Public Works Grant Fund Salaries and Wages account ($22,590) and to the Public Works Other Ordinary Maintenance account ($44,410) to research, plan and possibly implement a Pilot Curbside Food Scraps Collection Program for Residents to be accomplished in two phases.

This is one of those Back to the Future things. As many of you know, Cambridge once had citywide food waste (garbage) collection where the old "honey wagon" would make the rounds collecting the buckets from back yards all around the city with the collected material destined for pig slop or other uses. The concrete-lined, steel-capped pits from those days can still be found in many Cambridge yards. The piggery days are long gone, but the wisdom of recycling organic waste for composting (and greenhouse gas reduction) remains. This is an undoubtedly good initiative to consider, though its economic viability remains unclear. A pilot program, if feasible, would be a welcome start. That said, many of us have been composting most of our kitchen and yard waste in our back yards for many years and will continue to do so.

Manager’s Agenda #10. Transmitting communication from Robert W. Healy, City Manager, relative to an order requesting the authorization to borrow an amount not to exceed $36,800,000 for the purpose of refinancing existing General Obligation Bonds to acquire lower interest rates than those currently being paid.

Louis DePasquale and the Finance Department are always on the job getting the best deals for taxpayers. It almost makes you want to forgive Louis for being a life-long avid Yankees fan.

On The Table #1 and #2 – The curb cuts at 37 Lancaster St. (#1) and at 9 Wyman St. (#2).

I imagine both of these curb cuts will be approved either at this meeting or pretty soon, but these applications (as well as our never-ending stream of zoning petitions) do serve to highlight the degree to which residential and commercial development proposals bring out the passions of abutters and others living near to these developments. It’s often not the curb cut itself that sets people off, but rather the belief that the developers are pulling a fast one and have not been entirely honest about their ultimate intentions. For example, in the case of the Wyman Street curb cut, there is a belief that ultimately this mammoth single-family structure that claims the need for entries on two different streets will one day become something entirely different. In truth, abutting residents and city councillors have very limited tools for influencing most projects, and zoning is often a very blunt instrument.

Unfinished Business #3 – The Election of a Mayor.

It’s possible that the City Council could resolve this before February, but if neither of the two 3-vote candidates (Cheung and Decker) or those who are supporting them relent, this could go on for many more weeks. Ultimately, if this drags on too long, those councillors who are committed to neither of these candidates could peel off a couple of votes from one or both of them to elect someone else. Several days ago I discovered a series of Harvard Crimson writings from The Great Mayoral Marathon of 1948 in which it took 4 months, 35 sessions, and 1,321 ballots before the City Council managed to assemble 5 votes to elect Mayor Michael J. Neville. The Crimson writers gave very entertaining accounts of the marathon. You can read them at If there is a mayoral vote at this meeting, the results will be posted at

Order #1. That the City Manager is requested to contact Sagewell, Inc. with the view in mind of providing a city-wide thermal analysis to Cambridge residents and report back to the Council within two weeks in time for an early winter 2012 thermal scan.   Councillor vanBeuzekom, Councillor Cheung and Councillor Davis

This is a welcome Order. When the Cambridge Energy Alliance was established a few years ago amid lots of fanfare, there was plenty of discussion about how to best advise and assist residential and commercial property owners in order to move toward the goal of a far more energy-efficient city. Perhaps the early excitement can be revived if more effort goes into showing where the improvements are most needed and just how much money there is to be saved.

Order #4. That the Acting Chair of the City Council is requested to appoint a temporary committee of three Council members to start the process of searching for and hiring a replacement City Clerk.   Councillor Kelley

Order #5. That the Acting Chair of the City Council is requested to appoint a temporary committee of three City Council members to start the process of setting up a City Council review of the City Manager and to start the discussion with the City Manager of his intentions.   Councillor Kelley

Order #6. That the City Clerk and Deputy City Clerk develop an interim plan for the City Council as it relates to the retirement of the City Clerk; such plan to include whatever reassignment of duties and responsibilities are required to carry out the operations of the City Clerk’s Office during this interim period.   Councillor Maher

These three Orders deserve comment as a group in that they concern two of the three people appointed by the City Council under the Plan E Charter, namely the City Clerk and the City Manager (the other being the City Auditor). Insofar as City Council subcommittees should be undertaking the responsibilities outlined in Councillor Kelley’s Orders #4 and #5, perhaps this is the best argument for why this City Council should elect an actual Mayor with the authority to appoint these committees. Normally, this would fall to the Government Operations & Rules Committee.

Regarding Order #5, the City Manager’s contract stipulates that "In the event written notice is not given, by either party to this agreement to the other six months prior to the termination date as hereinabove provided, this agreement shall extend on the terms and conditions as herein provided for a period of one year." Since the termination date of the current contract is September 30, 2012, this means that the City Council and the City Manager have until the end of March to make their intentions known. Since Councillor Kelley is the only councillor who voted against the Manager’s contract in 2009 (and voted Present on the previous 2006 contract), it seems somewhat aggressive that he should be the one proposing the procedures now.

Councillor Maher’s Order #6 is more constructive. City Clerk D. Margaret Drury has announced that her last day at work will be February 29 – just one month from now. The smooth operation of the City Clerk’s Office is vital for residents and for the City Council and, as Councillor Maher points out, Deputy City Clerk Donna Lopez has 42 years of experience working in the City Clerk’s Office. This Order would appoint Donna Lopez as Interim City Clerk of Cambridge, effective March 1, 2012. It is hard to imagine any councillor objecting to this Order, except possibly for the purpose of removing the term "Interim" from the title.

Order #7. That the City Manager is requested to confer with the Assistant City Manager of Community Development and report back with recommendation on zoning changes for the Sullivan Courthouse and neighboring parcels.   Councillor Toomey

As many have pointed out, if the former use of that building had not been as a courthouse, it is unlikely that it would have been built at its current height. Several city councillors have suggested that there be a reduction in the height if and when the building is redeveloped or replaced, and some of these ideas are included in the Order. One could argue that Councillor Toomey’s Order does not go far enough in specifying to CDD what zoning changes might be most appropriate. If, upon analysis, the CDD finds the specifications to be economically unsound, they presumably would recommend compromise zoning language.

Order #8. City Council support of Senate Bill S.772 which expresses the desire for the United States Congress to draft a Constitutional Amendment in response to the Citizens United decision.   Councillor Cheung and Councillor Decker

I’ve had numerous conversations recently about this court decision and all of the money that has flowed into political advertisement as a consequence of the decision. The campaign to amend the U.S. Constitution to reverse the effects of the decision seems to be based on the underlying belief that most voters are idiots. That is, when subjected to misleading mass media political advertising, they will simply accept as fact whatever rubbish is broadcast. They must therefore be prevented from such bad influence, and if it takes a constitutional amendment to do this, then so be it.

Maybe voters are not predominantly idiots. Perhaps, as these well-funded rubbish campaigns become more common, voters will develop the ability to tell the difference between fact and fiction, and the more millions that are spent, the more these advertisements will be seen as entertainment rather than information. Needless to say, many people are now getting their information, whether accurate or not, from a dizzying array of web sources most of which are not affected in any way by the Citizens United decision. Personally, I’m more concerned by threats to regulate speech on the web than I am by the ability of corporations to advertise political rubbish.

Communications and Reports #1. A communication was received from Councillor Craig A. Kelley, regarding the subject of the late resolutions not being read.

In principle, I have to agree with Councillor Kelley on this one. The full text of ceremonial resolutions is not now publicly available but, for goodness sake, if you are going to pass a death resolution when somebody dies, you should at least have the courtesy to read the person’s name. Personally, though I don’t see the need to print the full text of ceremonial resolutions, it should be publicly available on the City web site. – Robert Winters


  1. Well, now there’s only 1,315 ballots to go. Ballot #4 was identical to Ballot #3, and for the next two Ballots, Councillor Kelley changed his vote to Reeves and (of course) Reeves changed his vote from Decker to himself. This leaves the tally at Cheung 3, Decker 2, Reeves 2, Davis 1, Toomey 1.

    Comment by Robert Winters — January 30, 2012 @ 6:27 pm

  2. Never underestimate the tenacity of Reeves to crawl into that seat. I’ve had a lot of disagreements with him over the years and find his brand of interest politics generally counter productive, but I actually find as Mayor he tends to be a lot less focused on his own vanity and self interest and more on promoting the city and he chairs a good Council and Committee meeting. That said I think the new blood argument should flow to Cheung, who also has a lot of grassroots voter support and I’m a little surprised Kelley is not his fourth man since their politics seem fairly similar. Toomey as a full time State Rep would not be a good Mayor though he certainly knows the city and has been an a local official with great experience for quite sometime. Maher could also emerge as the consensus choice to stay on another term, this happened the last time it was this deadlocked with Michael Sullivan becoming Mayor for a second consecutive term. To gain your support for my election initiative we’ll keep PR and Plan E off the table, would you be willing to entertain either the most #1s wins (which many Cantabs erroneously believe is the case anyway) or perhaps a separate but concurrent Mayoral election?

    Comment by James Conway — January 30, 2012 @ 10:38 pm

  3. James – I will not respond in detail regarding your first couple of sentences except to say that I’ve been going to Council meetings for a very long time and have witnessed the former mayor of whom you speak abuse the position to routinely attack those who express points of view other than his own. I know of no other mayor who has behaved as poorly.

    I’m also not going to take a position on who among the others should be mayor. They are choosing their own Chair and just as long as the person chosen is respectful of the public and his or her colleagues, I’ll be OK with their choice.

    I will speak to the matter of alternate ways of electing a mayor. Primarily, I don’t think the problem is so much with the method as it is with the councillors themselves. I think the first question any of them should ask is whether or not the whole city would be agreeable to their being mayor and, if they were really honest about it, this would take several candidates out of the running. The Chair would also have to be agreeable to the other members of the City Council and be fair to all of them. This may also disqualify a few.

    If there must be an alternate method, I would be agreeable to a popular election, but only if it was conducted with ranked choice voting with a series of runoffs to elect one. With multiple candidates and a plurality election (e.g., the one with the most #1 votes win), it is very possible that a candidate with emphatic support from a minority of residents would prevail over candidates with majority support who split their votes. That’s the reason why we have runoff elections.

    I might be agreeable to using the same ballots used to elect the City Council to also elect the mayor (with the Count re-tabulated to elect just one person instead of nine), but if it was known in advance of the election that this would be the case, I expect that campaigns might be done a bit differently with candidates simultaneously running for councillor and mayor. There could be a separate mayoral ballot, but I suspect that the balloting in that race might just end up mirroring the City Council results.

    You should also keep in mind that a popularly elected mayor can easily become mayor-for-life. Incumbency would give a clear advantage for re-election. This is precisely what happened when they changed the Charter in the City of Worcester. Also, it may be inevitable that a popularly elected mayor would want to assume some of the authority currently assigned to the city manager and this could eventually lead to a Charter change to a strong mayor system. I don’t think that would be good for Cambridge.

    More than anything, I just wish they’d settle this thing quickly. Former Councillor Kathy Born once proposed that they all be locked in a room and not be permitted to leave until they settled the matter. That’s as good an idea as any I’ve heard.

    Comment by Robert Winters — January 31, 2012 @ 10:15 am

  4. Mr Toomey (Jr) votes for himself. Can he be the Mayor given his second job? If he has no intentions of being Mayor should he be allowed to vote for himself?
    BTW Jr sure did piss of Craig Kelly last night at the very end of the meeting! No love lost between those two.

    Comment by fwconnelly — January 31, 2012 @ 1:26 pm

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