James Williamson speaks Wednesday at a candidates forum in Central Square’s Senior Center. (Photos: Marc Levy)

Leland Cheung, Sam Seidel and Tom Stohlman were three of the 13 candidates who made it to the forum.

The city manager and his costly decision to appeal a multimillion-dollar lawsuit dominated a Wednesday election forum, with 13 incumbents and challengers brought repeatedly by audience questions to discussions of responsibility, oversight, conflict of interest, transparency in government and what else could have been done with the settlement money.

The roughly two-hour City Council forum, sponsored by the Cambridge Ward 6 Democratic Committee and moderated by its chairwoman, Leslie Phillips, was advertised as drawing “17 of the 18 announced candidates” for the November elections, when voters will decide nine seats on the council and six on the School Committee. But five councillors were missing from the tables at the front of the Central Square Senior Center because of prior commitments, and several candidates in attendance mentioned that they’d learned of the forum only about a week ago.

The format was also rough, with some questions gathered from the audience — and even some forum rules — confusing the candidates. In a round of questions in which candidates could choose six of several to answer, for instance, councillor Leland Cheung passed on a few not knowing how many questions there were left to be asked; the round ended with him deprived of using three answers.

Still, there were illuminating moments, including when some incumbents and challengers split on the issue of keeping on City Manager Robert W. Healy for another three-year contract. Healy earns $336,317 a year, with good perks and a great retirement package, on a contract ending Sept.  30, 2012, although candidate Gregg Moree revealed during his answer that Healy “said to me he wants to die on the job.”

Minka vanBeuzekom, a challenger who ran two years ago and stayed involved in civic life in the interim, agreed “we need a strong city manager … but that being said, when you entrust someone with that much power, you really have to trust them. I feel there’s been a violation of that public trust.” She vowed that as a councillor she would look at his performance when assessing a next contract.

Last month the city decided not to continue fighting a claim of retaliation, racial discrimination and wrongful-termination by former city employee Malvina Monteiro. The final payout may well up the total to $10 million, which piled up from the original $4.5 million when Healy decided to appeal. Some saw that as a conflict of interest, since Healy was involved in the case.

Jamake Pascual, a business consultant running for the first time, said it was time for a change, as the issues had changed since Healy arrived in Cambridge more than three decades ago. “My stance is not to vote him back in,” Pascual said. Larry Ward, who was on the council from February 2009 to that year’s November elections, when Leland Cheung replaced him as the new face amid a panel of long-time incumbents, also said it was “time for a transition.” He suggested asking Healy to serve as a consultant to find the next city manager.

“The responsible thing to do is begin searching now,” said James Williamson, who also ran for council two years ago, drawing laughs from the audience and fellow panelists by noting Healy has been in office longer than Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president for almost three decades who was unseated by populist protests and faces a trial in the deaths of people at anti-government rallies.

Incumbents had a different set of reactions, with vice mayor Henrietta Davis calling the city “super-deluxe” under Healy and saying she didn’t see “a reason for change” and Denise Simmons, who was mayor in her 2007-09 term, lauding Healy but saying she often has to go “toe-to-toe” with him on issues such as education and race and class because civic engagement “is not one of his strong suits.”

“Each time the city manager’s contract comes forward, I always continue to have those conversations and say, ‘This is how you can improve working with the council,’ because we are a team,” Simmons said. “The city manager at some point is going to, of his own volition or though a vote of the City Council, move on. It’s important for the City Council to look at what we want to see as the qualifications of a city manager. And how do we engage the citizens at large in that process, so we can have someone that can continue to do the work and have our city run as well as it has?”

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