Sunday, June 16, 2024

City Council challenger Gregg Moree makes a point Wednesday during a Mid-Cambridge Neighborhood Association Forum held at Cambridge College on Massachusetts Avenue. (Photo: Marc Levy)

The settling of two civil rights lawsuits so quickly after an $8.3 million payout to a third plaintiff could quiet questions about City Manager Robert W. Healy at campaign season candidates forums. It also could enflame them, especially since the settlements followed quickly on yet another payout, this one quietly ending an unrelated case having to do with the 2006 arrest of a black Harvard professor.

The forum coming 7 p.m. Wednesday to West Cambridge’s Russell Youth Center, 680 Huron Ave., will test which way it’s to be.

If anything were to replace Healy as topic No. 1, it would most likely be candidates’ plans for helping the middle class afford to stay (and buy a home) in Cambridge. No fewer than three candidates brought up the issue during their introductions at the previous council candidates forum, held Wednesday in Mid-Cambridge, led by challenger Matt Nelson and followed quickly by incumbent Tim Toomey and challenger Charles Marquardt.

Along with proposing Harvard Square’s center become pedestrian-only, with cars routed around it, and that pedicabs be added to the transportation mix of the city, Nelson wants “creative redesigns to our bigger homes, turning them into two and three units, helping our residents age in place and creating more family housing … I see a Cambridge that is still home to diverse communities and unique neighborhoods for all income levels. A place where, if you grew up here, you can can still afford to live here later in life.”

Another challenger, Jamake Pascual, told attendees later that he was emblematic of the problem. “I’ve been trying to buy a house for 15 years,” said Pascual, a lifelong Cantabrigian. “I haven’t been looking in Cambridge, obviously.”

The Healy debate

Even though the forum was broken up into five topics of discussion — including the environment, public safety and neighborhood issues — Healy dominated by the nature of his role running the city, in the remaining two topics of city finance and leadership, and in the fact that the next council will decide whether Healy’s contract is renewed Sept. 30 and whether he gets a raise or other perks atop his $336,317 salary and $5 million retirement package.

Challenger James Williamson told attendees at the Mid-Cambridge forum that the current council’s “tacit acquiescence” to the city manager creates “a circle [that] has a chokehold on the city” blunting native creativity. If he is elected, he said, he would begin a search for a successor immediately. He also compared Healy’s wages with those of U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner ($191,300 a year, according to CNN Money) and asked: “What’s going on here?”

But fellow challenger Larry Ward was in the mainstream of council candidates in citing the city’s excellent services and top-notch bond rating as reason for Healy’s high salary and continued presence. “By all measures, Cambridge is doing well,” he said, making the Monteiro case and its follow-ups “very unfortunate [but] not an issue to dump city manager.”

Even dozen-year incumbent Marjorie Decker affirmed that the city manager “has a lot of strengths” even while saying she was part of a minority on the council opposed to appealing the Monteiro case not just on financial grounds but because “morally, we were wrong.”

It all had resident Charles Teague hopping from candidate to candidate to ask whether ethics had taken a back seat to finances in City Hall. (Ward denied this, saying, “There’s plenty of proof in the [past] 30 years that ethics is at the top of the list.”)

Settlement details still secret

The amounts involved in the three settlements weren’t disclosed, and the city is resisting the release of notes detailing their discussion of the cases. Before the deals were made, the city held back the information on the grounds its release could affect pending litigation; now the city is delaying until the court has dismissed the case officially, as City Clerk Margaret Drury explained Monday before a council meeting.

Some residents in overheard political conversations wonder if a legal end to the issues aren’t a gift to council incumbents facing already complacent voters, and the Cambridge Chronicle’s complaint to the Attorney General’s Office about the city keeping the records private said it wants some information released “so voters can see how each councilor voted before the Nov. 8 election.”

Even without the information being released, discussion about the civil rights lawsuit of Malvina Monteiro vs. City of Cambridge, the estimated $11.3 million cost to taxpayers in pursuing the case and Healy’s role in it — as well as his general stewardship of the city, good and bad — were brought up repeatedly at the forum, held at Cambridge College on Massachusetts Avenue in a format unique to the Mid-Cambridge Neighborhood Association.

The 18 candidates pursuing nine council seats kept the traditional row format only for introductions before being sent off by moderator David Szlag to five tables to answer questions on the five topics. With each topic addressed at each table at different times, the 100-plus attendees were free to follow an issue that concerned them, stay with an individual candidate or mix the approaches.

Joan Pickett, president of the association, said the approach was introduced in 2009, when there were 22 candidates. She said the reaction was “fabulous.”

The format gave voters a more intimate view of candidates — how often do you see a veteran councillor rolling her eyes at a challenger? — but offered answers in bits and pieces: All present did not hear all responses.

Bob Sprague contributed to this report.