Cambridge Civic Journal Forum

March 19, 2013

Letter from Tom Stohlman (Mar 19, 2013)

Filed under: City Council — Tags: , — Robert Winters @ 10:47 am

To the City Council,

The City Charter says:
"Except in the cases of executive sessions authorized by section twenty-three A of chapter thirty-nine, all meetings of the city council shall be open to the press and to the public, and the rules of the city council shall provide that citizens and employees of the city shall have a reasonable opportunity to be heard at any such meeting in regard to any matter considered thereat."

It appears sometime in the past, someone crafted an interpretation of these words which would allow the City Council to meet and not give citizens "a reasonable opportunity to be heard at any such meeting in regard to any matter considered thereat." I’m sure it may have been for some good reason along the lines of, "We, the City Council, need to be able to meet and discuss matters before us without devoting the whole meeting to listening to the public talk about matters before us."

Thus the "roundtable" meeting was born. I think it was illegal then and I think it is illegal now.

The City Council Rules were voted without (much) debate at the beginning of your term, and reflect the wishes of some long-gone previous incarnation of the City Council. The rules are broken, in multiple senses of the phrase. The rules are ignored when they get in the way. The rules are invoked inconsistently to stifle debate. The rules are also broken if they actually keep you from doing your job.

I know you all and I know you are capable of having a discussion among yourselves and giving the public "a reasonable opportunity to be heard at any such meeting in regard to any matter considered thereat." It’s your meeting and you control it, not some long-gone previous incarnation of the City Council, not the City Manager, not the City Solicitor, and not the public.

The City Charter gives you that power. All it asks in return is that you do what it says. I recognize that my Charter right must be invoked reasonably and I want you to devote as much time as you can to discussing this among yourselves in whatever way you find most useful. Even if the Charter didn’t require it, you should open all your meetings (and sub-committee meetings) to whatever form of public communication (speech, TV, Internet, letters, emails, etc., etc.) is reasonably available and you should give the public a reasonable amount of time to be heard (literally).

I ask that you get a fresh start, and embrace the spirit of the Charter’s words this Friday at 9:30am. Find a way to hear the public while having a (real) discussion among yourselves and City staff about this important matter before you, the MIT PUD5 Zoning Amendment.


Tom Stohlman
19 Channing Street
Cambridge, MA 02138


  1. Tom – As I stated elsewhere:
    I don’t mean to pull a Bill Clinton deposition here, but it all depends on what the meaning of “consider” is. One definition states: “to think about in order to arrive at a judgment or decision.” The implication is that a decision is being made. As I stated previously, the structure of City Council Roundtable meetings presumes that no votes are taken, i.e. that no matter is being “considered.” If no matter is being considered, then there is no requirement that the public be heard.

    Personally, though I totally agree with the idea that cameras should be turned off at Roundtable meetings (and I wish others would respect this), I never warmed to the prohibition of public comment. At the very least they could allow only very brief comments and written submissions.

    I also wish members of the public would refrain from repeating testimony already given at previous meetings.

    Comment by Robert Winters — March 19, 2013 @ 11:39 am

  2. Tom,

    Public involvement is an important part of the process of enacting policies and policy changes in Cambridge, including MIT’s petition. However, to imply that a single round table meeting without public comment will deprive the public of their chance to weigh in on this important proposal is misleading.

    Since the petition was refilled, I have taken the opportunity to speak at least five times before either the Council or the Ordinance Committee and several more times before the Planning Board. More than seven times i have spoken on this petition and I know that I have missed a couple of meetings where public comment was taken! The public, myself included, has had many opportunities to provide comment to the Council on this petition and will have many times to do so after this round table. Public comment has definitely not been lacking in this petition!

    We elect the Council to work together for the betterment of Cambridge. I expect them to work together, as a group, not as nine individuals. I firmly believe that better decisions result when they are able to take the time to discuss the issue facing them in depth and in detail. The round table format has been established to encourage just this sort of interaction.

    This round table is an important part of the Council’s deliberations in this matter. I encourage all the Councillors to attend and take as much time as necessary to share insights, thoughts and opinions on the petition and how it affects Cambridge. I am sure it will yield a better result for Cambridge than if it were not held.

    Comment by Charlie Marquardt — March 19, 2013 @ 12:20 pm

  3. Robert-It’s still a stretch to say that the Council is not considering the MIT PUD5 petition at the Friday meeting. In fact, along with Charlie, I think it’s really important that they “share insights, thoughts and opinions” on the petition. Consider first, vote later.

    Charlie-I’m stating, not implying, that I believe the Charter requires that the Council hear the public on a matter they are considering. They are required to do this at all their meetings. I’m not stating or implying that the public has not had a chance to be heard on this issue.

    Comment by Tom Stohlman — March 20, 2013 @ 7:34 am

  4. Tom – I’m beginning to think you didn’t read my last comment. At a Roundtable meeting, a matter may be up for discussion, but it is not under consideration. If voting is not permitted, then nothing is being considered.

    This is consistent with the term reconsideration. Under Robert’s Rules of Order, a matter is only up for reconsideration if it is to again be made subject to a vote.

    Comment by Robert Winters — March 20, 2013 @ 9:32 am

  5. I read it and I understood it. I just disagree with it.

    The Internet says:
    1. Continuous and careful thought .
    2. A matter weighed or taken into account when formulating an opinion or plan
    3. A taking into account.
    4. Thoughtful and sympathetic regard.
    5. The act of considering; careful thought; meditation;deliberation:
    6. Something that is or is to be kept in mind in making a decision,evaluating facts, etc.:

    Synonyms for consideration: Discussion, contemplation, debate, review, study.

    Does the Charter refer to Robert’s Rules? If so, at least my copy has all sorts clauses referring to consideration, including the consideration (and reconsideration) of motions, among other types of consideration which do not include voting.

    Even your definition applies: Although they will not be taking any votes, the Ordinance Committee is considering the matter for a future vote.

    Comment by Tom Stohlman — March 20, 2013 @ 1:45 pm

  6. The bottom line is that there is no requirement for public comment in the Open Meeting Law. Section 20(f) states clearly: “No person shall address a meeting of a public body without permission of the chair, and all persons shall, at the request of the chair, be silent.”

    If the Chair chooses to not permit public comment, then that’s the end of the story.

    The City Council Rules are another story. They specifically include the provision of a Public Comment period as part of any Regular Meeting, though they could always “suspend the rules” to eliminate it if they wished. Those same City Council Rules were amended about 13 years ago to create Roundtable meetings that do not include a Public Comment period.

    So the only question is whether the phrase you quoted from the City’s Plan E Charter requires public comment at any meeting. I believe the case was made 13 years ago, and I’m making it again now, that if no votes are allowed, then nothing is being “considered”, and there is no requirement that the public be heard. I will also reiterate that I think it would be better if a very limited amount of public input were allowed at Roundtable meetings – as long as it doesn’t defeat the whole purpose of Roundtable meetings.

    By the way, Tom, I do hope you intend to focus on things other than procedural questions as part of your City Council campaign.

    Comment by Robert Winters — March 20, 2013 @ 3:29 pm

  7. Tom,

    I appreciate your zeal, and as a candidate I also need you to be able to pick and choose battles that make sense. Here I believe you’re wrong, and you continue to push the issue in the face of a semantic debate on what “consider” means.

    As a platform for candidacy this is weak… I just read the bottom of Dr. Winter’s final comment, and I believe my thoughts and feelings are encapsulated therein. The good news is that there is plenty of topics to choose from to distinguish yourself from the abysmal choices we have in November. If you need help picking some let me know, I’m available on Fridays.

    Comment by Patrick Barret — March 20, 2013 @ 9:17 pm

  8. Agreed, the people who govern are more important than the process of government. But it seems pretty fundamental that good Cambridge people decided that a process which involved the public was essential to good government. As Robert notes above, Massachusetts municipal bodies have no legal requirement to hear the public*. Cambridge is different.

    Patrick (and any of other good people who want to talk about different topics), send me an e-note. I’m available Friday after the “roundtable” and other days too.

    *Many public bodies adopt rules which permit public comment anyway. It’s an old New England tradition, a reminder of Town Meetings, where the public was the public body.

    Comment by Tom Stohlman — March 21, 2013 @ 8:08 am

  9. Tom – Since you’ve made reference to the New England tradition of open town meetings, I have to raise another point of some significance: Which public?

    Cambridge has in excess of 105,000 residents of whom perhaps 15-20,000 vote in the municipal elections. Do you think that the people who chronically appear at the Public Comment period of City Council meetings are representative of “the public”? What I primarily see is a small club of known individuals who are in no way indicative of the whole population of Cambridge. This changes when some sensitive matters arise, such as the turf vs. grass issue at the Danehy Park soccer fields, or the students and parents from the Longy School who spoke at the most recent meeting.

    If your view of Cambridge City Council meetings is shaped by a love for the town meeting format, then the question of whether we’re hearing from “the town” or from “the open mike club” is a relevant question. My sense is that the elected officials are hearing from “the town” in myriad ways every day and that what they’re hearing does not necessarily coincide with the testimony at the microphone by the usual suspects. That’s why it was not surprising that the Forest City petition passed unanimously even though self-interest groups like the CRA claimed that “the people” were overwhelmingly opposed. I sense that the same dynamic may be at work with the MIT/Kendall petition.

    Comment by Robert Winters — March 21, 2013 @ 11:46 am

  10. Robert-

    Agreed-Town meeting works best when the whole town is there.

    And representative government (the City Council) works best when all the voters vote.

    As an individual, I can’t claim I speak for the public when I get up at the OMC. And I can’t even claim it when I’m a Councillor, given the abysmal turnout at municipal elections.

    But it’s all we’ve got, and at least I can claim as a councillor that I’m willing to hear the public and let the public hear me, in any reasonable way that I can. I may not agree with what’s being argued, but my position is better informed if I continue to listen.

    Just like we’re doing here.

    1) Which public?
    The residents of Cambridge.

    2) Are the people who chronically appear at the Public Comment representative of “the public”?
    Yes, see #1.

    3) Are we hearing from “the (whole) town”?
    Heavens no, that would take over seven months at the going rate of 3minutes/person.

    4) Are we hearing from “the town”?
    Yes, see #1.

    5)Are we hearing from ‘the open mike club”?
    Don’t know, are they a neighborhood association I haven’t heard about? I know for sure you are hearing from at least one member of the Cambridge “Get-a-Life” Club.

    Founding Member of the CGALC
    Established 2001
    Cpus* peepus, ergo sum

    *Got to change the motto, CPUS was one of the original CPS community message boards. Unlike the CCJ, it is long gone.

    Comment by Tom Stohlman — March 21, 2013 @ 1:22 pm

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