Saturday, May 25, 2024

“Buy local” posters in Harvard Square’s Harvard Book Store helped inspire a City Council policy order. (Photo: Michael Newman)

As though proving they weren’t eager to start their summer break, city councillors spent 25 minutes Monday debating and expressing moral outrage over a suggestion to remind City Hall employees, by putting up encouraging posters, for instance, to buy from local merchants “whenever possible.”

Tim Toomey had tabled the policy order, proposed by Leland Cheung the previous week, and spoke first Monday, saying he was concerned people’s privacy was violated in raising the issue and   that “to mandate how people spend their money” is wrong.

“For me, the violation of a privacy is a huge, huge concern. And I’m disturbed an order of this nature is in front of the council,” Toomey said. “I don’t know how this came before us … and why.”

What prompted the order was City Hall workers going online to a national flower delivery service to get flowers delivered for Administrative Professionals Day the last Wednesday in April — which is done by local florists after the national service takes its cut. If the local florist had been called directly, the full amount paid by the workers would go to locals and more would stay in the community in the long run, Cheung explained.

The purpose of the policy order was not to mandate workers’ spending, Cheung said, underlining the language in the 10 paragraphs available to the councillors for the past week. He just wanted to remind city workers that, especially as local stores such as the Curious George & Friends bookshop shuts down, “if we want to have local stores, like Curious George, like the little florist, where we go and buy things are the stores we’re going to see sticking around. If we decide that we only want to go online, we only want to go to big chains, we only want to go to Target or Wal-Mart, those are the stores we’re going to have. There’s nothing Big Brother about just saying if we want to have small, community stores we just need to remind each other that shopping here is what keeps them here.”

Henrietta Davis agreed.

“We have no one but ourselves to blame for  empty storefronts,” Davis said.

Other councillors didn’t see it as so simple, and raised issues of conflicting priorities — such as Ken Reeves in weighing supporting a minority-owned business (the owner of which might live in a nearby town, rather than in Cambridge) versus supporting a “local” business — and heavy-handedness because, as Marjorie Decker said, “city employees are individuals just like anybody else … keep in mind, when something comes through as a council order, that’s a very powerful statement to city employees.”

There are ways to remind people to shop locally, Decker said, and methods to avoid, since they make city workers feel targeted. Reminders from managers and posters similar to those at the Harvard Book Store saying “See it here, buy it here, keep us here” fell into the latter area.

Cheung agreed to remove two paragraphs from his order that Toomey found offensive, but ultimately — after explaining to Reeves that buying locally was more about avoiding national chains than choosing between shop owners who lived in Cambridge or Newton — he opted to send it to his own economic development committee for more study.

Members of the public seemed somewhere between bemused and amused by the prolonged debate. While some saw it as a swat at Cheung himself, politics watcher Robert Winters had a simpler explanation.

“It’s an election year,” Winters said.

The council is on a two-month break, save for an Aug. 1 meeting and committee meetings that are yet to be scheduled.