Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Policy orders filed Monday by Cambridge city councillor Craig Kelley drew a hail of criticism and launched the council into 42 minutes of yelling, insults, threats and accusations.

City councillors brawled their way through the latter part of their agenda Monday, with policy debates barely disguising an escalating series of accusations and insults.

Actual or threatened lawbreaking while doing council business was among the accusations.

The ugliness began at about 7:50 p.m. — more than two hours after the start of the meeting — and didn’t let up for 42 minutes after councillor Craig Kelley suggested the city look at the repercussions of retirements among high-level staff such as the city manager and his deputy.

The order brought charges it was offensive and possibly illegal.

“It’s important to plan, but if you were in a private company and you start looking at your employees and saying, ‘Oh, you’re getting to that age now, I guess we gotta start thinking about replacing you,’ you’d get the AG in your office pretty quickly,” said councillor Leland Cheung, referring to the state attorney general. “I would have questions if basing this on people’s age was even legal. If it is, it’s certainly not right.”

Older members of the council, including vice mayor Henrietta Davis and Ken Reeves, merely spoke to the value of experience and accumulated wisdom, although Davis said directly that she couldn’t support discussing the motion, even though she ordinarily values planning and finds aging in the workplace to be part of a national discussion, “because it’s just too insulting.”

Majorie Decker, though, let loose, saying Davis “is far more gracious about this order than is maybe called for. It is so insulting to assume someone is reaching retirement age and therefore we should talk about how to move them along” — a charge she repeated later despite there being no basis in Kelley’s order for it.

The order suggested the council’s Government Operations Committee look at the “destabilizing” potential if “many department heads retired at close to the same time.”

City Manager Robert W. Healy is 67, with his deputy, Richard Rossi, close in age. They essentially run the city — investigating and putting in place policies as ordered by the council, overseeing all finances and appointing personnel for all departments, commissions, boards and offices — and have been doing so for so decades.

Withdrawing the order

Decker and others noted that many people are retiring later in life, either because they are able to stay on the job longer or because of financial need. Reeves, typically a supporter of Kelley when other councillors bristle at his contrarianism, was gentle with him in this case as well, but reminded him Healy has never hinted that retirement is near.

“This is not reflective of the warm and lovingness and team-building approach we like to have,” Reeves said. “I’m going to put my arm around councillor Kelley and squeeze his shoulder and see if we can come up with a different approach to these kinds of questions.”

Kelley shortly afterward apologized for referring to age in his order, saying he should have been more “artful” and that no offense was meant. Despite his belief a discussion could be valuable, he said, he was willing to let it die as “I don’t want to push an issue that is A, offensive, and B, illegal.”

But it wasn’t over.

When Sam Seidel said he was going to vote a typically inoffensive “present” because he opposed the wording  of Kelley’s policy order but felt the council could address succession issues “in an open and honest way that is respectful of everybody and the laws that govern us,” Decker brushed him back:

“I also just caution councillor Seidel to really think about even a vote of ‘present.’ The only decision this council has to think about is: If you want to think about the future, think about the future. What are the goals for this city? How do we become stronger in this city? … The only decisions that we have in regard to the four personnel we are responsible for hiring are whether we hire or ask them not to come back. That’s it. So it has nothing with the mincing of words. We can talk about the future — which we should be. We are always talking about the present and the future. That is the whole point of government … there’s nothing confusing about whether this order is inappropriate … it would be easy to sit here and say nothing and pretend that this was just a misunderstanding. It’s not. This is offensive, and to even think that a ‘present’ vote is acceptable, it’s not.”

Denise Simmons returned some calm to the room, taking Kelley up on his offer and “respectfully” asking him to withdraw the motion, which Reeves seconded, also calmly.

But Reeves went on talking, acknowledging the service and accomplishments of the city managers and finally turning to discuss “some of the comments here tonight” about Kelley’s proposal, and the volume and intensity ramped up considerably:

“There are people sitting here who have never succeeded at anything. And for them to be pronouncing judgments on anybody is preposterous. Preposterous. Who do we think we are? That we can come and make judgments when our resume is so short it’s impossible to imagine you’re even here? So I absolutely want to say that this is an insult, and those of you who have made comments who have not got any background to be here should be ashamed.”

Kelley, reminding the others he’d written nothing about forcing employees to retire, formally made good on his offer of more than 10 minutes earlier and withdrew the order.

Seen it all before

Political watcher Robert Winters said he has seen this before — several years ago as well as last year, when there was more than one member angling to fill Anthony Galluccio’s state Senate seat — but usually limited to sniping between Decker and Kelley.

Councillor Tim Toomey, silent during discussion of Kelley’s first policy order, same sparking to life for the second, which concerned how the council interacts with the School Committee and school district.

“For the most part it’s been restricted to two councillors who ironically sit next to each other, and everybody else gets to sort of play adults,” Winters said after the meeting, reached by telephone. He’d left City Hall, somewhat to his regret, earlier in the meeting when things seemed to be getting dull, leaving only the media and a handful of visiting college students to watch as things heated up again. The meeting was televised and should be available on the city’s website.

On his comprehensive site discussing city political doings, Winters had noted that following through with Kelley’s order about potential retirements “could actually create more of a storm that it claims to want to prevent,” although he hadn’t meant such an immediate storm.

Kelley seemed to have brought the clashes about with “real drive-by orders he’d obviously not discussed with anybody,” Winters said, citing the first order as the most provocative.

But there were two more to go.

On one asking about “the legal limits of the City Council’s involvement in nonbudget School Department issues,” he drew an inquiry into its meaning from Cheung and scorn and fire from Tim Toomey.

“I had to read it a couple of times and look who the author of this was — councillor Kelley, so I found it humorous and disingenuous,” Toomey said of the policy order. “Every decision the School Committee makes involves money, no matter what the topic is, and I don’t know of any other councillor that has more council orders in about the school department or interferes more with the school department than councillor Kelley. So I really just am amazed.”

“If we managed to pull councillor Toomey’s order off the table and talk about it, we’d see we don’t always stay clear of school department policy stuff,” Kelley replied, apparently referring to an order in which the city manager was asked last year by Toomey to restore money for school clerk positions lost in a district restructuring. The order has been tabled since April 26. Kelley has tried three times to take it off the table, each time losing. “I’m perfectly happy to have budget discussions, but when you sit here and tell the school superintendent that ‘We’ll be watching what he does’ concerning specific positions … I worry that some of my peers, in particular councillor Toomey, are going to get their nose stuck in CPS’ business when this reconstruction takes place. And we don’t have that right.”

Cambridge Public Schools is studying how to renovate up to four of its buildings over the next decade, despite a lagging effect from nationwide economic woes that is expected to result in hard fiscal times in budgeting.

“I firmly believe the order that councillor Toomey put in before was illegal. I suspect a legal opinion would come back and tell us that,” Kelley said. “If we think this last budget cycle involved a lot of personnel issues, what’s coming up is going to be a lot more so. And I think we set a terrible precedent, led by councillor Toomey, in getting our nose stuck in these personnel issues, and I hope that we don’t do it again.”

Toomey replied with sarcasm about Kelley’s knowledge of the law and accused him of having several closed-door meetings with schools Superintendent Jeffrey Young, which Kelley confirmed, saying he was happy to because he had two children in the school system.

“I do not appreciate people like councillor Toomey screwing with my kids’ education,” Kelley said.

Striking nerves

Volume was up, though each man continued to address the other by following the formality of speaking through the mayor — meaning they were technically speaking to the mayor, who continued to call on them to speak.

“Mr. Mayor, clearly we’ve [struck] a little nerve here,” Toomey said, and then to Kelley, “I would ask, would you kindly share those discussions you’ve had with the school superintendent? Directing him to do certain things? If you sit with the school superintendent, don’t you think he’s going to feel somewhat intimidated and threatened if he didn’t meet with the councillor? I would ask, Mr. Mayor, that the superintendent forward any private discussions that he’s had with any elected official. I think that’s outrageous.”

When Maher called on Decker, who’d been asking to be recognized, it was to hear a rebuke of his own performance.

“When one member of this body starts blatantly insulting another member’s ability to govern, you should be intervening at that point,” Decker said.

“No insult taken,” Toomey said, although Decker’s comment by then could have been directed at any number of people, including herself, and it wasn’t even clear if he was speaking sincerely or ironically. “But I appreciate it.”

Maher used his “charter right” veto power to table the vote, and discussion, until a later date, and the meeting dragged on agonizingly to Kelley’s third proposed policy order, asking the city manager to look into when and where garbage trucks can back up and what responsibility the city has for any resulting damage. Decker chided Kelley for sending Healy a too-specific request (saying she was “shocked” he would do after chiding others for doing the same), and Kelley agreed to amend the order by deleting the too-specific portions. The order was adopted by the council, which heaved itself onward for another 13 minutes before Maher wrapped it up.

“Thankfully, this concludes this evening’s meeting,” Maher said.

This is the same council that took eight weeks after Election Day and multiple ballots to appoint a mayor, and Winters said he’d had a feeling from the start there would be more sparks.

“I kind of thought this was going to be a very dysfunctional council,” Winters said. “It’s actually been less dysfunctional than I thought it would be.”