Sunday, July 14, 2024

The City Council agreed Monday to ask for the details on millions of dollars spent settling three civil-rights lawsuits, but there is no guarantee those details will be available anytime soon or made public, including before a Nov. 8 election that has had the settlements and other actions by City Manager Robert W. Healy as a constant theme.

For instance, there are seven items of city business in the “On the table” section of the council agenda, with the oldest dating back some 18 months. Even if all councillors are sincere in wanting all possible details made public immediately — the vote passing the request was by general agreement, not by roll call — a couple explained after their Monday meeting that Healy has no specific timeline on which to make his report. And the council has no mechanism to make him; the council’s sole oversight of the city manager is to fire him with at least a 5-4 vote or with renewal and negotiation of his next contract.

The request, based on a policy order by councillor Craig Kelley, suggests another closed-door session to clear up what information can be made public. There has already been a Freedom of Information request by The Cambridge Chronicle to reveal details of the finances behind the three cases, but a so-far secret vote by the council kept the information sealed.

Now the council is again behind on the details.

“I’m aware that the settlements in the remaining two cases … have occurred, and we to my knowledge haven’t been given any information about that,” councillor Ken Reeves said.

By now, many in the city are familiar with the background of Kelley’s order:

The matter involves primarily the lawsuit Malvina Monteiro vs. City of Cambridge, during which the city lost a jury trial and two appeals, resulting in a payout of $8.3 million in damages and legal fees and a likely lawyers bill of its own to the tune of $3 million. After the Monteiro settlement, two similar cases filed by women of color who worked for Cambridge were settled out of court for undisclosed amounts. (Before the city’s appeals, Monteiro was due $4.5 million to satisfy her claims of discrimination and, after she complained formally of discrimination, retaliation by city executives.)

The Monteiro money came from a $100.2 million unreserved fund balance account gathered by the city manager. “Over the years, I have planned for such a potential unfortunate outcome,” he said in a statement Aug. 19.

Before the deals were made, the city held back information on the grounds it could affect the remaining cases; then the city insisted that the court must dismiss the cases officially, as City Clerk Margaret Drury explained Oct. 17 before a council meeting.

On Monday, when Reeves asked her when litigation actually ends, Drury — noting such advice wasn’t really part of her role as clerk, especially when there were three lawyers in the room — said it’s generally considered to be “when there’s been final judgment by the court.” Reeves suggested that Drury’s answer could be confirmed with the city Law Department, although the suggestion wasn’t made formal by being amended to Kelley’s policy order. None of the three lawyers in the room offered a confirmation, and city lawyers weren’t called down from their office one floor over council chambers.

“Legal settlements are often reached where the parties agree not do discuss it. So I would encourage councillor Kelley to go forward on this, and the rest of my colleagues, and that we request an executive session with the manager focused on the bottom line. We don’t necessarily need to know the amount of each case, but the total impact of these cases surely we should be informed of,” Reeves said. “And if we’re not informed, I will go with somebody’s comments that perhaps we shouldn’t be here.”

On that he was playing off of what East Cambridge resident Heather Hoffman said during the meeting’s public comment period: “You guys are spending public money. The public has a right too know what our money has been spent on — I’m not going to quibble over paper clips and pens, but millions of dollars is an entirely different matter. If the councillors aren’t fully informed over how the money is being spent … I question your fitness for being here.”

Councillor Marjorie Decker said she welcomes a closed-door session to help figure out what information can be made public, chided Healy for not proposing an explanation to the council on his own and echoed comments by councillors Tim Toomey and Henrietta Davis in saying with the release of formerly secret information “there will be a lot of contradictions about what people think they know about the case, and what role councillors played, versus what actually happened.”

Another closed-door session might be necessary in this case, but they’ve been overused, said Kelley. He voted with councillor Sam Seidel — but was overruled by five others — against going into a closed-door session Aug. 19 to hear about Healy’s decision to settle with Monteiro. He has also proposed that the council take control of Law Department funds (backed by Reeves, Seidel and councillor Denise Simmons) and retain the right to seek a “legal malpractice” case against city lawyers (backed by no other councillor) based in part on advice from lawyer friends who advised him the city’s side in the Monteiro case didn’t “have a hope in hell.”