Tuesday, July 23, 2024
Mayor Denise Simmons is given a sendoff Monday in Cambridge City Hall by councillor Ken Reeves. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Mayor Denise Simmons is given a sendoff Monday in Cambridge City Hall by councillor Ken Reeves. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Mayor Denise Simmons and Vice Mayor Sam Seidel presided over their last meeting of the City Council on Monday and Larry Ward attended his last as councillor — at least for a while.

Amid the torrent of biography and praise, Ward was advised by councillor Marjorie Decker to get a copy of the recorded moments Monday from CCTV and start running a campaign ad. Among other things, Ward, a 20-year resident with a doctorate from Boston University, was credited with a focus on city youth and standardized testing, technology and rezoning Porter Square into an arts mecca.

“No matter what it was, you put your entire heart and soul into the work,” Simmons told him.

His accomplishments were also crammed into an abbreviated term; Ward replaced Brian Murphy when that councillor took a job with the state’s Executive Office of Transportation in February. Nine months later, Ward was replaced by newcomer Leland Cheung in a regular election.

Simmons and Seidel, who retain their council seats, also came in for praise. The most recent mayor before Simmons, councillor Ken Reeves, rose to make a presentation to her, crediting her not only with a tenure that was “very productive despite an economic downturn” but with shining the spotlight on Cambridge by virtue of being the nation’s first lesbian African-American mayor. Her election brought international attention, he said, and even a blog posting from gossip Perez Hilton.

Simmons said she appreciated the accolades, but that she hadn’t done it alone, and thanked family, friends and staff. “There are many who view this largely as a ceremonial position,” she said, but she had worked to ensure it had substance. Her mayor’s office served as a lifeline for constituents in crisis, often working to win them services behind the scenes, and as a leader in belt-tightening in turbulent economic times. Simmons also opened up her chambers to the public as a “mayor’s parlor” and focused on customer service, starting the Luminary awards and suggesting that each City Hall employees’ roles be codified, answering, according to meeting minutes, such questions as “Does the city have a protocol for the time within which a telephone call must be returned? If a citizen calls the wrong department for their problem, is there a policy for how the person who answers treats the call?”

Still, the year had been a legislative disappointment to some. Political observer Robert Winters felt the past couple of terms had been “largely maintenance, a zoning petition here, a zoning petition there, nothing big.”

There had been fewer committee meetings than in past years, meaning less work done, and when an initiative was proposed, that too was different: Where once councillors got together and presented comprehensive plans, now proposals are essentially one councillor asking the city manager to look into an issue and report back.

He was also critical of the rush of meetings and council orders “crammed in at the eleventh hour like one of my students trying to get in a paper.” Winters is a Harvard professor.

The end of Ward’s time on the council also means the loss of his aide, Andy Farrar, and that’s another blow for the city.

That Farrar has a public profile at all is rare. The publicly funded legislative aides tend to come and go as necessary at meetings, mainly speeding through Sullivan Chambers to deliver notes or needed documentation. They work mainly behind the scenes and tend to stick to areas where the public doesn’t go.

Not Farrar.

Week in and week out, he has been in Sullivan Chambers watching the action along with the audience, taking notes, checking out details of testimony on his iPhone and actively making contact with constituents, following them out of the room to talk. When newcomers arrive clearly needing explanation into the more abstruse workings of the council — many student journalists stop by Cambridge for civic homework — he has taken it upon himself to educate them.

Now he returns attention to his career as a toy designer and manufacturer and to the city’s athletic fields (Ward also is big on soccer), not quite gone from public discourse, but hardly the presence he has been.

It’s a shame to lose that front-line presence for the people of the city. Since Simmons and Seidel remain on the council and Ward is likely to return, the loss of Farrar may be the most significant loss of all during the transition to the next council.