Cambridge Civic Journal Forum

May 14, 2017

Interesting Items on the May 15, 2017 Cambridge City Council Agenda

Filed under: Cambridge,City Council — Tags: , , — Robert Winters @ 10:26 pm

Interesting Items on the May 15, 2017 Cambridge City Council Agenda

Here are a few choice items on this week’s menu:Yeah, it's Robert's birthday

Charter Right #1. A communication was received from Councillor Craig A. Kelley, apologizing to his Colleagues, City Manager and City Staff for not attending tonight’s meeting in order to attend a conference on climate change adaptation and expressing his thoughts and apology for the events at the Budget Hearing. [Charter Right exercised by Mayor Simmons on May 8, 2017.]

Let’s get this one all clear up front. The issue here is that one city councillor (Mazen) acted abusively toward City employees during a recent Budget Hearing and used a malcontent resident’s letter as cover to justify his inquisition. Last week’s (May 8) City Council meeting ended with a heated interchange resulting from Mayor Simmons’ defense of City employees which upset the super-sized ego of the offending councillor. The story should probably end there since nobody wants the drama to continue. There is an Order on this week’s agenda (#7 – see below) that may represent some sort of resolution of this matter.

My hope is that one positive outcome of this kerfuffle is that councillors might get a better grip on what constitutes decent behavior toward City employees and of what is appropriate under the City Charter (which spells out quite clearly that if a city councillor wants to take issue with a department or any individual employee he or she should deal with the matter through the City Manager). If a councillor wants to propose any policy changes, that’s what City Council orders are for, and they require a majority vote – though, quite frankly, city councillors often vote for policy orders without challenge or discussion out of a misplaced sense of courtesy toward their colleagues. If a matter is referred to a City Council committee for further discussion, it is incumbent on the sponsor(s) of the Order to convince his or her colleagues about the merit of the proposal. In the case of proposals involving elections (such as paying people to vote or using public money to subsidize City Council election campaigns), a convincing case was never made for those proposals.

Applications & Petitions #3. A petition was received from Cambridge Arts Council requesting eleven temporary banners to be hung on light poles along the north bound traffic lane side of First Street between Binney and Cambridge Streets, announcing the Cambridge Arts River Festival on Sat, June 3, 2017 from 11:00am to 6:00pm along the East Cambridge Waterfront in Lechmere Canal Park and in the DCR parklands adjacent to Cambridge Parkway.

Applications & Petitions #4. An application was received from Cambridge Arts Council requesting permission for two temporary banners across Massachusetts Avenue at City Hall and across JFK Street at Mount Auburn Street announcing the Hong Kong Boston Dragon Boat Festival on Sun, June 11th.

I highlight these only to remind everyone of the many attractions that occur during the months of May and June. The Riverfest worked out pretty well in the Lechmere Canal area last year, though many of us still would like to see it eventually return upstream to the area near the Weeks Footbridge.

Resolution #7. Resolution on the death of Harold J. Aseph III.   Councillor Maher, Councillor Toomey

Just read this. It’s one of the most thoughtfully and beautifully written death resolutions I’ve ever seen from the City Council. [It was written by Fran Cronin.]

Order #1. That the City Manager is requested to determine the feasibility of installing one or more park benches around the Fresh Pond Reservation for the benefit of Cambridge residents, particularly senior citizens who would benefit from such conveniences.   Mayor Simmons

Order #6. That the City Manager is requested to confer with the appropriate staff about providing some appropriate seating on the grassy hill at Kingsley Park.   Councillor Devereux, Vice Mayor McGovern

These would be welcome additions – and not just for senior citizens.

Order #2. That the City Manager is requested to confer with the School Department, Human Resources, and any other relevant City departments to determine what it would look like financially and logistically for the new Tobin School to house half of Cambridge’s 3 and 4 year olds with the goal of providing universal pre-k split between the Tobin School and another school to be redesigned in the near future.   Councillor Cheung, Councillor Devereux

I’m interested to see what the cost implications of this might be. It will likely be quite expensive. Having looked at what parents with good incomes shell out for the two pre-K schools and a day-care facility on my (very short) block in Cambridge, I’m sure some of those people would love to have a "public option". It could be the only affordable option for people of lower income.

Update: Councillor Carlone (wisely) suggested that it would be preferable if any pre-K options were diversified in the sense that they should be smaller groupings spread throughout the city rather than be concentrated into one or two school buildings.

Order #4. That a Standing Committee made up of three School Committee members, three City Councillors the Superintendent, the City Manager, as well as other members to be determined, be established to meet monthly to discuss issues pertinent to the School Department and the City and to improve communication between the School Committee and City Council.   Vice Mayor McGovern, Mayor Simmons

The City Council should think long and hard about the wisdom of this. It could go either way in terms of resolving conflicts or creating conflicts between these two elected bodies. I could easily see this becoming a place where some city councillors try to steer things that are really meant to be decided by the School Committee and the School Department. On the other hand, there are some matters such as community schools and after-school programming, that falls under the Department of Human Services Programs even though they take place in public school buildings and which the City Council clearly has some policy-making role. They may want to reconsider the plan of meeting monthly. That seems too frequent. Quarterly (and as needed) would be more than enough. Even then it would be meeting more frequently than half of the other City Council committees.

Update: Councillor Kelley floated the idea that perhaps there should be a charter change that "combines the School Committee and the City Council". This, of course, can only be interpreted as a suggestion that the School Committee be eliminated and its functions turned over to a subcommittee of the City Council. I am eager to hear how School Committee members feel about the idea.

Order #5. That the City Manager is requested to work with the Community Development Department and any other relevant City departments with a view in mind for a city-wide expansion of the piloted North Massachusetts Avenue and Kendall Square store frontage limitations, entrepreneurial co-working space, and local retail zoning regulations.   Councillor Cheung

A current topic of discussion in the Envision Cambridge process is "Corridors", i.e. main thoroughfares in the city, including most retail locations. I doubt whether a single city-wide standard is appropriate, but some of these "corridors" could use a little reinvention.

Update: Councillor Mazen expressed his desire that an co-working space be subsidized – either from taxes or through some kind of nebulous "inclusionary" requirement. This, I suppose, would then require some City department to decide who will be eligible for this subsidized space – and the slow shift toward government control continues. Councillor Devereux suggested that this needs more study in concert with the ongoing Retail Strategic Plan. Councillor Carlone suggested that this proposal should be put on hold for now and that it is becoming clear that retail can no longer be supported everywhere.

Order #7. That the City Manager is requested to work with the Mayor’s Office, the City Clerk’s Office, and the Finance Chair to establish a framework for periodic Roundtables throughout each term that will provide City Councillors opportunities to invite different Department Heads in for open, unrestricted discussions on topics of interest to the City Councillors.   Mayor Simmons, Vice Mayor McGovern, Councillor Mazen

This was exactly the intention of the City Council when Roundtable meetings were first established – way back around 1999. The City Council unearths its own history. As for "unrestricted discussions", I do hope that this does not include inquisitions and/or browbeating of department heads or other City employees. – Robert Winters

Update: Though most councillors seemed generally supportive of the idea, Councillor Devereux suggested that rather than do this as City Council Roundtable meetings they should be done within meetings of the Finance Committee which would allow public comment. Mayor Simmons explained that the idea was to have a more general discussion – not just about finance-related matters. Councillor Devereux wanted some clarification of what the expectations would be noting that Roundtable meetings with City departments often center around some kind of formal presentation followed by questions and discussion.

Councillor Carlone won the wisdom prize by proposing that such freewheeling discussions with City departments take place within existing City Council committees whose focus aligns with the particular department – and not just the Finance Committee. In fact, many years ago most of the City Council committees aligned almost exactly with City departments. It might be a good idea to move back closer to that system so that City Council discussion could be better aligned with what City government actually does.

At the very least, we can probably do with much shorter PowerPoint presentations at City Council Roundtables and more freewheeling informal discussion. That was the original idea when Roundtable meetings were established nearly two decades ago. – RW

May 8, 2017

Noteworthy Agenda Items from the May 8, 2017 Cambridge City Council meeting

Filed under: Cambridge,City Council — Tags: , , , — Robert Winters @ 12:22 am

Noteworthy Agenda Items from the May 8, 2017 Cambridge City Council meeting

May 8, 2017 Cambridge City Council meetingHere are the agenda items this week that I found interesting:

Manager’s Agenda #1. A communication transmitted from Louis A. DePasquale, City Manager, relative to the recommended appointment of Kathleen L. Born as a member of the Cambridge Redevelopment Authority for a term of five years.

The appointment of Kathy Born to the CRA by Bob Healy in 2012 was an inspired choice, and City Manager Louis DePasquale continues the inspiration. One correction to the manager’s message is that Kathy actually served four terms on the Cambridge City Council. She was first elected in 1993 and served from 1994 through 2001 including one term as Vice Mayor.

There are only two Boards which the City Manager appoints that are subject to City Council approval – the Cambridge Housing Authority and the Cambridge Redevelopment Authority, so this appointment must formally be passed to the Neighborhood and Long-Term Planning Etcetera Committee before going to the City Council for confirmation (which as assured).

Applications & Petitions #1. A communication was received from Richard Harding, et al., 189 Windsor Street, transmitting notification to withdraw their zoning petition.

Contrary to the statement in this petition, there were actually 17 registered Cambridge voters who signed the original petition. If 5 of them submit a letter to withdraw the petition, even if these are the authors of the petition, that still leaves 12 registered voters who have not written to ask that the petition be withdrawn – 2 more than the minimum requirement. I believe this means that the original petition remains intact. It’s a moot point, however. The petitioners have extracted their desired pound of flesh out of the developer and that’s really what this petition was all about.

Order #1. That the City Manager is requested to direct the City’s transportation planning staff to reach out to Bridj’s Founder and Chief Executive Matthew George to discuss whether there are opportunities for collaboration in meeting the needs of Cambridge residents for more flexible transit.   Councillor Devereux, Councillor Carlone, Councillor Mazen

This would make for an interesting way to navigate around the municipal procurement regulations. Though I’m sure this company may have something to offer, the City would have to issue a Request for Proposals (RFP) or similar device to ALL possible bidders. Those who call the shots at Bridj could then submit a proposal and possibly sign a contract. The real question is whether the City has an identified need around which an RFP could be written. It’s not the role of the City to approach private companies asking if there’s anything the City can do to keep them afloat.

Order #6. That the City Manager is requested to create a permanent office or public-private initiative for the purpose of fostering charitable giving in Cambridge and to work with non-profits to study the local charitable giving landscape, measuring the estimated maximum charitable carrying capacity of the city.   Councillor Mazen

This is a good intention, but perhaps the more important goal should be to promote existing charitable giving organizations like the Cambridge Community Foundation rather than creating new City administrative positions.

Committee Report #2. 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 Apr 19, 2017 to discuss a zoning petition by the City Council to amend the Zoning Ordinances of the City of Cambridge by creating a new Section 11.900 Maintenance and Security of Vacant or Abandoned Buildings. The proposed zoning would require that any building that is deemed to be vacant or abandoned for longer than 90 days shall be registered with the Inspectional Services Department, shall be secured and maintained so that it does not exhibit any evidence of vacancy, and shall pay an annual registration fee.

The basic premise of this initiative seems to be to come down hard on any property owner who leaves a property vacant for too long – either due to land-banking, wanting to flip a property for a tidy profit, or because of a dysfunctional property owner. I have serious concerns about the confiscatory nature of the original proposal that actually sought to extract the entire assessed value of a vacant property by means of fees in only two years. That is clearly a regulatory taking and it would never stand up to a court challenge. It’s also an obnoxious example of government overreach. I assume the language will be modified to make this merely combative and confrontational rather than confiscatory.

Nobody likes having important properties (such as the Harvard Square Cinema) sitting vacant for years, but the best way to get good results is still to open up a conversation with the property owner. It would be better if parties other than City officials or elected councillors had those conversations.

Communications & Reports from City Officers #1. A communication was received from Councillor Craig A. Kelley, apologizing to his Colleagues, City Manager and City Staff for not attending tonight’s meeting in order to attend a conference on climate change adaptation and expressing his thoughts and apology for the events at the Budget Hearing.

I greatly appreciate Councillor Kelley’s calling out the unforgivable misbehavior of one obnoxious soon-to-be-former city councillor at last week’s Budget Hearings. – Robert Winters

The Budget Hearings continue this week on Tues, May 9 at 6:00pm (School Department Budget) and on Wed, May 10 at 9:00am (City Budget). The budget is available online at:   [Complete schedule with Budget Book references]   [multi-year comparisons]

Wednesday’s departments are as follows (the underlined ones are the ones that have been pulled (so far) by councillors for discussion).

Cambridge Health Alliance    
Public Works
Community Development
Historical Commission
Peace Commission /
Police Review & Advisory Board
Cable TV
Debt Service
Human Services
Women’s Commission
Human Rights Commission    
Veterans Services
Cherry Sheet
City Overview
Finacial Summaries
Public Investment
* Date changes for individual departments may occur. The public is invited to attend and be heard.
These hearings will be cablecast live on Municipal Television.

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