Cambridge Civic Journal Forum

October 18, 2010

Sign of the Times

Filed under: Cambridge government,City Council — Tags: — Robert Winters @ 12:41 am

Sign of the Times

Another marquee item on the civic landscape is the curious petition campaign to revoke recent amendments to the Zoning Ordinance relating to signage on commercial buildings. Most people didn’t even know there was a provision in state law to challenge a local ordinance via a petition campaign. The relevant part of the Mass. General Laws is Chapter 43, Section 42:

Section 42. If, within twenty days after the final passage of any measure, except a revenue loan order, by the city council or by the school committee, a petition signed by registered voters of the city, equal in number to at least twelve percent of the total number of registered voters, and addressed to the city council or to the school committee, as the case may be, protesting against such measure or any part thereof taking effect, is filed with the city clerk, the same shall thereupon and thereby be suspended from taking effect; and the city council or the school committee, as the case may be, shall immediately reconsider such measure or part thereof; and if such measure or part thereof is not entirely rescinded within twenty days after the date of the certificate of the registrars, the city clerk shall submit the same, by the method herein provided, to a vote of the registered voters of the city, either at the next regular city election not less than thirty days after said twentieth day, or at a special election which the city council may, in its discretion, call for the purpose, and such measure or part thereof shall forthwith become null and void unless a majority of the registered voters voting on the same at such election vote in favor thereof.

The petition described in this section shall be termed a referendum petition and section thirty-eight shall apply to the procedure in respect thereto, except that the words "measure or part thereof protested against" shall for this purpose be understood to replace "measure" in said section wherever it may occur, and "referendum" shall be understood to replace the word "initiative" in said section.

To the best of my knowledge, this provision has never been invoked in Cambridge. As a fan of democracy, it’s interesting to see it being put to use. On the other hand, most indications are that this has been little more than a bitter, well-funded campaign of retribution by one man – Philip "Terry" Ragon of Intersystems, a company which rents space in One Memorial Drive – a building that now also leases space to Microsoft. Cambridge voters would likely be out in front opposing the recent "Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission" decision of the United States Supreme Court that supposedly now facilitates the funding by corporate interests of major political campaigns. Yet this well-funded propaganda campaign by Intersystems and its agents brings barely a peep out of the Cambridge liberals. The inflammatory literature suggests that "Cambridge politicians are giving away our skyline to Wall Street." The literature refers to the amendment as "The Microsoft Amendment" and claims that it will bring "windfalls to wealthy landlords and out-of-state multinational corporations." I haven’t seen BS propaganda like this since the days of rent control.

The petition campaign appears to have successfully scaled the first hurdle of submitting sufficient signatures. With approximately 60,000 registered voters, 12 percent translates into about 7200 required signatures. The campaign reportedly has submitted in the neighborhood of 16,000 signatures. Many will likely be deemed invalid, but it seems probable that the threshold will be met. So what happens next?

Let’s be clear that the Cambridge City Council as a body was hardly deserving of a badge of courage in their 6-3 vote approving the amendments to the Zoning Code relating to signage. Councillor Davis did all she could to punt the matter before voting NO. Her rationale hardly came across as a matter of principle. Councillor Seidel gave every indication that he would be voting in favor of the amendment before doing a quick about-face and voting NO under the threat of political abandonment in next year’s municipal election. Councillor Kelley can always be counted on to vote NO in matters such as this, so his vote surprised no one. Among the six councillors who voted YES to approve the measure, there was a refreshing air of deliberateness – regardless how one might feel about the merits of the amendment. Councillors Cheung and Decker, in particular, were forthright in their statements and expressed great clarity in their view that the amendment was nothing like what the propagandists would have people believe.

It will be interesting, perhaps even entertaining, to see what happens next. The City Council could rescind their approval and, by doing so, look like spineless and incompetent political jellyfish. That may be their best option. On the other hand, they could let the storm pass and allow the measure to be placed on the municipal ballot in 2011 coincident with their reelection campaigns. Gone are the good old days of rent control trench warfare. We’ll have a municipal election dominated by propaganda about signs. There may be a $500 annual individual contribution limit for local candidates, but it will be sky’s-the-limit for a "Citizens United" type of campaign in Cambridge indirectly instructing misinformed voters who they should vote for based on one hopelessly overstated and relatively unimportant issue. Perhaps the safest option for the City Council would be to dip into the public trough and fund a special election on this single item safely segregated from next fall’s municipal election. In recent years, the Cambridge City Council has shown over and over again that incumbency protection is Job #1, so perhaps this is the most likely next step. — Robert Winters


  1. It would certainly be useful to people’s understanding if there were a clear explanation made public about what this change actually does instead of the simplistic things we see in the media with the emphasis on the politics of the process. Perhaps in some of the debate in the Ordinance Committee or the Council this was done but that is not very accessible to many people.

    Comment by John W Gintell — October 18, 2010 @ 12:01 pm

  2. Does Citizens United change the rules for an initiative petition drive? I don’t think it applies, but I could be wrong. Whether you agree with Mr. Ragon or not, he certainly tapped into a lot of disagreement with the ordination of this amendment. Public testimony was about 90% against from what I could see, and some neighborhoods would be impacted while others would not. East Cambridge would be surrounded on three sides while Mid, Agassiz, Nine, West, Strawberry, and Highlands would not have to look at them. Some of us feel kinda surrounded.

    I like your closing paragraph, but I might have been more charitable in my characterization of the results of a Council reversal. Funny though. It will be interesting indeed to see how this plays if enough signatures are deemed valid by the Election Commission. Some of the paid signature gatherers were apparently not of the highest caliber. I know two teenagers who signed without being asked if they were registered or lived in Cambridge. They are not even of age although one might pass. Then there was the report of a gatherer who regaled passers by with anti-semitic rants. All the ones I gathered were valid and I was not compensated. Small potatoes though.

    What is the going rate these days for a special election these days?

    Comment by Mark Jaquith — October 18, 2010 @ 4:38 pm

  3. At the Cambridge Election Commission meeting on Monday, Oct 18, I was informed that Election Commission staff had already certified about 8,125 signatures out of the approximately 16,000 submitted. The necessary threshold is about 7,200, so this appears to have been met. They will continue certifying signatures until they get through all that were submitted. The Election Commission will meet at 3:30pm Wednesday (Oct 20) to formally certify the work of the Election Commission staff who worked all weekend on the signatures.

    Upon formal certification on Wednesday, barring any unforeseen challenge, the petition will go immediately to the City Clerk to bring before the City Council as specified in MGL Ch. 43, sect. 42.

    Presumably, the matter will be before the Cambridge City Council next Monday, Oct 25. That meeting was originally supposed to be a Roundtable meeting, but an Order tonight changed it to a regular business meeting, quite possibly so that they can take up this matter.

    Comment by Robert Winters — October 18, 2010 @ 9:15 pm

  4. I was at the Cambridge Election Commission meeting this afternoon. They certified 11,161 signatures representing 18.2% of the registered voters! Of the 15,535 submitted, only 4,374 were rejected as not verifiable signatures or not doubled-side submission. The requirement under Mass General Law is for 12% of the registered voters to agree for Ordinance reconsideration. Nice cushion.

    Any challenges must be submitted by Friday Oct 22nd at 5pm. None are expected so the City Council must consider the matter at its Monday, Oct 25th meeting.

    Other fun facts: Sergeant Crowley was the officer charged with keeping the signatures safe during their journey from 51 Inman to City Hall and back again.

    I heard about 900 new voters were registered in Cambridge as a result of the signature drive.

    and I shudder to think about pages and pages of copies of the signed petition including the front page which just lists the language of the ordinance. The stack on the Election Commission desk was about 1.5 ft high. Can’t we just all agree to scan and use electronic copies?

    Comment by Minka — October 20, 2010 @ 6:20 pm

  5. […] to decide, either a November 2011 or a special election. Local political observer Robert Winters sums up the options now facing the City Council: It will be interesting, perhaps even entertaining, to see what happens […]

    Editor’s Note: Normally I don’t let these snippets through, but the referenced article is relevant. – RW

    Pingback by Goodspeed Update - Zoning Conflict Heats Up In Cambridge — October 21, 2010 @ 9:25 pm

  6. When the Microsoft Amendment does finally pass some day, can I submit questions about Windows 7 for the sign and let the Microsoft guys post an answer? That’s what I want to know.

    Comment by Matt — October 21, 2010 @ 10:11 pm

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