Cambridge Civic Journal Forum

August 10, 2009

Open Forum – The Plan E Charter

Filed under: Cambridge government — Tags: , — Robert Winters @ 8:37 am

There have been some people lately challenging the Plan E Charter under which the City of Cambridge operates. This includes some local candidates and their handlers. Those who have lived in Cambridge long enough will recall that this criticism tends to be cyclical with several candidates raising the issue perhaps every decade.

The primary claims are that the City Manager has too much authority or that the system is somehow not democratic. Others argue that because the City Manager “serves at the pleasure of the City Council” there is actually greater accountability than in a “strong mayor” system where the mayor is all-powerful and the City Council is impotent (as in the City of Boston). It’s worth noting that public process in Cambridge (as well as public comment at City Council meetings) tends to be far greater than in most other communities – which usually leads to City-funded projects costing far more than original estimates.

Discussion of the Plan E Charter generally doesn’t draw much of a crowd, especially in light of the fact that Cambridge’s residential property tax rates are among the lowest in the Commonwealth and the City’s fiscal position is the envy of every municipality in Massachusetts. Nonetheless, Plan E does have its critics.

So, what are your thoughts on the Plan E Charter? You can read the Charter here: http://rwinters.com/docs/PlanE.htm

We’ll take up the issue of proportional representation (PR) elections in another week or so.

19 Comments

  1. I am a big fan of the system. It might perhaps be useful to have a serious review of it to see what can be learned; having a few people who are running for city council make noise at election time is not the way to do it, though. Thanks for asking the question.

    It certainly is true that this form of government bestows a huge amount of power on a non-elected official who controls who get hired, makes the budget and determines how much gets spent on what. In many respects this is very positive. Because the elected officials have nothing to do with determining who is hired and fired, we have the privilege of many highly qualified management personnel as well as many other skilled workers in this city. This is usually not so true in most other municipalities where the politicians have much too much to do with who gets hired and skill/portfolio/experience is not the chief criteria for selection. In my opinion it is the quality of the whole workforce that makes the difference between a well run / well financed city and what is so common these days in many cities and this all starts at the top.

    I believe that the City Council could do more to make the Manager be more accountable to them. At each Council meeting they create a number of orders, some of which are about trivial matters (except to a couple of affected residents). If you read the responses which sometimes take a long time to come you will see that they are not always very responsive (sometimes because the order wasn’t very clear in the first place) but there is usually little follow-through by the Council on weak responses. They could also set a more explicit set of goals in their annual goal setting exercise that include measurable results. Such goals would give more explicit direction and provide a more rational means to evaluate the Manager’s performance. The Council could also do more active review of the spending and performance as dictated in the budget. It is true that each year at Budget approval time they conduct a bunch of meetings to review the budget as proposed; the end result is essential always approval as proposed (they can’t add, but they can subtract and I think I recall just one subtraction during the past 20 years that I’ve been following this activity ).

    The city has a number of Commissions and advisory committees all of whose members are appointed by the Manager who contribute to the policies of the city and well being of the residents. Having been a member of quite a few I’d say that the people appointed have comprised a very good set of people who work well together in a constructive fashion. Imagine what it would be like if each Councillor got to name a person to these groups or worse if a small number of them got to control the appointments?

    As far as the financial health of the city, credit should of course go to the management; but you have to recognize that our huge tax base is due to the large amount of Commercial construction which keeps the residential tax rate down since we use Property Classification. Much of the credit should really go to the circumstances of the presence of MIT and to a slightly smaller extent Harvard who make Cambridge a very attractive place to set up shop in various high-tech endeavors. As a results of these Universities and to a lesser extent Cambridge College and Leslie University all of whom are large employers in the city, Cambridge is also a very desirable place to live which creates a demand for housing. I do think that there is more that the management and the City Council could do to develop more constructive relationships with these huge entities.

    For those who think there’s been too much development I point out that it is the City Council who is responsible for establishing and modifying Zoning and related regulations that allows this development. Of course all this development and housing demand makes it more difficult for lower income people to afford to live in the city, but here also the Council and the City Management together have done a huge amount to preserve/create affordable housing.

    Comment by John W Gintell — August 11, 2009 @ 3:07 pm

  2. I agree strongly with John’s points, except for one.

    John writes “I am a big fan of the system. It might perhaps be useful to have a serious review of it to see what can be learned; having a few people who are running for city council make noise at election time is not the way to do it, though.”

    The City Council is an integral part of Plan E, and it is important to know what Councillors think of it. In addition to the noise, let’s have an advisory committee formally review the Charter every 10 years.

    Comment by Tom Stohlman — August 11, 2009 @ 5:59 pm

  3. Plan E has served Cambridge well since its adoption by the voters in 1940 with the first proportional representation election in 1941 and the first Plan E Government taking office in 1942. It provides for the professional management of the City by an appointed City Manager, subject to the oversight of the elected City Council. To the extent that the Plan E Charter presents current challenges, it is best to first look at the oversight of the City Manager by the City Council.

    Several common-sense changes would improve the City Council’s ability to monitor the City Manager and increase the overall transparency of the governance process. City Councilors should do what they were elected to do: Lead Cambridge.

    • Councilors should do their homework and come prepared to ask questions at Council and Committee meetings.

    • Councilors should question the Manager on his response to Council Orders. When the responses are inadequate, they should either ask additional questions or require additional follow-up from the Manager.

    • Councilors should question each other’s orders to ensure that the Manager is responding to issues raised by the entire Council, not merely a single (possibly favored) Councilor.

    • Councilors should establish acceptable response times to Council Orders from the Manager. Open Council Orders should be tracked against this response time target and reported to the Council and Cambridge residents via the City website.

    • The Council should review the City budget on a regular and timely basis. This review should include a discussion of any risks (such as higher expenses or lower revenues) to achieving the budget.

    • The Council should review the progress of large-scale projects such as the High School construction project now underway. This would include progress against the established time line and against the established budget.

    • All City departments (e.g., the Police Department, DPW, or Traffic Department) establish goals and objectives as part of the annual budget process. These goals and objectives provide an opportunity to measure the success of City departments in achieving their goals. Progress towards achieving these goals should be a part of the discussion at Council meetings and available to all residents. This could be accomplished by graphical depictions of progress against goals available on the City’s website and posted at City facilities.

    • If departmental goals and objectives are not on track, the Councilors need to monitor what is being done to bring them back in line.

    • Councilors should establish a set of measurable goals and objectives for the Manager. These goals and objectives should be made available to the public at the start of the year so that everyone can understand what the Council is using as a measure of success for the Manager.

    I have previously written on my website (www.charlesmarquardt.org) that the City of Cambridge, like all great organizations, should review its charter on a regular basis. This review should be performed by a Committee established for the sole purpose of reviewing the Charter and should include members from across the broad spectrum of Cambridge.

    Finally, the role of the Manager in appointing all members of Boards and Commissions is subject to the oversight of the City Council. City Council members should review any proposed appointment to ensure that prospective Board or Commission members are qualified for their positions. The City Council should also review the Board and Commission appointment process to determine whether Board and Commission membership should be subject to a requirement for periodic reappointment as is the case with some, but not all, Boards and Commissions. This would ensure that the memberships of the Boards and Commissions continue to meet the needs of the City.

    Plan E is a good form of government for Cambridge. We should tweak it if necessary, but we should not throw it out.

    Comment by Charlie Marquardt — August 12, 2009 @ 7:42 pm

  4. I have several reservations about the Plan E charter, though I will preface these reservations by paraphrasing Winston Churchill by saying that ‘While Plan E is a terrible form of government it is better than all the other forms of government’.

    We can look over the river and see the danger of a ‘Strong Mayor’ form of government. While I respect Mayor Tom Meninno and wish him well, in many respects he is invested with far too much power which gives him an incredible advantage at election time and could be quite dangerous were a lesser man at the helm. And that level of power always breeds some form of corruption, whether it be of the legendary kind exhibited by James Michael Curley or the minor kind Meninno has occasionally found himself in (controversies over his son’s promotions in the fire dept. ,etc.)

    To better understand the Plan E charter and its shortfalls we must first examine its history.

    The Plan E charter, which was created by the state legislature during the progressive era (1900-1930) was adopted by Cambridge in the 1940s. Other cities had this charter but to date only Worchester has it besides Cambridge.

    The city adopted it in a referendum in 1940 that passed by a narrow margin. It created the Plan E charter and stripped away the previously large powers of the Mayor. It consolidated the Board of Alderman with the City Council to form today’s at large nine member body with a ceremonial chairman (note the chairman was never called the Mayor officially and had no additional powers, also no ‘vice chairman’ or ‘vice mayor’ in that language). Thus the patronage system that had been built up, the ward politics associated with the alderman, and the system of favors and kickbacks that resulted in the indictment of one mayor in the 1930s for fraud was eliminated in favor of a system that was ‘more’ democratic and meritocratic.

    The main body backing this was the CCA which was a progressive grassroots organization that had a largely WASP membership. It fought the group trying to maintain the status quo which had a largely Irish and immigrant Catholic membership and enjoyed the patronage system. Perhaps ironically to modern day Cantabridgians the CCA was primarily Republican (of the Roosevelt-Dewey progressive wing) while the forces maintaining the status quo were Democrats (of the Tip O’Neill James Michael Curley wing). In any case the CCA won, along with the provision making us a PR Plan E city, it beat back a Supreme Court challenge to both PR and Plan E, and it was reaffirmed in three subsequent referenda. By the 1960s the wing formerly opposing Plan E had died down, and the CCA lacking the rational to exist since it had nothing more to defend faded into obscurity until finally fielding no slate at all by 2007.

    In theory, Plan E is more democratic and meritocratic than a strong mayor form of government. This is because in theory an active and participating citizenry would ensure that the City Manager is a competent and honest person appointed by a similarly honest and competent City Council that will check his/her power and ensure he/she does a good job. Meanwhile the people make sure the city council does this by actively voting and participating in debates and the fourth estate does its part by investigating and ensuring the public is safeguarded from corruption.

    In practice we have five serious shortfalls with Plan E

    1) Centralizes power in one man who isn’t elected

    The City Manager has broad powers over appointing and hiring civil servants within the city, appointing members of city boards and commissions, determining which contractors receive city bids, determining construction projects, etc. Concentrating that power in one man can be very dangerous even if he was elected, unfortunately the city manager is only accountable to the city council, and could be ignoring their ordinances or refusing to abide by their construction requests actually force them to adopt his agenda. The founding fathers warned against this kind of centralization and it means that there is very little incentive for the City Manager to actually engage the citizens since he is responsible to the City Council alone.

    2) The City Council is complacent

    Accountable to barely over 1% of the electorate that supports them (only 10% of Cambridge citizens vote, each councilor gets 1/9th of that 10% you do the math) the city council has very little incentive to actually make important city wide decisions and instead caters to their closest friends and political supporters (re. Toomey, Maher, and Sullivan when he was on), their geographic base (i.e Craig Kelley in North Cambridge, Maher in West Cambridge), their political base (Reeves and Simmons primarily blacks and gays, Decker with the lefties), and typically have very little incentive to think beyond their base that elects them.

    Moreover, they all depend on the City Manager to be complacent and give them the goodies they want. The honorary way for a close supporters elderly relative, can’t get it without Healy’s DPW putting it in place. The zoning license for a real estate developer that donates to your campaign, can’t get it without Healy’s approval. This kind of quid quo pro is encouraged by the existing system with very little structural (i.e within the charter) oversight of the Managers authority or power and little incentive for the council to curb it if they get what they want.

    Similarly no councilor was on the council at the time over 20 years ago when Healy was hired so even his opponents have to ask him for advice since no other individual has his level of experience within our municipal government. All agency heads, all individual employees, most people that work within city government that the councilor rely on for information or services are in some way dependent on Healy simply because he has been in charge of this city for almost three decades and very few people were here before him.

    3) Voters don’t care

    A complacent council is bred by complacent voters, with such a low turnout and such a narrow base we the citizens of Cambridge make it easy for the idiots to get elected since we usually stay home on election day.

    Similarly I would argue the PR voting system is so overwhelmingly complicated that nobody outside of the election commission and Robert Winters understands how it works. There has also been no effort to even remotely educate the populace about how to vote in Cambridge, no civics class, no engagement whatsoever to get the youth of the city excited about local government and civic participation, no effort to make any changes at all lest it rock the boat and maybe threaten some of the crazier councilors who are so unqualified to have a real job they need the 80k plus benefits the city gives them. Not to mention the 30k jobs they can doll out to their campaign workers.

    4) The Chronicle is run by idiots

    With the exception of my good friend sports columnist Phil Rizzuto and the good reporters that covered the extensive damage to my house, Chronicle reporters are also completely ignorant of how the city works and how its government is choosen and functions. Every year when they make their endorsements they butcher how PR actually chooses candidates and never seem to accurately explain how it works. Most reporter I met during my time on the school committee aren’t even from here or live here so they really have very little to care about what happens to our city.

    Good alternative papers like The Bridge and The Alewife folded because its just too damn expensive to keep a good paper running (especially when both papers were free-hard to make money when you give it away). Also only 1% of the city even is subscribed to the Chronicle so again its not like most citizens bother paying attention even if their reporters were competent and actively went after the excesses in local government as well as reporting its strengths.

    5) No grassroots organizations

    Sadly since Plan E was put in place both the good old fashioned ward politics which it replaced as well as the do gooder meritocratic group that sought to replace it disappeared. Cambridge is now a city mostly full of transplants, very few people know their neighbors, there is very little civic cohesion and most people don’t really care unless they have kids in school or are being priced out. And sadly the average yuppie, the modern day likely candidate to be a progressive do gooder like the WASPy Rockefeller republicans of old, are either childless or enroll their kids in private schools. And as long as rent control is dead they are incredibly satisfied with their city and all the unique culture it gives them.

    In summary the only body the city manager is accountable to is the City Council. In the 1940s when the CCA was a real political force to be reckoned with and not the farce it is today, there was an active citizenry to ensure that the City Council was full of honest, competent, and aggressive overseer’s to ensure that the needs of the city were met. Thus the City Manager can be removed or held accountable through democratic means by the elected city council. This is only true if the city has an active and vigorous fourth estate to check corruption (we don’t!), a voting population that actually cares about and is educated about local government (10% participation in municipal elections seems to indicate that we don’t), educated politicians who understand the city manager works for the people and is accountable to them and not the other way around (other than Craig Kelley-no one has the guts to challenge the City Manager), and active grassroots organizations that can organize resistance and pressure the elected (again the CCA is dead, really no other local group in its place).

    So without voter and civic engagement then the city manager can become quite a powerful figure with little accountability. I reckon if you commissioned a poll asking the people of Cambridge who the City Manager was and what did he do I doubt more than 3% could answer in the affirmative.

    I would say the easiest way to fix this is to teach local government in schools, something I advocated for when I was a student school committee member and it’s the easiest way to ensure that one generation of imbeciles doesn’t breed another. Civic education is non-existent at the high school level. Most kids, even smart ones, my age don’t know what the electoral college is let alone what the city council and city manager do and who occupies those posts respectively. Also almost nobody in the city really understands how PR works, I only learned after working a summer at the election commission. My parents who have lived here a combined 80 years and have voted here a combined 56 years had no idea how it worked until I taught them. Most candidates are unsure of how they are elected with a few exceptions. Certain city councilors who are now State Senators and certain black school committee members who are running for re-election also had no idea how they were even elected when I asked them. It’s really a system that only works if everyone involved in it is well versed in both math and political science which almost no one in the city is. Its highly prone to error even by educated voters, I likely spoiled my 07 ballot since its written in pen and I filled in two bubbles on the same line since I wasn’t wearing my glasses. Reforming the election system to the actually constitutional proviso of one man one vote might actually increase turnout and put more scrutiny on the city council.

    I would eliminate the position of Mayor and Vice Mayor, since a) they aren’t actually in the charter and b)it creates confusion as to who actually runs the city, not to mention they waste money (higher salary than regular councilor) and the city council’s time (in 03 the council didn’t meet for two months since the mayoral election was deadlocked). Notice with the recent Gates crisis that Mayor Denise Simmons was interviewed by the New York Times and CNN but the man who actually hires the police commissioner and could order a top to bottom police review was never heard from.

    Additionally the city manager should include in his annual mailings to the people of cambridge a description about what he does, who he is accountable to, and how to reach him. He should also hold forums and make himself available to the people so that more people can actually know who he is and what kind of authority he has.

    The City Council should actually lobby to have Plan E reaffirmed by the voters which would force the very kind of educated debate we should have about how our city is run and what kind of charter we should have. They should also put PR up for vote. If those systems are so great than their defenders can convince the people that they are. The fact that we haven’t voted on these things since the 1960s surely has contributed to this civic ignorance and so much dissatisfaction over the charter.

    I think some of the city councilors should be elected in wards. I think five in wards, four at large. This would actually force some city councilors to talk to their neighbors and rebuild some grassroots ward organizations and make existing ones relevant again. It will allow for neighbors to be connected to one another and increases the power city councilors have-allowing them to use it as a check against the city manager.

    Lastly, we should have more grassroots organizations full of educated people passionate about local government. Charlie, Robert, and I seem to have a decent understanding about our city charater, its pro’s and cons, and the PR system, surely there are others like us? Perhaps we can form a kind of civic MENSA that brings together outsiders who are passionate about local government and perhaps we can be the vanguard that educates the masses about how to vote (how can it be a peoples republic without a vanguard?) and how their government works. Perhaps we can put aside our disagreements (I know Robert that you like Healy and PR but surely you’re just as saddened at the low turnout and massive ignorance most people have about their own government) to begin this civic engagement and education.

    Comment by James Conway — August 13, 2009 @ 4:46 pm

  5. One of the things that is really outlandish about the implementation of the current system is the cost.

    The 09-10 budget has $532K for the Mayor’s Office and $1,461K for the City Council – or a total cost of $1,983K for the 9 elected officials and their staff. Their staff is 5 people in the Mayors office and 2 in City Council or the “part-time” Council Assistants who aren’t listed in the headcount numbers – I think there are 6 of these individuals. That is an awfully large amount of money for a set of people who have very little responsibility in the actual day-to-day operations of the city – just to emphasize that is 13 staff people to support these 9 elected people. Note also that part of the $887K in the City Clerks’ office is to support the Council since that is where the agenda, minutes, and support for all committee meetings is done. (There might be some additional costs for some of the benefits for the elected people and their staff that doesn’t appear in the departmental portion of the budget – it isn’t really clear from the budget document whether all such benefit costs are included in the departmental budgets.)

    Contrast this Mayoral and Council budget to the $1,841K in the Executive Office (9 full time people) and this portion of the budget includes the Public Information Office and the Tourism Office as well as the Management people and their staff).

    I wonder if anyone ever seriously reviews the budget on effectiveness and done some comparison to other similar sized cities? There are some pretty amazing costs associated with some of the peripheral departments.

    Comment by John W Gintell — August 13, 2009 @ 11:45 pm

  6. I’m impressed by the thoughtfulness of those who have posted comments on this topic and that includes those with whom I disagree. Responding to all the points made could take some time, so I’ll likely do it in installments. I’ll start with John Gintell’s very constructive comments.

    John writes: “I believe that the City Council could do more to make the Manager be more accountable to them.” I believe this is really the primary issue and that this must be understood on a number of different levels. It is an extraordinary situation that Robert Healy has served admirably as City Manager for as long as he has (28 years) with his most recently signed contract extending through 2012. It is virtually certain that this will be his last contract and that the enormous responsibility of determining his successor will fall to the councillors elected this year and two years from now.

    It is a practical fact that when an executive serves as long as Mr. Healy has and does his job as well as he has, there is a level of enhanced authority that rightfully grows with that tenure, and the elected councillors may choose to defer to Mr. Healy’s judgment often without much review. The opposite may be the case for the next City Manager, but that depends on how capable the future city councillors will be in choosing the next Manager and working with that Manager. The City Council really hasn’t been tasked with any heavy lifting for some time, and the jury is still out on this group of nine’s capacity to bear a heavy load. The problem isn’t the Charter – it’s the people and the circumstances.

    It would be a grave mistake to alter a fundamentally sound system of government simply because of a perceived weakness of the current City Council. Imagine the closing scene in Oz when Dorothy is informed by the Good Witch Glinda that she has always had the power to go home with the magical power of her ruby slippers, but she had to discover it for herself. The City Councillors should check their footwear, then use their power wisely and only when a majority of them can come to agreement.

    Comment by Robert Winters — August 15, 2009 @ 9:17 am

  7. Regarding the matter of the City Manager’s appointing authority for the City’s boards and commissions, John Gintell writes: “Imagine what it would be like if each Councillor got to name a person to these groups or worse if a small number of them got to control the appointments?”

    Charles Marquardt argues that: “City Council members should review any proposed appointment to ensure that prospective Board or Commission members are qualified for their positions. The City Council should also review the Board and Commission appointment process to determine whether Board and Commission membership should be subject to a requirement for periodic reappointment as is the case with some, but not all, Boards and Commissions. This would ensure that the memberships of the Boards and Commissions continue to meet the needs of the City.”

    I believe Mr. Marquardt’s assertion is politically naive. It is virtually certain that if the Manager’s appointments were all subject to City Council review, there would be no balance whatsoever on these boards and the only persons who would ever serve on those boards with regulatory power would be the politically connected. It is undeniable that some politically connected people do now serve on some City boards, but this is the exception rather than the rule – in spite of the claims of Cambridge’s “chronically aggrieved.”

    One of the greatest pieces of misinformation I hear these days is the claim that the city councillors have no input in the appointments to the City’s boards and commissions. Anyone making such a claim knows very little about how things really work. The truth is that city councillors frequently press the City Manager to either appoint or not appoint certain individuals. The councillors thus have the power to steer these appointments without dirtying their hands politically. Anyone who believes that the Manager acts unilaterally without extensive advice in these appointments knows nothing about the realities of City Hall. If ever you hear a councillor expressing outrage over an appointment, the likelihood is that this councillor simply didn’t get his way (and that the majority of councillors approve of the appointment). I believe Councillor Kelley often finds himself in this position.

    Would anyone care to speculate on who would have served on the Rent Control Board back when the Cambridge Civic Association had five endorsees on the City Council?

    Comment by Robert Winters — August 15, 2009 @ 10:27 am

  8. Several have commented on the notion of reviewing the City Charter either every ten years (Tom Stohlman), on a regular basis (Charles Marquardt), or that “the City Council should actually lobby to have Plan E reaffirmed by the voters” (James Conway). Another City Council candidate (Sylvia Glick) says that “I would hold public hearings for residents to discuss whether the Plan E form of government has outlived any usefulness that it might have once had. I will provide forums for residents to discuss the merits of changing our form of government to one that is truly democratic.”

    In fact, the City Council has always had a mechanism through which questions about the Charter can be raised and any recommended action initiated. It’s call the Government Operations and Rules Committee. In fact, over the last decade there have been at least two occasions when that committee took up the notion of having a directly elected mayor. On both occasions the idea was rejected but there was healthy debate among councillors and those members of the public who actually showed up (including John Gintell and myself).

    I don’t know what exactly the new candidates have in mind in suggesting periodic reviews of the City Charter. Do they simply mean to have the Government Operations Committee meet to discuss any perceived flaws in the Charter and possibly correct these flaws within the current Charter or propose revisions? Or do they wish to have a Charter Commission through which they can toss the baby out with the bathwater? A little more specificity would help.

    Above all, beware of those who would claim to be in favor of “greater democracy” who are, in fact, just trying to place political power into the hands of an elite group of kingmakers. The current system places the power into the hands of voters to choose nine people to best represent them. John Conway’s contention that “Voters don’t care” unfortunately does have some validity and this can lead to perpetual reelection of a City Council (and School Committee) that is not as representative as it could be or should be. Every election system shares this problem, but Cambridge at least attempts to get proportionally representative elected bodies. Though I personally grow sometimes exasperated by the underwhelming performance of some city councillors, I still prefer to entrust my representatives with the task of choosing a City Manager and of managing their manager.

    One other point regarding democracy in Cambridge – Those who claim that the public has little input into actions taken by the City must be unaware of the endless meetings about the siting and design of the new Main Library, the new West Cambridge Youth Center, the Fresh Pond Reservation Master Plan, and many other projects. In each case the extensive public process led to significant delays and substantially increased costs and (hopefully, though debatably) better projects. Anyone who suggests that Cambridge lacks democracy must have just drifted in on a balloon from Omaha.

    Comment by Robert Winters — August 15, 2009 @ 11:17 am

  9. Though not germane to the topic of the City’s Plan E Charter, Candidate Marquardt gave a list of what he sees as things the City Council should do. Let’s take them one at a time:

    a) Councilors should do their homework and come prepared to ask questions at Council and Committee meetings.

    I couldn’t agree more. After twenty plus years of Council-watching, I can attest to the fact that some councillors don’t do their homework. My intuitive sense is that this problem has only become worse recently, even though the councillors now all have patronage hires to help them read.

    b) Councilors should question the Manager on his response to Council Orders. When the responses are inadequate, they should either ask additional questions or require additional follow-up from the Manager.

    I hate to break it to you, Charlie, but they already regularly do this. When they don’t, it’s generally because the Manager’s response answered all the relevant questions. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen you at a City Council meeting, so I suppose you should be forgiven for not knowing this.

    c) Councilors should question each other’s orders to ensure that the Manager is responding to issues raised by the entire Council, not merely a single (possibly favored) Councilor.

    I agree completely. The number of single-councillor Orders has risen over time, and this is indicative of a less collaborative atmosphere within the City Council. I often think of these as “drive-by Orders” meant to create a stir without much constructive advice. If several councillors would collaborate on Orders sponsored by several or maybe even a majority of councillors, they would get a lot more traction out of those Orders. They would also, presumably, have reached some compromises before the introduction of the Order. This increased clarity would greatly help the City Manager in implementing those Orders.

    d) Councilors should establish acceptable response times to Council Orders from the Manager. Open Council Orders should be tracked against this response time target and reported to the Council and Cambridge residents via the City website.

    Orders other than “drive-by Orders” generally get a relatively quick response. There are exceptions to this, but my experience has been that there is almost always a good reason for the delayed response. If you actually go through the “Awaiting Report” list, you’ll find that most of the pending requests either cannot yet be answered (so why do it?) or they’re garbage requests by a single councillor that were formally waved through out of a misplaced sense of courtesy. The essential problem is that the City Council often formally waves through these nonsense requests. We’d all be better off if the City Council questioned these Orders and only passed (or amended) those where a majority of councillors really give a damn about the response. It’s worth noting that every few meetings the Manager’s Office does its best to dispose of a bunch of these pending requests. I’d prefer that the Manager’s Office dispose of almost all of them even if only with a cursory response. If a majority of councillors really cares about any of them, they can ask again with a little more seriousness and get a more serious response.

    e) The Council should review the City budget on a regular and timely basis. This review should include a discussion of any risks (such as higher expenses or lower revenues) to achieving the budget.

    The City Council definitely already does this – in part during the Budget Hearings, but also during the entire year via public meetings and private meetings with the City Manager. Do I wish that more councillors did this with greater seriousness? Definitely. With the loss of Michael Sullivan and Brian Murphy from the City Council, the level of expertise and scrutiny has taken a substantial hit. My hope is that any new candidate who may be elected this November will be able to fill that role. I know of at least one new candidate who did attend this year’s Budget Hearings and who does take all this very seriously, but you’re not that candidate.

    f) The Council should review the progress of large-scale projects such as the High School construction project now underway. This would include progress against the established time line and against the established budget.

    The Council does this and has done this all along, though thankfully not to the point of micromanagement. I have monitored the progress of many of these projects and I will tell you that any delays or increased costs are neither welcome nor difficult to explain. This includes things like substantially increased costs for steel and concrete, the discovery of hazardous materials in the soil, or the inevitable problems with contractors. What role exactly would a city councillor play in this? Their role is to approve the budget for a particular capital project or to authorize whatever borrowing is necessary for the project. Would you like to equip all the councillors with hardhats and insert them as project managers?

    g) All City departments (e.g., the Police Department, DPW, or Traffic Department) establish goals and objectives as part of the annual budget process. These goals and objectives provide an opportunity to measure the success of City departments in achieving their goals. Progress towards achieving these goals should be a part of the discussion at Council meetings and available to all residents. This could be accomplished by graphical depictions of progress against goals available on the City’s website and posted at City facilities.

    Charlie, allow me to explain to you how this is done. Every year in the annual Budget Book (which is available online), there is a set of goals and objectives established for essentially every City department (often with graphical depictions). In the following year’s Budget Book, progress toward these goals is given. Is an annual review of progress insufficient? What would be gained by doing this more frequently and, more significantly, what effect would the dedication of additional staff time to this task have on the progress toward these goals and objectives? Annual reports seem like more than enough.

    h) If departmental goals and objectives are not on track, the Councilors need to monitor what is being done to bring them back in line.

    See above. I recommend that you attend the Budget Hearings and some of the City Council Roundtable meetings.

    i) Councilors should establish a set of measurable goals and objectives for the Manager. These goals and objectives should be made available to the public at the start of the year so that everyone can understand what the Council is using as a measure of success for the Manager.

    They’ve been doing this every year (or every two years) for quite a few years now. My only objection to how they do this is that it often takes place during poorly attended workshops at locations outside of City Hall. I also question some of the methodology used in translating what is said and done at those workshops into the published goals and objectives. I could have this all wrong, but there does seem to be some systematic bias toward certain outcomes – perhaps due to the pervasive effects of political correctness.

    Comment by Robert Winters — August 16, 2009 @ 12:27 pm

  10. I appreciate James Conway’s historical lesson. A detail or two may need revision or expansion. I’ll give it a shot:

    The Plan E charter, which was created by the state legislature during the progressive era (1900-1930) was adopted by Cambridge in the 1940s. Other cities had this charter but to date only Worcester has it besides Cambridge.

    Actually, the Plan E Charter was only made an option by the state legislature in 1938 after lobbying primarily from people in Cambridge. It failed at the polls in Cambridge in 1938 but prevailed in 1940. I’ve spoken with people involved back then in the campaign to adopt Plan E and had it verified that people were voting in favor of the city manager form of government much more than for the new election method. The Plan D option (available since 1915) would also have moved Cambridge to a city manager form of government.

    The city adopted it in a referendum in 1940 that passed by a narrow margin. It created the Plan E charter and stripped away the previously large powers of the Mayor. It consolidated the Board of Alderman with the City Council to form today’s at large nine member body with a ceremonial chairman (note the chairman was never called the Mayor officially and had no additional powers, also no ‘vice chairman’ or ‘vice mayor’ in that language). Thus the patronage system that had been built up, the ward politics associated with the alderman, and the system of favors and kickbacks that resulted in the indictment of one mayor in the 1930s for fraud was eliminated in favor of a system that was ‘more’ democratic and meritocratic.

    In fact, the original Cambridge vote to adopt the Plan E Charter in 1938 was 19,955 YES and 21,722 NO with 4,615 blank ballots cast – a relatively narrow defeat. In 1940 the vote was 25,873 YES and 18,310 NO – a decisive victory. The wide margin of victory has largely been attributed to the inability to pass a budget in 1940 due to widespread mismanagement and corruption.

    The main body backing this was the CCA which was a progressive grassroots organization that had a largely WASP membership. It fought the group trying to maintain the status quo which had a largely Irish and immigrant Catholic membership and enjoyed the patronage system. Perhaps ironically to modern day Cantabridgians the CCA was primarily Republican (of the Roosevelt-Dewey progressive wing) while the forces maintaining the status quo were Democrats (of the Tip O’Neill James Michael Curley wing). In any case the CCA won, along with the provision making us a PR Plan E city, it beat back a Supreme Court challenge to both PR and Plan E, and it was reaffirmed in three subsequent referenda. By the 1960s the wing formerly opposing Plan E had died down, and the CCA lacking the rational to exist since it had nothing more to defend faded into obscurity until finally fielding no slate at all by 2007.

    Several corrections are in order. First, the force behind the movement for charter change in both 1938 and 1940 was called the Cambridge Committee for Plan E. It was not until 1945 that the Cambridge Committee for Plan E, the Cambridge Taxpayers’ Association, the Cambridge Citizens’ Committee, and individual members of the League of Women Voters consolidated to form the Cambridge Civic Association (CCA) and the Cambridge Research Association. It is a fair statement to say that many and probably most of the early CCA people were of the college educated, possibly Harvard affiliated, Yankee Republican sort. Those on the opposite side tended to be more Irish and working class, but it’s certain that soaring property tax rates during the Depression years would have swayed a lot of working class people to vote for less corruption and a better managed city. So the truth is probably a lot grayer than many would have you believe.

    The Mass. Supreme Judicial Court decision that James refers to is Moore vs. Election Commissioners of Cambridge (1941). There were, in fact, five referenda to throw out proportional representation (1952, 1953, 1957, 1961, and 1965) all of which were defeated. I do not believe any of the referenda called for the abolition of the city manager form of government.

    The CCA remained a substantial political force through the early 1990s, though just how much control they ever had over their endorsed elected officials is debatable. They did, however, have a lot of control over which new candidates were elected from their side of the political coin. The fact that they strapped themselves to the mast of the ship of rent control is the primary reason for their rapid descent as a political force after the 1994 statewide referendum that ended rent control. I believe the CCA still exists on paper, but it is for all intents and purposes nonexistent except in history. It’s last candidate endorsements were in 2003, but the CCA Board in both 2001 and 2003 voted not to do any endorsements (I was on the Board then). They only ended up doing formal endorsements and mailing out slate cards at the behest of their endorsed incumbents.

    Comment by Robert Winters — August 16, 2009 @ 11:53 pm

  11. I really think that the goals setting and review is pretty weak.

    Let’s look at the Cable TV (Channel 8) department. Not that I am trying to pick on a particular department but this is just an example – It’s IV-285 in the budget book. This department has a budget in FY10 of $607 K with 6 people. BYW, in FY09 it was $519K and in FY08 it was $458 with same number of people- one wonders why there is a >30% increase in two years – there may well be a good reason but it is hidden. In my opinion the goals as described in the budget book are pretty meaningless. An example of a goal is – number of departments served: plan=30, actual=30 (same number for 07, 08, and 09 which is true for their other goals.) There is no way to evaluate how well they are doing their job from these goals and there seems to be no emphasis on improvement in quality, quantity, or general productivity.

    So what are we getting for our now $600K? They produce a small number of programs and record all City council meetings (about 30 of them) and a few other meetings or events. I watched some of the stuff they produce and they do a nice job editing. Now no-one knows how many people watch their programs but I’d bet it is pretty small. How would anyone find out what is on? They sometimes show the schedule with very brief descriptions on the city web site but when you look, it usually shows last week’s schedule – today it shows nothing. And if you look at the departmental web page it has a mission statement, the names of the staff, and content information – and that’s it. There is an archive of meetings that can be gotten from the city web site. All the City Council meetings since Feb 06 are there. For other events it shows 3 for 08, 4 for 07 and one for 06 most of which are budget hearings. So where are all the special events that they covered? You can also get from the website what they are currently are showing; however, I just tried it now and their server is down or else there is some incompatibility with my Mac but I tried several different players. I was able to view an archived city council meeting.

    Comment by John W Gintell — August 17, 2009 @ 8:34 pm

  12. Re: Robert Winters

    I will defer to you Robert on issues of Cambridge history and filling in the details of the broad picture I tried to paint. Thanks for clarifying my points. As a history major, and in general, I feel it is important that everyone understand the history of the status quo and understand its context before they start advocating for massive amounts of change.

    Correct me again if I am wrong, but I was told during my time at the election commission that the Plan E with proportional representation was adopted primarily to offset specific corruption with the Mayor at the time over the construction of the then brand new Rindge Tech School (now the main building at CRLS) was it not?

    I think the fact that our city has avoided the indictments and corruption investigations of other comparatively sized and larger cities is indicative of the fact that a non-partisan and experienced City Manager is an essential component to a well managed city of our size and rooting out corruption. My main concerns are the lack of civic education and engagement amongst my fellow citizens of all ages but especially those my age. I know for a fact that I am the only person in my age cohort (18-30) to vote in minor elections in my precinct, including municipal elections, and amongst my group of friends from the CRLS class of 06 I can safely say I am the only one who votes in local elections. And in many regards this is not entirely our fault. Our generation was instrumental in propelling President Obama to victory in the nominating contests and to a lesser extent in the general election. But local government, in spite of the fact that our votes have more value and the change we can produce makes a much more immediate impact, is considered much less sexy and relevant than the presidential elections by media, our education system, celebrities, and thus subsequently my generation.

    Similarly though the PR system and the complex and unique form of government confuses most people in the city. Most adults I have talked to cannot name our city manager or delineate what his powers are. While you make a compelling argument that Plan E was reaffirmed several times by city vote and that anyone can attend these meetings, few people do. Moreover most of those voters who did affirm it back then are either deceased or out of Cambridge. Thus in order for this compact between the citizens and their government to be truly representative in the Lockian sense it is crucial we reaffirm the charter every ten years or so. This ensures that new residents, and lets admit it most Cantabs are transplants these days or have lived here for less then a decade, can actually consent to their governance. It also ensures that we would be regularly updated and educated about the charter. I also suspect most people are happy with Cambridge the way it is and would realize the Charter has had a lot to do with that especially compared to our neighbors Newton where the mayor is going to be indicted and in a climate where we trust non-partisan managers more than professional politicians.

    But the charter can only be democratic so long as our officials are held to the task of keeping the City Manager accountable and I would argue they are either too afraid of Bob Healy to do that, too ignorant of local government to understand how to do that, or much more willing to pass symbolic and utterly useless ordinances that appeal to their political base from anti-war ordinances to street names. And our councilors are only as good as the voters that elect them and we need to have a civic education campaign to teach our citizens how to vote in a PR election and how their government actually works. 10% turnout is not the mark of a truly democratic state.

    Lastly, I would also argue that it is high time we eliminate the position of Mayor and Vice Mayor. They serve to confuse the voters who believe that these individuals actually run the city, and certainly Mayor Simmons in the wake of ‘gates-gate’ did her best to intentionally confuse the voters in that regard. They waste taxpayer money on higher salaries, travel allotments, and perks. The waste the city councils time with the bickering and deal making that goes on in smoke free backrooms to determine who gets these spots. And these positions are ultimately unaccountable to the voters themselves since they are not directly elected.

    So civic education, a city manager that actually cares about educating the citizenry on what he does and getting their input, a city council that actually understands its role within the city government, a community of voters engaged to participate, and eliminating confusing and wasteful ceremonial positions should all constitute the basic reforms needed to re-energize the Plan E government for the 21st century. I would also add eliminating PR but that is a topic for another day.

    Comment by James Conway — August 18, 2009 @ 4:49 pm

  13. Re: John Gintell

    I believe that federal telecommunications law requires at least one public channel per cable area in order for the cable company to have its license. I think we can thank Gaylord Nelson, Wayne Morse, or some other lefty senator for that. Also CCTV does some great work getting CRLS students exposed to television production which helps students interested in acting, producing, or otherwise finding a career in television which is a valuable asset few public schools have and will help CRLS be competitive against the privates and charter schools that are taking away some of the students it desperately needs-not to mention it gives some children opportunities they otherwise couldn’t afford.

    I disagree with the libertarian/utilitarian stance that any publicly funded program that doesn’t automatically spur the economy or contribute to improved productivity is a bad program. Frankly improving the quality of life for the people of Cambridge is a good investment.

    I would argue though that perhaps some auditing and reform is needed to ensure that the money is being well spent. I would also argue that again, the City Manager and City Council should be a visionary leaders rather than ones who simply maintain the status quo, and they should really advertise CCTV and public access tv and radio in general to make sure that every Cambridge citizen knows that his/her residency entitles them to this wonderful opportunity. CCTV is a great resource that is heavily underutilized, but reforming its funding and expanding its audience and membership are certainly good priorities. Cutting the program outright is both illegal and irresponsible.

    Comment by James Conway — August 18, 2009 @ 4:56 pm

  14. Re: John Gintell

    Also I would agree that they need to put more of their programming online. They should also consider a podcast option and perhaps getting a regular schedule. But as someone who has a public access radio show on my college station I can assure you its a wonderful opportunity from the other side, even if not that many people are listening to you, the experience you get is invaluable. You should get your own show John! Its just $50 a year and you have to endure a one hour training session.

    Comment by James Conway — August 18, 2009 @ 4:58 pm

  15. Also its shameful that you don’t have a show Robert. It could be yet another venue to educate the ignorant masses of our fair city about their government!

    Comment by James Conway — August 18, 2009 @ 4:58 pm

  16. Miscellaneous responses

    James Conway writes:
    Voters don’t care
    A complacent council is bred by complacent voters, with such a low turnout and such a narrow base we the citizens of Cambridge make it easy for the idiots to get elected since we usually stay home on election day.

    I think it’s important to note that voter turnout in local elections has plummeted generally. In fact, places like Worcester and Boston have fared far worse than Cambridge in recent years. In Cambridge, my sense is that the lack of significant issues as well as the disappearance of some of the long-time councillors and their loyal supporters are the primary factors. It’s also fair to say that most Cambridge residents are able to peaceably go about their business without too much fear and loathing, and this basic level of satisfaction probably leads to a feeling that the local elections are inconsequential. There’s nothing like a good crisis to drive up voter participation.

    It’s worth noting that the absolute number of people who vote is not nearly as important as whether those who do vote are representative of all the residents. The jury’s still out on that one, but my sense is that newer residents are somewhat underrepresented. That’s their own fault, of course, but they probably don’t lose much sleep over it.

    Similarly I would argue the PR voting system is so overwhelmingly complicated that nobody outside of the election commission and Robert Winters understands how it works. There has also been no effort to even remotely educate the populace about how to vote in Cambridge, no civics class, no engagement whatsoever to get the youth of the city excited about local government and civic participation, no effort to make any changes at all lest it rock the boat and maybe threaten some of the crazier councilors who are so unqualified to have a real job they need the 80k plus benefits the city gives them. Not to mention the 30k jobs they can doll out to their campaign workers.

    While I may understand how the votes are tabulated to produce the winners, I disagree that the actual voting is complicated. You just rank the candidates in order of preference. That’s really pretty simple. That said, I agree that we do a pretty poor job of communicating this to voters and to those who are all too willing to unfairly criticize Cambridge. I’ll post a couple of other forum topics on the PR elections shortly where we can get into this in greater detail – one on the idea of proportional representation and another on the mechanics.

    I would like nothing more than to see widespread civics education (I do try to do my part!) and greater voter participation from all of Cambridge – and not just the “most likely voters.”

    James also writes:
    The Chronicle is run by idiots
    …..Chronicle reporters are also completely ignorant of how the city works and how its government is chosen and functions. Every year when they make their endorsements they butcher how PR actually chooses candidates and never seem to accurately explain how it works. Most reporters I met during my time on the school committee aren’t even from here or live here so they really have very little to care about what happens to our city.

    It’s best to not comment on this so directly (remembering what H.L. Mencken had to say on this topic), but it does concern me that there is so little connection between the people writing for the Chronicle and the city about which they are writing. They favor sensationalism over the reporting of facts, scandal over substance. I’m all for them exposing corruption when it’s discovered, but they choose to inflame rather than inform. That said, we’ve had the Chronicle for over 150 years and it’s good to have a “paper of record,” so I would prefer to see them rediscover their past credibility rather than encourage their demise.

    Good alternative papers like The Bridge and The Alewife folded because its just too damn expensive to keep a good paper running (especially when both papers were free-hard to make money when you give it away). Also only 1% of the city even is subscribed to the Chronicle so again its not like most citizens bother paying attention even if their reporters were competent and actively went after the excesses in local government as well as reporting its strengths.

    I don’t know about the economics of running these alternative newspapers, but my guess is that it wasn’t the economics that did them in. I believe “The Bridge” disappeared more because of conflicts within the local Green Party affiliates (which is funny in light of all their talk about consensus). The Alewife was really Neil McCabe’s baby and you’ll have to ask him whether it was economics or if it was all the other things on which he wanted to focus (he’s in Iraq now, for example). Perhaps we should mention the short-lived “Cambridge Day” from a few years ago, a daily newspaper that only lasted a month. It was pretty clear to me at that time that this could not be sustained economically.

    5) No grassroots organizations
    Sadly since Plan E was put in place both the good old fashioned ward politics which it replaced as well as the do gooder meritocratic group that sought to replace it disappeared. Cambridge is now a city mostly full of transplants, very few people know their neighbors, there is very little civic cohesion and most people don’t really care unless they have kids in school or are being priced out. And sadly the average yuppie, the modern day likely candidate to be a progressive do gooder like the WASPy Rockefeller republicans of old, are either childless or enroll their kids in private schools. And as long as rent control is dead they are incredibly satisfied with their city and all the unique culture it gives them.

    I disagree with your association of the decline in civic and political participation with the introduction of Plan E. In fact, I would argue that civic and political participation, especially issue-based participation, grew substantially with the introduction of the Plan E Charter. Prior to that, much of the politics would be around who would be the king of a particular ward. The Plan E era brought with it the political dichotomies of patronage vs. “good government”, unregulated vs. regulated rents, traditional vs. alternative models for education, and a lot more. Sure, personality politics will always be a dominant factor in our elections, but we’ve also elected our share of issue-based candidates, primarily during the CCA era. We’re in something of an anomalous period right now where personalities often eclipse substance, but this may be only a phase we’re going through.

    …..In the 1940s when the CCA was a real political force to be reckoned with and not the farce it is today, there was an active citizenry to ensure that the City Council was full of honest, competent, and aggressive overseer’s to ensure that the needs of the city were met. Thus the City Manager can be removed or held accountable through democratic means by the elected city council. This is only true if the city has an active and vigorous fourth estate to check corruption (we don’t!), a voting population that actually cares about and is educated about local government (10% participation in municipal elections seems to indicate that we don’t), educated politicians who understand the city manager works for the people and is accountable to them and not the other way around (other than Craig Kelley-no one has the guts to challenge the City Manager), and active grassroots organizations that can organize resistance and pressure the elected (again the CCA is dead, really no other local group in its place).

    My personal belief is that the CCA from perhaps 1970 through the mid-90s took on many of the traits of the political establishment they originally opposed back in their early days. Some have claimed that the CCA Board and its endorsed School Committee members supported additional resources for the alternative school programs where their own children attended, possibly at the expense of other school programs. The CCA promoted the creation of new City departments, programs, and commissions of questionable value which created footholds in City government for people more to their liking. I believe there are clear elements of political patronage in these entities in both paid and unpaid positions. A strong case can be made that rent control was in large part a means of providing financial rewards to voters who would continue to vote for the CCA Slate (and the nearly identical Tenant Slate) in order to continue that financial benefit.

    Nonetheless, there is considerable value in having a “good government” civic organization. In the absence of such an organization, we get treated to one or two narrow-agenda wannabe entities every other year who dream of running a slate of candidates that they hope to convince voters is the new equivalent of the old CCA Slate. In each instance, these pseudo-civic entities have been created by one person or a very small group of persons with a narrow agenda who try to latch onto some manufactured issue in order to gain some air of legitimacy. I haven’t yet encountered such an entity in the post-CCA era that had anything other than a selfish motive or a deep-seated grudge.

    I would eliminate the position of Mayor and Vice Mayor, since a) they aren’t actually in the charter and b) it creates confusion as to who actually runs the city, not to mention they waste money (higher salary than regular councilor) and the city council’s time (in 03 the council didn’t meet for two months since the mayoral election was deadlocked).

    I would agree with you that the “Vice-Mayor” position has no function and would best be eliminated. Regarding the Mayor, this is really the functional equivalent of City Council President (with the added role of being Chair of the School Committee). In Boston, nobody advocates eliminating the job of City Council President or making it a popularly elected position. It’s just the Chair of the City Council, and every elected body needs a Chair. I think we should just de-emphasize the role of Mayor (though maybe we’re already there). I’m very comfortable with the idea of electing representatives to the City Council who then decide who they prefer as their Chair. What I don’t like is the dealmaking that’s often associated with that choice, but this is not so different from Boston and elsewhere.

    One last note – the inability to choose a mayor doesn’t restrict the City Council from meeting and conducting business, except that the City Council committees will not exist until the new Mayor appoints them. In the absence of a mayor, the most senior councillor in terms of service acts as Chair. That said, the inability to choose a Mayor in a timely fashion does not reflect well on the elected councillors. Of course, making a poor choice in haste doesn’t reflect so well on them either.

    Comment by Robert Winters — August 21, 2009 @ 11:34 am

  17. There are several powers in the Charter that are interesting to look at. Take note of this one about the Mayor which grants considerable power:

    Section 100. The mayor shall be recognized as the official head of the city for all ceremonial purposes and shall be recognized by the courts for the purpose of serving civil process and by the governor for military purposes. In time of public danger or emergency, as determined by the city council, he may, with its consent, take command of the police, maintain order and enforce the laws; and he shall have all the authority and powers conferred upon mayors by sections eighteen and nineteen of chapter thirty-three.

    (I think the thirty-three above is really forty-three; at least I certainly hope so since Chapter 33 is about the Militia.)

    And then there is the Auditor who could provide some real services and information to the council about city expenditures – but I’ve never seen the council really use this relationship.

    4. The council in any city adopting Plan D or E shall, by a majority vote, elect a city auditor to hold office for three years and until his successor is qualified. He shall keep and have charge of the accounts of the city and from time to time audit the books and accounts of all departments, commissions, boards and offices of the city, and shall have such other powers and perform such other duties as the council may prescribe, in addition to such duties as may be prescribed by law.

    Comment by John W Gintell — August 21, 2009 @ 11:54 am

  18. Re: Robert

    While we can disagree on PR-which we will get to later I am glad we reached some consensus on Plan E its benefits and pitfalls.

    Just three things:

    I wasn’t arguing that Plan E in fact decreased grassroots participation merely that grassroots participation is vital to keeping Plan E a viable form of government. The City Manager could be a corrupt autocrat when no one is minding the store so to speak, not saying Healy is the corrupt autocrat his opponents make him out to be, but he is also not the saint his supporters make him out to be either. I would argue he is a mediocre manager who has the financial and administrative chops to maintain the status quo but does not have the visionary leadership it would take to bring us to the next level. And he does wield his authority and quashes dissent internally and externally which are not good leadership qualities. I would argue, and again I am sure you would disagree, that Fowler-Finn was a similar mediocre manager with severe leadership flaws and not a visionary leader. But this is a debate we can only have with a City Council and a community that cares and I think we need new grassroots movements both to inform and educate but also to advocate as well.

    Secondly on the issue of newspapers, I like the Chronicle, some of their reporters, and the need for a viable local paper especially in this day and age. I am just disappointed every year come election time when they spread misinformation about PR and endorse candidates on the basis of faulty merits. Also with Neil it was a combination of losing money and shifting priorities in his life, but while I disagreed with his politics I think he ran a great paper.

    Thirdly, I was once a big proponent of electing the Mayor, and still am if ‘the Mayor’ is defined as a councillor who gets paid more, treated to perks, and tries to claim leadership over the city. If ‘the Mayor’ is merely a chair of the Council then I would argue calling them City Council Chair or President makes more sense then Mayor which implies executive authority they do not have and I would either give the chair to the most senior member to avoid a divisive election or have an election but cut the perks of the office. I could understand a modest salary increase since they also have to chair School Committee meetings as well, but the perks of the current office are excessive and hurt the council’s business.

    Comment by James Conway — August 21, 2009 @ 11:59 am

  19. If one were to read the 1938 and 1940 campaign literature, one would be surprised at how accurate the proponent position papers were in predicting what could happen. Plan E helped bring and retain professional management to the city. Few other Massachusetts municipalities have been as well governed and none so consistently for so long.

    In fact, Plan E protected local politicians from themselves by allowing them to delegate day to day operations to an appointed and hopefully professional manager while the city council legislated city policy.

    Moreover, Plan E empowers a city manager to be the professional punching bag that the city council can hammer with its rhetorical fists while winking its mischievous eye.

    Plan E and, to a lesser but still important extent, Proportional Representation voting deserve credit for the success of Cambridge as a municipal government and for ensuring that discreet factions are represented. Plan E gives the racial, ethnic, and philosophical factions some measure of representation. It creates a city-wide multi-member district so that all candidates are encouraged to maintain some level of civility. Even the fringe factions get a seat now and then. If, as Burke said, “The individual may be foolish, but the species is wise,” then the species of Cambridge voter has done well. Almost seventy years largely free of the corruption which was problematic before WWII.

    Also, the success is in no small measure a function of personalities playing their roles within Plan E.

    The City Manager form of government is generally a big plus – assuming you are willing to appoint a competent professional from among the field. In fact, the current city manager retains his position because he’s probably the best municipal administrator in the state.

    His predecessors were generally able and honorable people even though some did not survive the politics. The firing of a good city manager excited the voters enough to change the majority of the city council back in the days when people paid attention. (Bob Healy is the only permanent city manager not to have been fired or pushed out reluctantly. Healy’s predecessor and mentor, James Leo Sullivan who left voluntarily to take another position before handing the job off to Healy, was fired during his first stint in 1970 and rehired in 1974.)

    Having the mayor sit on the school committee is a major plus and a reason that there is comparatively little tension between the two bodies and adequate school funding has not been a problem. Many town and regional school committees are at war with their selectmen and town meetings because the selectboard and town meeting members have no idea what school governance is about.

    The natural progression for some to move from the School Committee to the City Council (Henrietta Davis, Tim Toomey, Denise Simmons, David Maher) brings to five the current number of city councillors who served there. (Ken Reeves, the former mayor, served ex-officio).

    I’d make a few fine tuning changes including forcing the Traffic and Parking Department to be accountable to the city manager or the city council. Right now for some strange reason, it is accountable only to itself and the arrogance it manifests is an offense against public policy.

    And, people should know that there is no such thing as a Vice Mayor, but the charter does recognize a Vice Chairman of the City Council. How this position began to achieve sub-royalty status as Vice Mayor is beyond me.

    One other minor charter blip is not in the charter itself but in dubious interpretations by various city solicitors is to allow the Vice Chair of the City Council (or the most senior member in his/her absence) to act as Mayor and chair the School Committee. No other Plan E city pulls that one – but its history is steeped in politics and the pressure the CCA applied in the mid-1980s in its zeal to install Frank Duehay upon the death of Lenny Russell. No other Plan E city ever pulled that interpretation (Worcester and Lowell among the current, but Gloucester and Medford in the past.)

    Some legitimate questions exist – even ethical ones:

    1. Is it fair to discriminate against the voter who cannot understand how PR works so they can mark their ballots more completely?

    2. Will managerial authority serve us well in the hands of a future city manager who decides that control is more important than the public interest, or does the ability of the city council to terminate the manager at will provide an adequate check?

    3. What can we do to make certain city departments are accountable to someone other than themselves (i.e., Traffic and Parking) where arrogance is so strongly evident that it is inexcusable.

    4. How will the city respond to the effort to usurp local authority and transfer it to the hands of state officials, regulators, and others sitting in cubicles in Boston? I call your attention to current efforts to make a super-czar out of the Commissioner of Education.

    Comment by Glenn Koocher — September 4, 2009 @ 8:16 pm

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