Sunday, April 21, 2024

A cartoon in the packet given Monday to the City Council angered councillor Leland Cheung, who considered it an unfair representation of what a sign ordinance was meant to or would accomplish.

Opposition on changing the rules for signs on Cambridge office buildings has been strong, but where residents see a populist groundswell, city councillors see conspiracy.

“We’re in the midst of a well-organized campaign of misinformation,” Ken Reeves said Monday during a council meeting, “better organized and better financed than many I’ve seen.”

“We have a seemingly well-funded, well-organized opposition that’s beating the bushes in a way to rile up people and get them thinking things that don’t necessarily seem to be true,” vice mayor Henrietta Davis agreed a moment later. “I don’t think we’ve had that before to that extent.”

The zoning change would make it easier for companies to brand their buildings with large, lit signs in business areas such as Kendall Square. But many residents and others with an interest in the environment don’t want more signs or lights changing the skyline and feel the process is being rushed.

The petition expires Oct. 6, which means a council vote must take place before then. At least six of the nine councillors have to vote in favor for it to pass.

While admitting there was confusion and “misinformation” in the community about the proposal, councillors also voted 6-2-1 to send the ordinance to a second reading instead of starting over. Those opposed were Davis and Craig Kelley. Marjorie Decker was not present to vote.

“I can say there’s about 100 lines of change to proposed changes, and this is way too ambitious to do anything but start over,” Kelley said.

“This is confused, but I think we are up to the task,” councillor Leland Cheung said.

“I will not vote to refile this. This has been a long process, with several hearings that were well attended by the public,” councillor Tim Toomey said.

“The campaign”

The heft of the council packet testified to public involvement; inside were many letters for and against the proposal, with most opposed. That did move Reeves.

“I know when I get this volume of letters, the world didn’t turn upside-down. Someone did steam them up,” he said of the letter writers. “That’s perfectly okay in the process, but I’m not unaware of it and therefore I know how to receive information that’s stacked for me in a way I might not normally get.”

The conspirators, such as they are, were in plain sight Monday — three people, including two in suits, who waited the length of the five-and-a-half-hour meeting to hear what the councillors had to say on the topic. One was Phillip “Terry” Ragon, founder, president and chief executive of InterSystems Corp., a software firm that has had offices for 22 years in 1 Memorial Drive, a building that also hosts Microsoft. (Ragon says Microsoft wants a sign on the building; Microsoft denies any involvement.)

Another was Karen Schwartzman, who describes herself as the sole employee of Polaris Public Relations, a Boston firm hired by InterSystems to create the opposition website

“I’m the villain who has created the campaign,” she said.

The site includes criticism of the ordinance, many letters with further criticism — including a lengthy one from Ragon — as well as suggestions on how people can oppose the ordinance and a sample letter to download. Ragon is not clearly identified on the site as being its backer, but Schwartzman’s name and contact information is prominent. She also said is the extent of her attempts at persuasion, and that she doesn’t even maintain a mailing list that would let her get a message to opponents of the ordinance.

But Renata von Tscharner,
founder and president of the 
Charles River Conservancy, is against the zoning change, Schwartzman said, and the conservancy has a newsletter that goes out to thousands of people.

“That doesn’t mean they’re with us,” Schwartzman said. “Comments to the effect we have orchestrated this campaign and have therefore interfered with the independent thinking of many smart people in Cambridge who have come out to be heard on this is insulting. It does a huge disservice to serious people who have made it their business to learn as much as they can, to think really hard about this and to share their feelings.”

Kelley had said much the same earlier, after hearing his colleagues’ comments about the organized opposition.

Misunderstood changes

He also questioned the need for amending the code, which sounded so far like a minority view, though Decker was quoted in The Boston Globe in July sounding wary of the timing of two hearings on the topic, which were held July 6 and July 8 — awkward dates and times at the height of summer vacation season. Another hearing was held Sept. 7.

The most heated responses came from Reeves and Cheung.

Reeves was upset about “hearing the process being demonized because there seemed to be some voodoo theory that everyone was trying act clandestinely” and seemed dismissive of opponents’ fears, noting, “You already have signs on buildings! If you go stand at the Longfellow Bridge and look up toward the park you see all kinds of big signs, so I don’t know what the question is … go look at what you can already see!”

The ordinance does make changes, of course. The city’s own suggested revisions to the law, made after the Ordinance Committee and Planning Board meetings in July, say “it is the intent of this provision of the ordinance to allow more prominent, but limited, identification of large corporate buildings,” for instance, and that “signs would be allowed to be carried above the roof of a building (now generally prohibited in the ordinance) with permission from the Planning Board.”

To Cheung, the suggested changes bring the city’s sign policy “into the 21st century,” ending an ad hoc and chaotic tendency to do everything through variances, and means an end to “treating companies across the street from each other differently.”

“We are not proposing to turn Cambridge into Las Vegas,” he said, fuming over a cartoon suggesting that in the council packet.

Davis was more conciliatory toward opponents, despite her comments about a campaign of misinformation.

“I look at the e-mails I get piling up,” she said, “and I don’t think I’m going to be able to get [the senders] to understand except by hearing it for themselves through a slowed-down process.”

Just because the ordinance goes to a second reading doesn’t mean there can’t be more meetings about it at which the public can get answers, Cheung said.