Cambridge Civic Journal Forum

February 22, 2015

Flotsam and Jetsam – Coming up at the Feb 23, 2015 Cambridge City Council meeting

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

Flotsam and Jetsam – Coming up at the Feb 23, 2015 Cambridge City Council meeting

“Flotsam and jetsam are terms that describe two types of marine debris associated with vessels. Flotsam is defined as debris in the water that was not deliberately thrown overboard, often as a result from a shipwreck or accident. Jetsam describes debris that was deliberately thrown overboard by a crew of a ship in distress, most often to lighten the ship’s load. The word flotsam derives from the French word floter, to float. Jetsam is a shortened word for jettison.”

Most of the business from the three delayed or cancelled City Council meetings was taken up on Friday, Feb 20 at the first of these twin meetings, but there are a few items left, including all of the Calendar. Before getting to the flotsam and jetsam on Monday’s agenda, I would like to say a few words about something extraordinary that took place at the Friday meeting. Specifically, the City Council showed some resolve, and I hope this continues – especially if and when more serious matters are before the Council later this year. We sure could have used this last year when the misguided Carlone Petition was dragged out for months even though only fools believed it ever had the votes of more than 2 or 3 councillors (and it needed as least 6 to be ordained). Of course the Carlone Petition was really all about political organizing and not especially about governance.

Specifically, there was an Order on the Friday agenda contained in a report from a Government Operations Committee meeting that called for developing one or more approaches to publicly financed municipal elections in Cambridge. There are many reasonable people who can make a good case for doing this at the state and/or federal level, but I have not yet heard any convincing rationale for doing this for our municipal PR elections. There has also been more than a passive suggestion that such "clean elections" would be a response to implied corruption among elected city councillors who have accepted donations from major property owners/developers. I have never personally seen any evidence of this. There is also a very low threshold for candidacy in the municipal elections – just 50 valid signatures – and Councillor Kelley has convincingly proven that you don’t need a big bankroll to be reelected as long as you can maintain the respect of the people who have voted for you in the past. New candidates often face a challenge in wrestling away #1 votes from incumbents or corralling their own quota of ballots from uncommitted voters to gain election, but the most recent election showed that it’s not impossible and it may even be getting easier in this day of social media.

Councillor Kelley asked simply: "What’s the problem that this proposal is trying to fix?" That’s exactly the point. Normally I would have expected the City Council, out of some misguided notion of courtesy, to kick this can down the road, generate a shelf full of studies, waste lots of staff time and ultimately say, "Never mind." This time, they voted and defeated this pointless initiative on a 2-4-1-2 vote (2 Yes, 4 No, 1 Abstain, 2 Absent). Had there not been two councillors absent, I suspect it would have been a 3-5-1 or a 3-6 vote. [Note: Mazen arrived late and added his YES vote to make this 3-4-1-1.] In any case, I would like to commend Councillors Cheung, Kelley, Toomey and Mayor Maher for their resolve in throwing this overboard. There may yet be discussion about this in Government Operations, but at least the Council will then be deciding whether or not to do something prior to drafting plans for how it is to be done.

Another Order that called for the creation of an "ombudsman" position came close to a similar fate, though ultimately it was made subject to the Charter Right by Councillor McGovern. Anyone who has ever dealt with the Community Development Department or just about any other City Department knows just how helpful and cooperative (to a fault) most City staff are. Councillor Toomey and Vice Mayor Benzan also correctly pointed out that one of the most fundamental roles a city councillor plays is as a go-between when residents feel they need an advocate. I really had hoped the City Council would have just voted this Order down, but the Charter Right is nondebatable and we’ll just have to wait until another day (maybe Monday) to see what happens.

Oh, yeah, and on Friday they also talked a lot about snow. That’s why they’re our representatives. We’ve all been talking a lot about snow.

As for this Monday’s agenda, there are only the 12 Orders pulled (most as a courtesy to Councillor Mazen who did eventually show up over 2 hours late to the meeting) plus the items on the Calendar. The only remaining items of some interest to me are these (and there may be some misnumbering caused by the unusual nature of this double-meeting):

Charter Right #2. That the City Manager is requested to create and fund the position of ombudsman, with degrees of both organizational independence to serve as an advocate and organizational ties to be effective, to serve as a liaison with and an internal advocate for community members.   Councillor Cheung, Councillor Carlone and Councillor Mazen [Charter Right exercised by Councillor McGovern on Order Number Ten of Feb 20, 2015.]

See my comments above or in my notes for the Fri, Feb 20 meeting. I’m not sure if this item can be properly acted upon yet. If the interpretation is that these twin meetings are really formally the same meeting, then we’ll have to wait until the March 2 meeting before the City Council can take up the question.

On the Table #11. That the City Manager is requested to instruct the Community Development Department to abandon the "Complete Street" plan for Pearl Street. [Charter Right exercised by Councillor Toomey on Order Number Seven of Jan 5, 2015. Placed on the Table on the motion of Councillor Cheung on Jan 29, 2015.]

Again, see my comments in my notes for the Fri, Feb 20 meeting or in my notes for the Jan 29 meeting. There are much better ways to make Pearl Street better for all users, and the City Council really should send a message that it’s not OK to railroad residents based on a biased and nondemocratic process to force an outcome based on the agenda of a select group of individuals, especially when that agenda will compromise resident parking needs and other curbside activities and yield no net safety or environmental benefits. – Robert Winters


  1. Many years ago Jim Braude advanced a proposal for an Ombudsman position. It was put in the budget. At the council vote on the budget it was unfunded. I believe this is the only time that the Council removed something from the budget.

    What we should have is a 311 line. It is much easier for people to just call one phone number instead having to look up a number and often getting it wrong.

    Comment by John Gintell — February 23, 2015 @ 10:05 am

  2. John – That’s exactly what I was recalling when Councillor Toomey was speaking against the idea of an Ombudsman position. Back then, I believe the understanding among councillors was that the loss of the role of go-between was a net political negative for elected officials. It’s really the difference between councillors as being exclusively policymakers versus being actively engaged in constituent services.

    On balance, I think it’s good to have city councillors be at least somewhat involved in intervention and constituent services. Mostly this just involves directing residents to the right staff people.

    Comment by Robert Winters — February 23, 2015 @ 10:11 am

  3. 311 line: Yes please.

    Comment by Lisa Coen — February 23, 2015 @ 3:40 pm

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