Sunday, June 16, 2024

Issues raised during Wednesday’s election forum were wide-ranging, including worries about snow removal and Cambridge’s city manager. City councillor Ken Reeves, seen as mayor in a 2007 parade, says he and councillor Marjorie Decker were the “the only ones who ... informed the manager that he should not continue” a damaging lawsuit. (Photos: Marc Levy, top; cmurtaugh, bottom)

While the ever-popular issues of Cambridge’s controversial city manager and three recent civil rights lawsuits drew attention at Wednesday’s forum for City Council candidates, more mundane matters of parking tickets and snow removal got a hearing as well for the roughly 30 voters who attended.

Seventeen of 18 candidates were seated in three groups around tables at the Russell Youth Center during an event sponsored by the Ward 9 Democratic Committee. (Marjorie Decker had a scheduling conflict with an “Evening with Progressive Voices” campaign event.) Under the format for the rainy evening, candidates were to change tables after a hoped-for but never-realized 20 minutes per topic. Voters could move, too; most stayed put.

The next forum is Tuesday from 6 to 8:30 p.m. at the Senior Center at 806 Massachusetts Ave., Central Square.

Resident Beth Pendry asked how candidates would deal with her story: While walking down Tremont Street in Area IV on a recent Friday afternoon, she counted 40 cars without Cambridge stickers. None had received tickets. She called City Hall but got no answer.

Mayor David Maher, seeking reelection, took notes on a pad and said he’d look into it, adding that constituents usually complain about too much enforcement.

But challenger James Williamson identified the lack of response at City Hall as a problem in its own right, saying people should be able to call traffic enforcement on a Friday afternoon and vowing to revisit city work hours if elected. “I’m not comfortable that the city closes down at 12:30,” he said. City Hall hours extend to 8 p.m. Mondays, allowing late business and for officials to be on hand to respond during council meetings, but Friday hours run only until noon.

Picking up the theme and, Richard Clarey, chairman of the North Cambridge Stabilization Committee, asked whether all candidates would pledge at the first council meeting after the Nov. 8 election to set aside $2 million from the city’s $100 million cash reserve to make sure major arteries are plowed of snow from curb to curb. Massachusetts Avenue in North Cambridge last winter was never entirely plowed for six weeks during the season’s epic 70-plus inches of snow, he said, while Massachusetts Avenue in Arlington had been plowed properly.

“This should not be allowed to happen,” he said of Cambridge’s response to snow on the ground from after Christmas until early February.

Before candidates responded, another resident said that in Arlington, resident must move cars during a snow emergency. In Cambridge, they do not, so as “not to anger potential voters,” he speculated. He said the Department of Public Works was not the problem.

Challenger Tom Stohlman called snow removal a basic function of government and would “absolutely” make such a pledge. Maintaining streets and sidewalks was a priority, he said, followed by ending a problem he’s experienced as a resident: “You don’t feel you’ve been heard.”

Fellow challenger Matt Nelson called the issue “situational,” noting that in Arlington residents have places to which they can move cars. “In Cambridge, they don’t.” He said he would take the pledge, but didn’t think it a money issue.

Maher called last the winter the worst he has seen in a lifetime. As long as he can remember, he said, Cambridge has moved snow, not removed it, citing environmental restrictions and lack of safe places to pile removed snow. “I get the frustration,” he said, noting 44,000 resident stickers and perhaps more than 50,000 cars in one of the most densely populated cities in the U.S.

“Come up with a system that is functional,” challenger Jamake Pascual said.

Williamson, saying the forum was an example of a “constructive conversation,” called for plowing to be done at major intersections so people can cross the street.

Getting along

Another voter asked candidates to comment on the claim that the current council is the least cooperative and more competitive with each other as any in recent memory. Incumbent Ken Reeves immediately disagreed, saying his 22 years put him in the position to know, and giving the 1990 crop of councillors as an example. That year, five weren’t on speaking terms, he said.

“I get along with my colleagues,” incumbent Denise Simmons said. “We may disagree, but I hope we’re not disagreeable.”

While Stohlman and Nelson said they could help bring sides together, the ever-counterintuitive Williamson said he’d “like to see more disagreement.” His response to issues surrounding City Manager Robert W. Healy suggested why, as he felt Healy’s “inordinate power” despite the council’s role in setting policy, leads to a key missing ingredient: democratic community participation.

Back to city manager, lawsuits

Voter Catherine Sullivan asked whether City Manager Robert Healy expects to retire next year and whether the council should rehire him. In a reference to three recently settled civil rights lawsuits against the city in which one plaintiff complaining of retaliation from managers got $8.3 million in damages and legal fees, she said she is “concerned about retaliation, apart from money spent. … I’m shocked, really.”

Six months’ notice is needed on renewal of Healy’s contract, which expires Sept. 30, and either Healy or the council can indicate they’re opting out of renewal.

“There’s no indication [Healy is] leaving,” Reeves said. “As long as the city is as fiscally viable as it is, he will be there as long as he likes.”

If there’s unhappiness in the city with Healy, said challenger Charles Marquardt — the holder of an MBA who compared the city manager system with the workings of a corporation — “Either the CEO goes or the board goes or some combination of both. The voters control the council. The voters on Nov. 8 will make a decision about what’s going to happen in the next few years.”

Still, Marquardt warned, “You need a well-thought-out transition plan to get what’s in his head on paper … You have to see who’s leaving with him.”

Challenger Larry Ward made Marquardt’s point even more forcefully. “At any time if people think the city manager isn’t doing his job or has crossed an ethical line, the people who hired the city manager are sitting right here,” he said, referring to elected officials. “Every councillor for the last 30 years has voted for the manager, possibly with the exception of one.”

Challenger Minka vanBeuzekom said, “I would look very objectively at the pluses and minuses of his tenure in the city … I can’t really say now whether I’d say yes or no.”

But when looking at the civil rights lawsuits, vanBeuzekom reminded Sullivan in regard to retaliation against an employee: “I’ve called that a violation of the public trust.”

“The thing I think about is the conflict of interest. Putting somebody at the helm to make the decision,” vanBeuzekom said, referring to Healy’s power to decide whether to appeal a jury’s finding in Malvina Monteiro vs. City of Cambridge, which resulted in millions of dollars being added to the original award.  “Whether he made the right decision or not, I don’t have enough information. The appearance of that conflict of interest is what bothers me.”

Benefits of incumbency

As a councillor during the time Healy decided, Reeves had context the challengers could not.

“The only ones who … informed the manager that he should not continue Monteiro are myself and Councillor Decker. No one else can say that truthfully,” Reeves said. “We could have gotten out for under $3 million. It cost us $8.3 million. I do not support that.” (Councillor Leland Cheung was not elected until November 2009.)

It was unclear how Reeves and Decker informed the manager of this. City Clerk Margaret Drury said a week ago today that the decision to appeal was Healy’s and that councillors did not have a vote in the matter. Because the city is reluctant to release minutes from the closed-door meetings at which the city manager and council talked about the Monteiro case and others, details are scant.

Asked to describe the two most glaring problems in the city, Reeves, a council veteran, cited the three lawsuits most recently settled and police appearing not to know the limits of their authority.

As to Healy’s contract, he said: “It is an unfortunate truth that two councillors negotiated the last contract and then brought it out into a meeting where we were being asked to vote on it. In my 22 years, it never happened that way before. But because you sent so many new people there, new ways of doing business have emerged. It could never have happened under the prior traditions of how the City of Cambridge has worked.”

When the moderator, Jonathan Sclarsic, called for a new question, Michael Brandon, clerk of the North Cambridge Stabilization Committee, said he wanted to continue the one about Healy. He asked candidates whether they would hire an outside attorney to advise them about Healy’s contract, as the School Committee does when negotiating employment agreements (and terminations or renewals) with the superintendent.

Simmons, a councilor since 2002, said she was “open to the idea,” and Marquardt said an outside attorney should take a look at the contract. Reeves took issue with the assertion about the School Committee, saying it relies on the School Department’s general counsel, though he later tried to qualify his initial comment somewhat while somebody else was speaking.

Maureen A. MacFarlane, legal counsel for Cambridge Public Schools, confirmed Monday that Brandon is correct: Outside counsel is brought in for contract negotiations with the superintendent.

Marc Levy contributed to this report.