Cambridge Civic Journal Forum

July 28, 2009

The Big Circus was in town last night

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: — Robert Winters @ 12:32 pm

July 28 – The Big Circus was in town last night

The Cambridge City Council midsummer meeting last night was interesting in its political speechmaking and the presence of news cameras in the wake of the Most Overblown Story of the Year. The best thing was watching the local network news reporters sit silently for hours in the sweltering Sullivan Chamber while almost all public comment was about everything but the Great Gates Caper. The reporters were treated to heavy doses of comment on taxicab regulations, curb cuts, the closing of Il Panino, Harvard employment practices, the McCrehan pool, water parks, bedbugs, and other matters that affect Cambridge residents far more than The Big Controversy. Yes, there were a few people who commented on The Great Ware Street Confrontation, but these were primarily the usual suspects and their total testimony took up at best one tenth of public comment. Most comical was how the TV cameras would whirl into action whenever the topic of the Gatescapades came up. I didn’t catch the 11 o’clock news to see how much of the video was aired, but there’s little doubt that it must have been one of the least representative samples of Cambridge and of what occurred at the meeting that you’ll ever find.

When public comment was finally over, the political posturing commenced. It opened with Councillor Kelley moving Tabled Item #2 – an Order and a Substitute Order relating to the ongoing appeal of the Monteiro v. City of Cambridge case. Ultimately, it was Councillor Toomey’s substitute language that passed requesting an opinion from the City Solicitor on the propriety of providing the City Council with funds to hire their own legal counsel for this matter. It is clear to this observer that Councillor Kelley’s sole motivation is to challenge the City Manager regardless of the merits of the case or its appeal. The other two sponsors of the original Order, Councillor Reeves and Mayor Simmons, have their own motivations.

Regardless of motivation, there is an important charter-related issue here. It is absolutely clear that ALL personnel matters are to be handled by the City Manager, and this includes any complaints or lawsuits filed by present or former employees against the City. On the other hand, the City Council ultimately has to vote, albeit indirectly, on all appropriations including legal settlements. Ideally, the City Council would pass a resolution or discuss in Executive Session its preferred policies on where to draw the line on legal appeals or settlements in this case. One would think that they would have already done this in their multiple Executive Sessions on this matter, but the public is (supposedly) not privy to those conversations. This conversation with the Manager, the City Solicitor, and the City Councillors should have already taken place and probably has taken place, and presumably some consensus should have been reached. Is there actually a majority opinion among city councillors on this matter? Maybe not.

The actual votes on Monday were somewhat interesting. It was a 5-4 vote to remove the matter from the Table with Councillors Decker, Kelley, Reeves, Seidel, and Simmons voting in favor. Kelley’s intention was to vote on the original Order requesting funds for legal counsel, but procedurally Councillor Toomey’s substitute had to be voted first. Councillor Toomey made clear that the issue was distinguishing the proper roles of the City Council and the City Manager under the City Charter. Councillor Decker wanted the City Solicitor to give his opinion now. On substituting Councillor Toomey’s language for the original language of Councillors Kelley, Reeves, and Simmons, the vote was 5-4 with Davis, Decker, Maher, Toomey, and Ward voting in favor, and Councillors Kelley, Reeves, Seidel, and Simmons opposed. The main motion with the substitute language then passed 8-1 with Councillor Decker as the sole dissenting vote.

Next came statements from City Manager Robert Healy and Police Commissioner Robert Hass on The Great Gates Affair. Mr. Healy gave a comprehensive chronology of what had transpired from the original July 16 incident to the present. Several councillors expressed dissatisfaction about not being included in every aspect of the matter and of having to learn some things only through the public media. As an observer, I detected some unhappiness at their not being asked to share in the public spotlight in a matter that garnered national attention. However, this was fundamentally an operational matter which, objectively, would have been completely routine save for the fact that some people chose to turn it into a media circus. Regarding the notion that the city councillors were not kept informed, why didn’t each and every one of them, as Councillor Ward wisely suggested, just pick up the phone and call the Manager? Unless the Manager was refusing their calls (which certainly did not happen), the councillors had every opportunity to be kept abreast of every aspect of this whole silly affair. This suggests that this was not about being informed but about sharing the spotlight.

What happens next should be interesting. Mayor Simmons will surely want to have yet another “Race and Class Forum,” though it seems doubtful that Charles Ogletree, the lawyer for Mr. Gates, will be the chosen moderator this time. This is also a municipal election year, so will the other councillors be completely OK with again giving Mayor Simmons the spotlight? Considering how vehemently Councillor Reeves was taking sides on the issue, it’s doubtful he will want to again cede the political stage to Simmons or anyone else. Opportunity knocks. – Robert Winters

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