What this election is about

Some final thoughts as people head off to the polls:

The balance of power between the City Council and city manager is out of whack. As Robert Winters wrote on his Cambridge Civic Journal, “The authority of a city manager does tend to grow with tenure,” and with Robert W. Healy holding office since July 1, 1981, his authority is mighty indeed. Having been setting budgets and hiring, firing, appointing and dismissing throughout City Hall for 30 years, he has vastly more knowledge of its workings and the infrastructure in place to get things done than could even the longest-serving city councillor — Ken Reeves, who has been in office for 22 years.

Yet the City Council is the policy setting arm of the city (in the language of the Plan E charter, it “shall have and exercise all the legislative powers of the city, except as such powers are reserved by this chapter to the School Committee and to the qualified voters of the city”) and the city manager is, our charter says:

“the chief administrative officer of the city and shall be responsible for the administration of all departments, commissions, boards and officers of the city [and shall] act as chief conservator of the peace within the city; to supervise the administration of the affairs of the city; to see that within the city the laws of the commonwealth and the ordinances, resolutions and regulations of the city council are faithfully executed; and to make such recommendations to the City Council concerning the affairs of the city as may to him seem desirable; to make reports to the City Council from time to time upon the affairs of the city; and to keep the City Council fully advised of the city’s financial condition and its future needs. He shall prepare and submit to the City Council budgets … Such officers and employees as the City Council, with the advice of the city manager, shall determine are necessary for the proper administration of the departments, commissions, boards and offices of the city for whose administration the city manager is responsible shall be appointed, and may be removed, by the city manager.”

But for all that, the city manager seems to set a lot of policy. Just to name some recent examples, it is said universally that Healy decided to appeal the Malvina Monteiro lawsuit against the city, despite his involvement in it; and it was his decision to create the Cambridge Review Committee to look into issues surrounding the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr.; and when the council has asked him not to send police officers to Israel for training, he does; and when the council asks him to take down surveillance cameras, he doesn’t.

“The council looks utterly foolish, we look powerless,” said Reeves in October 2009, as another Election Day loomed. “We’re not involved in policy or anything on too many matters. We need to be informed on what we can and cannot do.”

An opportunity

At the time, councillor Sam Seidel welcomed “an opportunity to learn, relearn, rethink” council powers and responsibilities, including some that may have drifted into the city manager’s portfolio over the years.

“Councils come and go, but the city manager sticks around,” Seidel said even before that, when he first ran for office in 2005. “Healy has been very successful at managing the city, and as a result has garnered a lot of power.”

But that opportunity to relearn and rethink never happened, and the council looks just as powerless now as it did two years ago, and surely even more complacent and willing to let the city manager do the heavy lifting. It is dispiriting, for instance, that it fell to a citizen to bring forward a suggestion (which Seidel says councillors like!) to give the city’s safety inspectors the power to fine offenders. Councillor Henrietta Davis may exclaim during a meeting about “How long does it take for us to enforce a zoning violation!” and the council can hear several years’ worth of complaints from residents about noise, garbage, rodents, work-hour violations and structural damage at a single development at Yerxa Road and Rindge Avenue — but it never occurs to our incumbents to give inspectors the same powers held by their peers throughout the state and nation?

And why would Healy ever give up power to a feckless set of councillors that can’t even get its act together enough for a look at whether it’s surrendered its rightful powers over the decades? From his perspective, it probably just looks like it would screw up what he’s created: a resounding fiscal success, with low tax rates that make Cambridge the envy of the commonwealth and constant refreshment via award-winning capital projects such as the Cambridge Main Library and four upcoming school revamps (atop similar excellent high school, athletic facility, police station and youth center projects).

But there’s some legitimate question as to whether Cambridge’s success is attributable to Healy so much as Healy’s success is attributable to Cambridge. The city is, after all, across from Boston and possessed of three major institutions of higher learning; it’s been a center of industry and innovation all the way back to the days of ice carving and brick making, and its real estate has been desirable back further than that.

Such is the power of Healy that even such a gentle surmise sounds like heresy to some, but the magical thinking that has enchanted so many on the council doesn’t work on every member of the general public.

Magical thinking

That magical thinking — or failure of critical skills — is on display when councillors Tim Toomey, Davis and other suggest that after a dozen years of litigation in the Monteiro case, the 16 boxes of legal documents and transcribed testimony from the case hold some kind of detail that will cause the city to see it all in a whole new light, as though we’re all in or watching a very long, dull M. Night Shyamalan movie, and that somehow the city’s highly paid lawyers not only couldn’t make a judge and jury see this twist, but couldn’t even articulate it so it could filter out into the city. And that for some reason no public official can explain it either, even though it’s in those boxes somewhere and the cases have been settled. Toomey’s suggestive comment is that, since jurors cleared the city of discrimination but found it guilty of retaliation — which still seems like $4.5 million worth of a bad thing — “Certainly we cannot predict how a jury’s going to find. We saw the case of the [inaudible] in Boston, the woman in Florida … was found innocent, a lot of people felt otherwise.”

If he’s trying to say Casey Anthony was really guilty when she was found innocent, doesn’t that mean Cambridge managers could actually have been guilty of the charges they were cleared of? And, anyway, which looks worse: That the city retaliated against women of color? Or that there’s incredibly obvious exculpatory evidence in those boxes that its lawyers, at hundreds of dollars per billable hour atop the $146,902.23 we pay our city solicitor annually, couldn’t use to save us from three multimillion-dollar settlements and two embarrassing appeals court findings? And it’s Healy who does the hiring.

Maybe the jurors and judges were just too dumb to grasp it, but elected officials claiming so should remember that Cambridge is a city that’s packed pretty much border to border with accomplished professionals and holders of advanced degrees, not to mention some outright geniuses in various innovation industries and academic settings. This is the city where school officials can’t even plan campuses in peace because there are too many architects among the parents who want a say. We even have some pretty bright candidates for City Council this year, and most indicated during the campaign that an O. Henry ending to the Monteiro saga seemed sort of unlikely.

For instance, Tom Stohlman has three degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, including for the no-dummies-allowed field of chemical engineering, and here’s what he said about council hopes that the public shares its blind faith: “It is appalling that the city manager and the City Council have refused to release the details of all the settlements and the ‘secret’ discussions regarding the cases. Despite having ample time to do so before the election, they have deprived the voters, the challengers and the rest of the city of the chance to be informed. If they continue to do so, we may never have the chance to learn from what happened and avoid the same outcome in the future.”

(What’s even more interesting about this is that it was Toomey who said at a Sept. 27 candidates forum: “I think the city is very transparent in everything we do. And we have a very active citizenry. So I don’t think there are any secrets out there that people don’t know.” Maybe a next step for Toomey would be a policy order asking for a report on how many Freedom of Information requests were filed with the city in the past two years, how much the Law Department planned to charge for each and how those cases were disposed. And he might ask himself: If the council sets the policies, and he discovers the city manager’s Law Department is less than “very transparent in everything” it does, and that in fact there are “secrets out there that people don’t know,” what will he do about it?)

Is our council ready?

With Healy’s contract ending Sept. 30, it’s possible a brand-new city manager will soon be running Cambridge, and that person may come from outside the city. Especially in this situation, the balance of power will fall back to the council, and it will find itself setting a lot more actual policy and holding a lot more actual responsibility.

Is our council ready?

Although the shorthand of Cambridge Day’s guide to city manager issues reduced the positions to “pro-Healy” and “anti-Healy,” this election isn’t about him — and it’s more than possible to be pro-council without being anti-Healy.

For some, this election is about having a City Council that lives up to the charter and is, at the least, on par with the city manager in terms of power.

And they may think the council needs a bit of new blood to achieve that.

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