Monday, July 22, 2024
City Councilor Kenneth E. Reeves speaks Monday, Oct. 19, 2009, on public safety issues during a meeting in Cambridge City Hall. (Photo: Marc Levy)

City Councilor Kenneth E. Reeves speaks Monday, Oct. 19, 2009, on public safety issues during a meeting in Cambridge City Hall. (Photo: Marc Levy)

City councilors moved Monday toward re-examining their powers after hearing repeated public complaints about Cambridge’s city manager form of government.

But issues of trash, composting, recycling and urban wildlife were equally prominent at their meeting, with members engaging with City Manager Robert W. Healy on each topic in series with little resolution on any.

Council members shared stories of accidental encounters with the city “zoo,” with Kenneth E. Reeves’ experiences being most prominent.

While having dinner with guests recently in his back yard, he said, he saw six to eight rats “for the first time ever,” and that was followed by the spotting of rats in his front garden during daylight, and simultaneously three across the street by an apartment building’s door. “The rats have taken over,” Reeves said.

Councilor Henrietta Davis said she’d had coyote at her home, and she wished she could send them over to Reeves’ place.

There was also discussion of raccoons, skunks and opossum, leading to questions about whether the city could help residents procure lidded trash cars and whether improperly covered compost could attract scavengers. Councilor Marjorie Decker wanted assurance from Healy that anti-rat techniques successful in other cities — including multiple trash pickups per week — were being researched. “It’s going on five years now we’re still trying to figure out how to deal with this,” she said.

Indeed, many of the same issues were discussed November 2005 in testimony that sometimes sounded like a horror movie — tales of families driven out of apartments into hallways by rats “dripping out of the heaters.”

In something of a side issue, Tim Toomey hoped for curbside pickup of plastic grocery bags, which accumulate fast, but city manager staff advised him there was no clamoring for such a contract, although one would be put out to bid by the end of the year. In the meantime, the bags can be returned to grocery stores.

The bulk of public comment focused on Public Order 15, which would provide money for “academic or legal counsel to review the Plan E charter” — meaning the form of government that puts Healy firmly in charge of running Cambridge.

Council candidate Silvia P. Glick, referring to the combining of human rights and police oversight roles, and the months-long vacancies as a candidate is sought, spoke of Healy’s “contempt for human rights”; candidate James Williamson referred to Healy’s role as the city’s “most intractable issue and most deeply felt dissatisfaction.”

In January, every member of the council except Craig Kelley voted to renew Healy’s contract through Sept. 30, 2012, at an annual salary of $303,072.22, use of a city-owned car and 25 vacation days. (Larry Ward replaced Brian Murphy on the council a month later, when Murphy left for a job with the state’s Executive Office of Transportation.)

“We are stuck with this legacy of a city manager insulated from accountability,” Williamson said. “People sense rightly that they don’t have much power.” He advised the council to look to the people of Cambridge for direction rather than to hired consultants.

Healy, upon leaving the meeting, said he was at the end of a 14-hour day and didn’t want to comment immediately.

After he left, though, Reeves also expressed dissatisfaction with the relationship between the council and manager — not specifically the current council and Healy, but what the relationship is intended to be no matter who takes those roles.

“The council looks utterly foolish, we look powerless,” he said. “We’re not involved in policy or anything on too many matters. We need to be informed on what we can and cannot do.”

The matter was referred to committee. Toomey said he wouldn’t approve taxpayer money being spent for answers he felt could be gleaned from simply reading the city charter, and Davis was unsure how any such study would work; but most other councilors spoke in favor of, as Sam Seidel said, “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.