One argument for adhering to the no-cameras rule of the “roundtable” format of City Council meetings is that it frees officials to speak frankly, leading to deeper conversation on tricky topics. Unfortunately for believers in this theory – that the presence of cameras is inhibiting – it makes less sense than ever in 2013.
So on the list of four attention-grabbing takeaways from Friday’s roundtable meeting on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s plans to remake 26 acres in Kendall Square, the first must be on the nature of the roundtable itself.
It’s time for the roundtable to go. It’s fine to have roundtable-format, informative meetings at which no votes are taken, and whether every meeting should have public comment (roundtables do not) is a separate argument. But the no-cameras rule is superstitious and dumb, and it fails the test of logic every step of the way even without the ability of even mildly tech-savvy and well-equipped watchers to post the meeting on the Internet themselves.
The failure in logic was obvious when councillor Denise Simmons made a hyperbolic comment about “extorting” the university for community benefits before it got the zoning it wants in Kendall Square. Councillor David Maher jokingly reminded her that cameras were watching. Yes, ha ha, except that the room was full of residents and journalists who heard the comments in real time, making the cameras irrelevant. Blunt words, provocative comments and controversy don’t disappear just because there are no cameras turned on.
Not only are roundtables open to the public. Not only do journalists go, take notes and write about what happens. But journalists and other members of the public also bring audio recorders, as allowed by law and even by the city’s roundtable rules.
Now it goes further. When councillors such as Marjorie Decker and Tim Toomey vote to preserve the roundtable rules in defiance of logic and modern technology, they invite unintended consequences. Not only were there members of the public present, journalists taking notes and at least three audio recorders at Friday’s roundtable, but three video cameras as well: from resident Charles Teague, from Emerson College journalist Victoria Bedford and from a joint effort of The Tech and Cambridge Day, which streamed most of the event live via a site called ustream and drew around 70 or 80 watchers.
The very nature of the roundtable is at war with itself. An informative meeting at which officials will be speaking frankly on important topics? Why would anyone want to see or record that?
There were no city-owned cameras televising this meeting, true, but pretty soon the council will have to face the question: So what?
Councillor Craig Kelley doesn’t like the emphasis on MIT’s role in Cambridge education. He really, really doesn’t like it. The linkage began at a Feb. 26 meeting of Maher’s Ordinance Committee, at which School Committee vice chairman Fred Fantini said the university should admit at least five worthy Cambridge kids a year as undergraduates and create a pathway to ensure those students get in. The theme continued Friday, with Simmons, Toomey and Leland Cheung all exploring the idea of a university-school district partnership.
It went too far for Kelley, who said:
How this warped into a discussion on education and MIT’s role in helping Cambridge Public Schools is absolutely beyond me. And I could not be angrier at that. Our education [system] and the education of our kids is way too important to have it drift into this discussion like it means something. And I’m incredibly disappointed in the folks that went that way.
Then he gathered his things and walked out, while Maher moved coolly on to the next question. Despite coming only a few minutes before the roundtable ended anyway, it was a dramatic exit.
Decker and Ken Reeves don’t attach the same significance to the word “rape.” People in Sullivan Chamber for the roundtable didn’t react visibly as councillor Reeves, talking about the lack of creative vision being applied to the Kendall Square plan, said he worried especially when “you get tied to these existent, nondescript, already raped buildings” such as the three that might get historical landmark protection on Main Street.
More than four minutes passed as Reeves pondered a more inspiring vision for the square before Decker leaned forward at her table to interrupt. As best can be discerned from an audio recording, this was the exchange:
Decker: “Councillor, I’m just trying to follow you here and, looking around the room – did you really use the word ‘raped’ buildings, or did you say ‘raked’?”
Reeves: “Raped. What it is, is that the facades have been –”
Decker: “No, but rape is a term that is not used to described physical buildings.”
Reeves: “Councillor Decker –”
Decker: “No, I’m trying to say ‘rape’ is –”
Reeves: “They have been … what did he say in Central Square? The historical something had been removed –”
Decker: “There are plenty of other words.”
Decker: “I would just ask you to please be sensitive that that is a word most people don’t use to describe buildings, but for violent acts against people.”
Reeves: “Well I think ‘stripped’ is kind of gruesome too, but I will –”
Decker: “Well, if you think that there’s not a difference here –”
Reeves: “I did not say [there wasn’t a difference]. I said both terms seem to have been … the historic references have been removed.”
Decker: “Clearly you don’t want to acknowledge that I think it’s an insensitive term.”
Reeves: “It’s not – well, I disagree with your analysis.”
Decker: “Yes, I see that. It’s not my analysis. There’s a lot of people who would be really offended by that. But I understand you disagree with me.”
Reeves: “I withdraw my presence from the room.”
Reeves did not withdraw from the room. But Maher moved coolly on to the next question.
MIT Corp. executive vice president and treasurer Israel Ruiz looks a lot like Jason Bateman, the actor from “Arrested Development.” He just does.