A citizen revolt brought Monday’s meeting of the City Council to a halt, forcing the mayor to explain why she bumped a vote for a week.
Mayor Henrietta Davis said at the start of Monday’s sole summer meeting that she was adding a special meeting Aug. 6 to deal with a proposal for a commercial building near Central Square and the rezoning that goes along with it, which would let developer Forest City build to 95 feet, rather than the 80 feet allowed now.
Cathy Hoffman, former director of the city’s Peace Commission, took to the lectern during lengthy public comment and rebuked the council for the “tremendous disrespect” it showed the public with the surprise rescheduling. “I have so many questions to ask about this process,” Hoffman said, before announcing she would not be leaving the microphone until she got an answer why the vote was delayed.
There had been similar criticisms of the delay before Hoffman spoke, and several other members of the audience stood and clustered around her.
It was unsure which way things would go — a Cambridge Police officer was just outside council chambers, saying he might have been called to be there after Davis announced the vote’s delay — but ultimately councillor Craig Kelley moved to suspend the rules and allow an answer to Hoffman’s demand (while saying he would prefer to clear the chamber if he faced such an insurrection).
After a two-minute recess called by councillor Tim Toomey, six votes came in to allow the suspension to deal with the issue, including from Davis and vice mayor Denise Simmons, who was running the meeting temporarily in place of Davis. (Leland Cheung, Kelley and Ken Reeves did not vote, but Marjorie Decker, Davis, Simmons, Toomey and Minka vanBeuzekom voted in favor, joined by David Maher, who changed his mind from voting against the suspension and explanation.) While vanBeuzekom was the first to speak in support, Reeves opposed the idea.
“We have a process here. If we change them for bad behavior, we’re simply going to be in pandemonium,” Reeves said. “This is democracy. We’re elected to lead a government run by the rules we set. We can’t just have everybody come grab the mic and suddenly we’re in some new dimension.”
Davis’ explanation for the vote delay: City officials wanted the week to talk with Forest City to see if they would keep 150 units of affordable housing even though those units are due to revert to market-rate rents in the next nine to 20 years.
“There suddenly came an opportunity to extend, to get a promise of those units being saved,” Davis said. “That seems the highest of goals … it seemed terrible to me to say, ‘Come back again,’ but it seemed worth it to give you notice as quickly as possible. That was my motive.”
The mayor can call a special meeting unilaterally with 48 hours’ notice, but Davis said she consulted with other councillors — who had a variety of opinions on the delay — and acted tonight to give seven days’ notice.
Update: In a press release issued Tuesday, Davis said that in addition to extending affordability on “approximately over 150 units” in University Park, “It is also proposed the Forest City provide 20 new units of affordable housing, possibly in connection with a new housing development.” It was not immediately clear from where the new units would come, although it’s similar to the number of affordable units that would have been added with the apartment tower that was cut from Forest City’s plan June 11.
The special meeting is to be held at 7:30 p.m., Aug. 6, in City Hall, 795 Massachusetts Ave., Central Square.