Fast, furious action gives council motion sickness; most committees assigned

What happened at the end of Monday’s meeting of the City Council? Even to city officials who were there the flurry of motions and political and emotional agendas were a bit bewildering.

It began with the announcement of 15 committee assignments by Mayor David Maher — an act delayed while it took nearly three months to elect a mayor who would make the assignments. The city’s prime watcher of politics, Harvard professor Robert Winters, has posted on his Web site the list of committees and their meetings scheduled and held.

But the process bogged down again with Maher’s proposal to split the Health & Environment Committee into two, a Community Health Committee led by councillor Marjorie Decker and an Environment and Sustainability Committee led by councillor and vice mayor Henrietta Davis.

Councillor Craig Kelley questions the timing of a meeting to split the Health & Environment Committee in two.

“The previous committee has flipped back and forth between councillors Davis and Decker, so the split seems as much an accommodation of these two individuals as anything else,” Winters said.

A councillor put it even more bluntly after Monday’s meeting, saying the split resulted from Maher’s promising leadership of the original committee to two people.

“I would argue it’s not politically motivated. I think it’s a very logical move,” councillor Leland Cheung said during debate. Discussion of the recent climate congresses and their conclusions were prominent during public comment, with one speaker noting seven of the nine councillors had motions on the agenda stemming from environmental concerns. “These are two very large issues with far-reaching impact, and it makes sense to have them in separate committees.”

“I don’t suspect it’s politically motivated. I’m saying it was,” councillor Ken Reeves replied.

A suggestion was made to send the split to the Government Operations Committee, led by councillors Sam Seidel and Tim Toomey, for discussion and a decision, with the likely result — because there is no council meeting Monday — being no action by the health committees for another two weeks.

The date and time Toomey proposed for that meeting: Thursday at 5 p.m.

“That is so transparently set up to not have people attend,” councillor Craig Kelley said.

“This is becoming comical if not sad … This is just to delay, delay, delay,” councillor Tim Toomey replies.

When the mayor suggested the chairmen of the committee could select and call the meeting to avoid the public debate, Toomey retorted, “We just did.”

“This is becoming comical if not sad,” he said. “This is just to delay, delay, delay … to [imply] we’re trying to keep people out of this process is … I won’t use the word.”

His next suggestion — which gave 72 hours of notice to those attending or watching the meeting on Cambridge Community Television — was 6 p.m. Thursday in council chambers.

That meeting was posted online. It is scheduled. But as a result of Kelley filing a “notice of his intention to reconsider,” what happens at the meeting will apparently not matter.

“They can certainly have the meeting on anything they want, but the council order itself wasn’t adopted,” Kelley said Tuesday.

City Clerk Margaret Drury confirmed that.

It leaves discussion and action on the Health Committees split to April 5.

Soon after the clash over the Government Operations Committee meeting, the action moved to the policy order and resolution list. Starting with No. 12, a terse Toomey vetoed discussion by exercising his “charter right,” and continued calling out “charter right” to bump discussion on the remaining policy orders, Nos. 13, 14, 15, 17, 18 and 19, until the next meeting. Toomey did not return a message left Tuesday to inquire into his motivations.

Toomey filed the next order of business: a resolution for a corner in Kendall Square to be dedicated as Bob Jones Square. But Davis called out “charter right,” shutting down discussion of his topic as well.

The meeting ended, and Davis and Toomey were seen talking immediately afterward.

“It’s only fair,” Davis told Toomey.

Rules of reconsideration

The legislative actions taken Monday were confusing. Asked to explain what had happened, even Kelley and Drury faltered over minor aspects, but together offered what should be a complete picture:

Under Cambridge council rules, no action is technically final at a Monday meeting; every member has until noon of the following Wednesday to reconsider their actions. But there’s a motion that can be filed and voted on that locks in votes Monday and removes the until-noon-Wednesday option.

“It’s usually Tim, but it could be other people, who moves to ‘suspend the rules’ and the council votes to approve ‘suspension.’ And then he — it’s usually Tim — moves for reconsideration of everything we voted on ‘hoping the same will not prevail,’” Kelley explained. “I don’t really understand why the backwards language. But the effect is, by voting for ‘reconsideration,’ you reconsider it at that moment … and it becomes final.”

In the case of Monday’s meeting, Toomey’s motion for reconsideration locked in everything except the decision to let the Government Operations Committee tackle the split of the Health Committee.

“A notice for reconsideration had already been filed by councillor Kelley. He came up and filed a notice at the clerk’s desk,” Drury said. “I’m not sure councillor Toomey knew at the time.”

Update: This story was expanded from the original with comments and explanation from Kelley and Drury.

Very late update: The meeting was set for 5:30 p.m., not 6 p.m.

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