Cambridge Civic Journal Forum

September 11, 2017

Fall Semester at the Sullivan School – Sept 11, 2017 City Council Agenda Highlights

Filed under: Cambridge,City Council,elections — Tags: , , , , , — Robert Winters @ 2:41 am

Fall Semester at the Sullivan School – Sept 11, 2017 City Council Agenda Highlights

City HallThe City Council returns from Summer Vacation this week. In addition to appropriation requests for a wide range of essential programs, here’s a look at what seems interesting – at least to me.

Manager’s Agenda #15. A communication transmitted from Louis A. DePasquale, City Manager, relative to Awaiting Report Item Number 17-45, regarding a report on formulating a plan that will provide relief and fair compensation to liquor license holders that have been impacted by dramatic devaluing of their liquor licenses, and Awaiting Report Item Number 17-72, regarding an update on the progress and plan to address the concerns relative to the sale of liquor licenses. [Reports from City Solicitor and License Commission Chair]

This City Solicitor’s response is pretty much what was logically expected. The final paragraph states: "Therefore, in my opinion, the License Commission has no legal obligation to provide compensation to alcohol license holders who may be experiencing a devaluation of their alcohol license on the private market. There may be ways that the License Commission could mitigate the devaluation of certain alcohol licenses, such as by exercising its discretion not to issue new alcohol licenses, but there is nothing of which we are aware that would require the License Commission to do so."

The true value of a liquor license is in the income it can generate in the normal course of business. It was never meant to be a retirement investment. Like taxi medallions and confederate currency, not all things were meant to have lasting value.

Manager’s Agenda #16. A communication transmitted from Louis A. DePasquale, City Manager, relative to the appointment of the following persons as members of the Harvard Square Conservation District Study Committee, effective Sept 1, 2017: Christopher Mackin, Jerry Murphy, Christopher Angelakis, Jessica Sculley, William Barry, Joseph Ferrara and Kyle Sheffield.

Manager’s Agenda #18. A communication transmitted from Louis A. DePasquale, City Manager, relative to the appointment of the following person as a member of the Central Square Advisory Committee for a term of three years, effective Sept 11, 2017: Tahir Kapoor

Never underestimate the value of our volunteer citizen boards and commissions. Congratulations and thank you to all the appointees.

Charter Right #3. A communication was received from Donna P. Lopez, City Clerk, transmitting a Non-Binding Public Opinion Advisory Question Petition filed with the Election Commission on July 14, 2017. [Charter Right exercised by Councillor Cheung on Aug 7, 2017]

It’s likely that we’ll have more posturing on this issue at this meeting. It’s worth noting, by the way, that the mailing address for the petitioners is the business address for Councillor Mazen.

There is a worthwhile conversation to be had regarding various ways to level the playing field for candidates, but this is not the way to do it. For starters, the statement of the petitioners reads more like an accusation than a proposal. More importantly, the proposal asks voters to "buy a pig in a poke". There are no specifics provided – only that public financing of political campaigns is to be supported like motherhood and apple pie. I will simply suggest that if a voter understood this to mean that new candidates would receive a small stipend to get their campaign started there might be a fair amount of support. On the other hand, if the goal is to grant $50,000 to every candidate to waste in any way they see fit, it’s almost certain that voters would not support this. The details matter. It also matters that we use PR elections in Cambridge, and slates would certainly be formed just to aggregate money to support the slate candidates.

It’s worth noting that Communication #12 comes from Adam Strich, the person who delivered the signatures to the Election Commission for this proposed ballot question. His words should make clear where these petitioners are coming from: "It’s hardly a secret that more than a few councillors are in the pocket of special interests, big developer in particular. I would imagine, however, that you didn’t enter into public service aspiring to become corporate stooges and shills. But whatever idealism you may have had was gradually eroded by the realities of local politics – in particular, by the need to maintain a war chest large enough to fund the practically endless campaigning required of you. All of that is completely understandable; I’m not here to judge. I would hope, though, that you retain some sense of unease regarding this state of affairs, and that such feelings would lead you to embrace the opportunity to provide public funding for municipal election campaigns, so that you can finally serve the hardworking residents of this great city, rather than your current robber baron overlords. Thank you."

Councillor Toomey has a somewhat different view. See Order #23. Perhaps throwing even more money into the furnace of municipal election campaigns isn’t really the answer.

Applications & Petitions #1. A zoning petition has been received from Christopher D. Smith, et al., to amend the Cambridge Zoning Ordinance by adding sections and provisions to Article 13.000 regarding Graduate Student Housing Production Requirements.

Some candidates and advocates have been referring to this as the MIT graduate student petition. However, it didn’t come from the MIT Graduate Student Union and, in fact, 4 of the 16 signers are new City Council candidates hoping to exploit the controversy. Most people will agree that MIT should be providing more housing for graduate students and possibly for post-docs. In fact, MIT agrees. How much graduate housing is appropriate is open to question and should not be prescribed in zoning. Most MIT graduates have preferred to live off-campus and generally choose to do so as long as they can find a place where they can afford the rent. Hopefully MIT can provide greater clarity regarding its plans to build more graduate (and undergraduate) student housing – both how much and where – between now and the vote on the Volpe Petition. Perhaps a Memorandum of Understanding can be signed with some commitments. That would be the better approach.

Order #2. That the City Manager is requested to confer with the appropriate City departments to streamline recording and transcription requirements in line with those currently in place for the Planning Board for the Board of Zoning Appeal and the Historical Commission.   Councillor Devereux

There does come a point of diminishing returns. Is it really that important to have a play-by-play of every discussion regarding dormers, paint colors, and types of shingles?

Order #8. That the City Manager is requested to update the City Council on a Police Substation in Central Square.   Mayor Simmons

I’ll once again say that a multi-service space for police, MBTA workers, and public information – with a public bathroom – would have been the right approach. Separate little huts for each of these purposes isn’t the best plan. We could, however, use a little more police presence in Central Square regardless.

Order #10. That the City Manager update the City Council on progress for the goal of 1,000 New Affordable Units by the end of the decade.   Mayor Simmons

If you factor in all the Inclusionary units in the pipeline we might actually be doing pretty well. However, the greater problem is not the number of regulated "affordable units" so much as the general loss of affordability in market housing, and that can only be solved regionally. I hate to break it to you Cambridge, but you cannot house the world unilaterally.

Order #12. That the City Manager is requested to provide an update on the Eastern Cambridge Kendall Square Open Space Planning Study.   Councillor Toomey

This is useful information in the ongoing discussion of the Volpe Petition. What will the Big Picture be for residents and workers navigating their way through the greater Kendall Square area when everything is built out?

Order #15. That the City Manager is requested to confer with City staff to identify and share with the City Council possible solutions to regulatory or legislative gaps on the local or state level that would help clarify how emerging types of conveyances can most safely and effectively be incorporated into Cambridge’s Urban Mobility planning and infrastructure investments.   Councillor Kelley, Councillor Devereux, Councillor Cheung

Order #17. That the City Manager is requested to confer with the Police Commissioner and the Fire Chief with the view in mind of creating and developing city wide alternate routes for fire apparatus and emergency police vehicles in an emergency situation that would avoid travel routes where there is backed up traffic.   Councillor Toomey

Order #18. That the City Manager is requested to determine the feasibility of procuring additional fire apparatus, especially rescue vehicles and ambulances, in the East Cambridge and the Port area.   Councillor Toomey

Every day I see how some of the City’s well-intentioned roadway reallocations effectively choke some roads, make it more difficult for buses and delivery vehicles to navigate, and make it virtually impossible to pause to pick up or drop off people or goods. Curb access is disappearing even as the need for improved curb access is increasing in a world of online shopping, Uber and Lyft vehicles, and a variety of new modes of transportation. The only thing the Traffic Department (a.k.a. the Department of Wishful Thinking) seems to prioritize is novice cyclists. I shudder to think what we’ll have to contend with when there’s either snow or a motor vehicle breakdown. The City is rapidly removing all flexibility in the roads. Pretty soon the only way a driver will be able to yield to an emergency service vehicle will be by running down some "flexi-posts".

Order #21. That the City Manager is requested to confer with the City Solicitor, the City Assessor and the Community Development Department to prepare a Municipal Transfer Fee Ordinance and, if required, an appropriate Home Rule Petition, to implement a municipal transfer fee on sale of all residential, commercial and institutional properties where the buyer pays 1% of purchase price on any amount in excess of $2.5 million and an additional 4% of the purchase price on any amount more than $5 million.   Councillor Toomey

Order #22. City Council support of H.3512 in the Massachusetts Legislature, allowing Massachusetts to obtain a fee on large real estate transactions that will be put towards affordable housing endeavors.   Councillor Mazen, Councillor Devereux, Councillor Carlone

There may be some merit in these proposals, but as long as the focus remains exclusively on raising more revenue to regulate even more housing while not solving the affordability question more generally, this is all just pissing in the wind.

Order #23. Establishment of a "Cambridge Municipal Election People’s Pledge" program.   Councillor Toomey

This "modest proposal" does manage to make a few interesting points – most significantly regarding the amount of money being spent this year and in recent years on some municipal election campaigns. While some candidates speak ill of money from "developers", some of these same candidates have a political base encompassing the loftier socio-economic classes and are graced with $500 and $1000 checks like the falling of autumn leaves. It’s also interesting how many candidates pay big money or campaign managers and even pay people to canvass for them. That’s not how things used to be done. Candidates had actual supporters for many of those tasks. Maybe the dirty little secret now is that some campaigns only have as much support as they can purchase.

I can’t say that I support all of Councillor Toomey’s proposals in this "People’s Pledge", but some of them do have some merit. In the meantime, we can settle on disclosure – making abundantly clear where campaign funds come from and how efficiently those funds are spent. Let the voters judge.

Committee Report #1. A communication was received from Donna P. Lopez, City Clerk, transmitting a report from Councillor Dennis J. Carlone and Councillor Leland Cheung, Co-Chairs of the Ordinance Committee, for a public hearing held on Aug 2, 2017 to discuss a zoning petition by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to create a new Planning Unit Development Overlay District (PUD-7) over the area known as the Volpe National Transportation Systems Center site in Kendall Square.

I’ll simply say that if the current City Council cannot settle this with a good outcome by the Oct 31 expiration date, then perhaps they should be judged accordingly a week later. There are some great opportunities here if these nine councillors can earn their pay and create those good outcomes. – Robert Winters


  1. Re Order #2. I don’t see the point of a Police substation in Central Square. If open 7-24 that would probably mean 2 people holed up in a small office – why not 2 more officers walking around – observing and interacting with people instead?

    Comment by John Gintell — September 11, 2017 @ 12:55 pm

  2. I am in general agreement regarding how a police substation should not function, and I’m not really sure we need such a structure. However, if we did have a space where multiple services could happen – specifically a place for a local police officer to stop in to fill out a report or talk with a street person acting aggressively, or where MBTA bus drivers could stop for a few minutes for coffee and a bathroom – then this could be useful. We also often talk about a place where public information could be available to residents and visitors (in addition to the Internet). This is the only way I could justify having a structure like this.

    Comment by Robert Winters — September 11, 2017 @ 3:45 pm

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