Council challenger: vanBeuzekom targets schools, power, rail in run

City Council challenger Minka vanBeuzekom speaks during an August event at Harvard, standing alongside opponent and potential fellow councillor Mayor David Maher.

Students in a summer Harvard journalism course interviewed some challengers for City Council as part of a class assignment, and their work — some as profiles and some in question-and-answer format — is running, one a week, on Cambridge Day. Previously were Charles MarquardtGary Mello, Matt NelsonJamake Pascual and Tom Stohlman; next up is Larry Ward.

City Council candidate Minka vanBeuzekom knows a lot about sustainable energy. She’s been expending massive amounts of it, running at top efficiency for decades, using nothing except her own will power, smarts and experience. As a graduate of Wellesley and Boston University’s School of Medicine, she pursued a career in public health and business, including in the biotech and health sectors, while staying active as a leader in her Area IV neighborhood and Cambridge as a whole. She has been a leader for several Cambridge committees, include as a board member and treasurer on the Mystic River Watershed Association, co-leader in the Area Four Neighborhood Coalition, Green Decade Cambridge board member, member of the Cambridge Democratic City Committee, vice-chairwoman of the Ward 3 Democratic Committee and Cambridge Community Garden coordinator.

This interview took place in August.

Why are you running? What is it in you or the community that compels you to do this now?

A: I want to give back to the community that I’ve been living in for the last 30 years. I want to be part of solutions to the problems and help make it a sustainable city. During this time, I raised my family, worked in public health and helped shaped my neighborhood. I want to continue my civic involvement by engaging more people and helping them see what works well and what can be improved. I’ve worked on practical, municipal issues before and I will remain focused on creative solutions. I’ve had a career in public health as a researcher at MIT Cancer Center, as a researcher at Harvard/McLean Hospital, infectious disease epidemiologist for the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, as well as at other organizations. I started one of the public schools in the city — I’ve been very active in my community. I’d like to increase my level of commitment to the citizens of the city.

What is the No. 1 issue facing Cambridge now or in the next two years, and what is your approach or solution to that issue?

A: While the school committee will handle curriculum issues in implementing the district’s Innovation Agenda, the City Council must participate in improvements to the school infrastructure and budgeting issues. In the past there has not been as much coordination between School committee and City Council. I aim to improve that dynamic. My hope is that more Cambridge students will return to the public schools, leaving both private and charter schools once the Innovation Agenda changes are successfully implemented. We spend far too much money per pupil for kids to be leaving the system because it doesn’t meet their needs.

A second issue that affects all Cambridge residents is the amount of money we spend on utilities, including water, electricity, natural gas, heating oil and gasoline. As a city we need to set up systems for residents to conserve, create renewable energy or avoid using these resources altogether. Developing a plan for a municipal utility, creating more bike lanes and bus shelters, creating more shared options and encouraging renewable energy options are examples of work that I will be doing when elected.

One issue affecting specific neighborhoods is the proposed Grand Junction commuter rail. This will likely have a detrimental impact on traffic, air quality and quiet enjoyment without providing a Cambridge-specific benefit. That corridor was planned as a walk, bike or light rail lane, not a heavy-rail commuter line. Our legislatures and other elected officials need to work in concert with residents to ensure a thorough ridership study and environmental/traffic impact study is completed before more tax dollars are used on these tracks. I’m amazed at the irony of Gov. Deval Patrick agreeing to delays in the green line extension, a plan with much popular support and sure to increase use of public transit, yet at the same time pushing forward commuter rail with questionable popular support.

What kind of a job do you feel the current office-holders are doing?

A: The main problem I see with several of the current office-holders is that they are not responsive to a broad segment of the Cambridge population. This is partially due to the nature of proportional representation and partially due to complacency.  I think elected officials at the local level should spend their time on specific municipal issues for our residents. National and certainly global issues do not need to be discussed in the council chambers without a specific Cambridge connection.

Tell us how you perceive the balance of power between our city manager and councillors? Is the balance appropriate? Do you want to do anything differently?

A: The relationship among residents, city councillors and the long-term city manager should be similar to the relationship between shareholders, a board of directors and a CEO. We, the voting residents, elect city councillors, who in turn guide the decisions of the city manager, who is responsible for the day-to-day operations of the city. Despite having a contract through September 2012 and a history of exceptional fiscal accomplishments, the person in the city manager’s position still needs to respond in a timely way to directives of the City Council. I believe this city is not just about how we manage half a billion dollars, it’s about how we treat the residents and provide amenities to the largest number of people.

VanBeuzekom’s website is here; her profile on the Cambridge Civic Journal is here.

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