Sunday, May 26, 2024

Cambridge voters are lucky to have a strong field of challengers they can elect this year, which will help keep the City Council and School Committee full of new ideas and energy. There are also some remarkable incumbents.

Having posted a short list of candidates for whom not to vote, here are some that stand out as voices that seem the most valuable in guiding Cambridge forward in the next two — or more — years. These are names that should excite voters for the roles they play or could play; tasks they perform or could perform; and potential for great ideas and leadership.

(Those not mentioned, of course, are mostly the candidates who fall into the space between the lists, including several incumbents whose work may have been good or even outstanding, especially for a certain constituency, but who also present enough troubling aspects to diminish the confidence or excitement a voter can feel ranking them high on the ballot.)

Council incumbents

Leland Cheung gathers signatures during his reelection campaign for City Council. If voted back in Tuesday, he will be serving his second term.

Leland Cheung has been on the council for only one term but has achieved a tremendous record balancing innovation and constituent service. It is a cliché to look at the youngest member of a body and identify that person as being the best able to guide a city into the future, but Cheung makes it difficult to avoid. Throughout his first term he has sought technological solutions that serve the people, starting nearly immediately upon election with urging the city manager to bid for Google’s ultrafast Internet proposal and following it up with bringing crime statistics to citizens via the police BridgeStat system, Wi-Fi to people in city parks and the details of city manager contracts to at least the beginnings of transparency (as was supposed to happen the last time the contract was voted). With his entrepreneurial and international background and studies at Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he has an innate sense of the needs of Kendall Square and its denizens and pressure points in town-gown relationships, and a strong sense of where to guide Cambridge’s square mile of innovation — his Entrepreneurs Walk of Fame being a masterstroke that needs to be maintained and capitalized on. He also stood up to the cynics and fought to meet with Boston officials to form a regional approach to luring businesses, another necessary step into an increasingly globalized future. Cheung is low-maintenance and high-productivity, and he listens.

It was mildly depressing to watch Cheung join the council with such enthusiasm and urgency and watch it be submerged into the mire of bureaucracy, caution and lack of creativity that bogs down so many of his fellow councillors, turning every council initiative into such a slow, dispiriting slog. This submersion (and subversion) started even before a mayor was elected, as Cheung presented three potential solutions to an eight-week stalemate that was keeping work from getting done and really starting to be embarrassing. But his older and allegedly wiser peers maintained the mantra that “this is our system; the system works,” raising objections that merely proved they hadn’t been listening. Even worse was when councillors David Maher (by then the mayor), Sam Seidel and Tim Toomey blocked Cheung’s effort to extract promises from Kendall Square developer Boston Properties for getting housing, low-cost office and lab space for entrepreneurs and public amenities such as a grocery store and public art for Kendall Square — exactly what the city’s highly paid consultant will eventually say is needed there.

“We never operate on this calendar,” Seidel told Cheung, explaining how the council prefers to move at mind-numbing slowness on even the simplest matter. “The shortest turnaround time typically is Monday to Monday. Zoning matters typically take weeks.” (Weeks? We wish.)

For the sake of Cambridge’s future and the people who need help and hope now, Cheung must be reelected with the revivifying message: “Don’t listen to the comatose councillors. Keep fighting. Take action.”

Craig Kelley was first elected to City Council in 2005 and has since developed a reputation as stubborn and irritatingly contrarian. It turns out he is also often right. (Photo: Liv Rachelle Gold)

Craig Kelley frustrates his fellow councillors. Rare is the person who doesn’t acknowledge Kelley as a stubborn, contrarian, potentially showboating, gigantic pain in the ass. But what must be really frustrating for them is how often Kelley is right.

Whatever the secret votes were to support the city manager’s disastrous appeals of the Malvina Monteiro lawsuit or block release of other details to the public, Kelley made public efforts to take control of Law Department spending, including the most recent parts of the $3 million spent litigating the case, and secure the city’s rights to sue its own lawyers for what is essentially legal malpractice; argued against closed-door meetings and for the public’s right to speak on the matter; and asked for the release of information in the cases that didn’t affect future litigation, or at least for the city manager to say when it would be released. Did he actually act behind closed doors to prevent the release of information, as councillors Ken Reeves and Marjorie Decker say? Sure, that’s possible. Eventually we’ll know if and why Kelley acted in this somewhat implausible way.

Because Kelley usually has reasons for acting as he does, maddening as it may be. Like when he stood alone and voted “no” on a city manager contract that had been conducted by two councillors — Maher and Brian Murphy, now on to other things — but wasn’t posted for review by the public as councillors agreed it would be.

He was also ahead of the curve on insisting repeatedly on more enforcement of traffic laws, including for bicycles, a cause that gained force and resulted, two weeks ago, in the city manager promising a fresh look at the issue and more enforcement. It wound up looking like a win for Kelley. When Henrietta Davis proposed a law against brakeless bicycles, which Kelley reminded her already exists at the state level, she wound up just looking like someone who’d seen something on television and wanted to tell people about it.

In December, Kelley suggested looking at the repercussions of retirements among high-level staff such as the city clerk, city manager and his deputy, and most of the council gang-jumped him — Reeves and Seidel being exceptions — with a somewhat hysterical charge of age discrimination. Even Cheung, who should have known better from the times his own policy orders have been misread and the intent ignored, climbed aboard to beat on Kelley. Now a campaign season has revealed that the government would be in disarray with the departure of the city manager and city clerk and, while neither is desired, neither seems unlikely, either. There is no coordination and only the vaguest consensus among council candidates about the process for replacing the people who’ve been running the city for decades. Instead of freaking out, councillors could have looked ahead a few months and seen the increasingly likely need for a process to be studied, agreed upon and put in place; instead they chose to ignore it for 11 months.

Soon we may have a lame-duck council; a January inaugural; a possible repeat of the eight-week delay (or longer) in appointing a mayor to decide committee assignments; and, in March, a rude surprise from our 30-year manager. Then the council can get to work with its usual alacrity.

Maybe the next council will be less about the occasional self-serving drama and more about listening, even to the outliers, to see if there’s value in their suggestions. Obviously that could be important if Kelley is reelected. And both those things would be good ideas.

Ken Reeves is the longest-serving member of the council and an advocate for Cambridge’s various pleasures, including restaurants, clubs and the arts. (Photo: Liv Rachelle Gold)

As Cheung’s candidacy is about the technological future of Cambridge, Ken Reeves’ is about its future as a center for the pleasures of life, because what makes life worth living is what makes Cambridge worth visiting. More than any other incumbent — or challenger, for that matter — Reeves represents the sensual and artistic aspects of the city needed to be in place if Cambridge is going to keep growing as a creative mecca. It is his vision for Kendall and Central squares especially that is bringing the city closer to a new, attention-getting festival, more music (if he can break an archaic city law about having nightclub doors only on Massachusetts Avenue or Green Street), better dining, the 24-hour pleasures worthy of a world-class city and even a little forgiveness for the noise of occasional revelry. While plenty of councillors might think to convene a task force looking at the amenities and concerns of Central Square, only Reeves would feel the need to convene on “the Delights and Concerns” of Central Square.

There is also the sheer pleasure of hearing him speak and seeing him saunter around the city, always dapper, but these are hardly defensible reasons to elect a politician. Meanwhile, his legislative efforts can be disorganized, and it is sometimes shocking to hear the things he seems not to know, considering his role as the council’s longest-serving member. (Did Reeves, a graduate of the University of Michigan Law School with a private practice in Cambridge, really need the city clerk to read him the justifications for a closed-door meeting?) But that just leads to another pleasure of having Reeves in office: His wildcard nature means never quite knowing whether he is asking a question for himself or for his constituents, or what he’s going to do next, which suggests that even his placement in the pro-city manager camp is suspect when push comes to shove. His request for funding to “undertake academic or legal counsel to review the Plan E Charter” back in October 2009 was certainly intriguing, suggesting that he feels the council is capable of doing more — an applaudable idea in a city where the manager seems to be setting far more policy than its policy-setting arm.

He also serves a vital role on the council, namely as a conciliator between factions who can return a pointlessly heated exchange to reasonable room temperature and seek out the logic behind even the most assailed suggestion. Which is not to say he cannot unleash some righteous fury of his own at times; again, in addition to his strengths as a legislator, it can also be fun just to hear him orate. Cambridge would be a poorer, less fun place without Reeves helping lead it.

Council challengers

Marquardt and vanBeuzekom

Voters could be forgiven for thinking Charles Marquardt and Minka vanBeuzekom are already on the council. With Marquardt’s experience in small business and finance and his canny analysis of the city’s long-term budget needs, and vanBeuzekom’s history of community advocacy and focus on workable environmental solutions — especially when added to their consistently measured and practical public speaking — is is doubtful Cambridge has ever had two candidates so ready to take office.

Stohlman

Close behind them is Tom Stohlman, whose campaign is marked not just by good sense but by a sense of civility and calm that befits an architect and self-described nerd. His rationality and common-person approach would be as welcome on the council as his knowledge of zoning and record of land-use work with cities including Hingham, Reading and Andover. And Boston. And Cambridge. Every neighborhood uncomfortable with the direction development is heading would likely feel more comfortable with Stohlman on the council.

Mello

Gary Mello is getting involved in politics for the first time, but he’s entering with a bang. His wish for a two-year ban on development is unlikely to go anywhere; his suggestion that the city make Cambridge Health Alliance its provider for municipal employees’ health care is an exciting and worthy one, sure to save taxpayers money while boosting the alliance and raising its quality of services for everyone. In general, the taciturn Mello wants Cambridge off the cycle of raising revenue that inflates the power of developers at the expense of residents. That sounds like a good idea.

Richard Harding, Marc McGovern and Patty Nolan are seeking reelection to the School Committee. (Photos: Liv Rachelle Gold)

School Committee incumbents

Parents, educators, students and the community are in good hands with Richard Harding, Marc McGovern and Patty Nolan. These are public servants who have proven they are willing not only to put in the long hours of mastering mind-numbing policy minutiae, but to take bold and sometimes unpopular votes because it’s the best thing for students and the city. When it came time to decide on the district restructuring called the Innovation Agenda, Harding looked past his many reservations, voted in favor for the greater good and vowed to make the plan work no matter what, not flamboyantly voting against the plan on a single issue; McGovern looked at outcomes and courageously made a call he knew would cost him supporters and even friends; and Nolan applied her usual, laser-focus objectivity that pretty much ensures a vote is correct. These are not pandering politicians, but serious-minded officials who are passionate about their charge and dedicated to seeing the Innovation Agenda is done right, and they need to be returned to their seats.

School Committee  challengers

Osborne

Mervan Osborne is an exciting prospect for the School Committee: polished, accomplished and inspiring and possessed of several attributes that align perfectly with Cambridge’s nature and needs, including a bent toward the arts and an admirable technological savvy. Talk with Osborne and his team and you can literally feel the eagerness to engage with district issues on a substantive level. But most important is his experience at Boston’s Beacon Academy; voters unhappy with Cambridge’s achievement gap need the benefit of what he’s learned there.

Holland

John Holland is a solid, nonideological second choice for the committee — or first choice for anyone whose primary concern is keeping the district spending wisely and focused on best practices. While there are sound reasons Cambridge spends $25,737 per pupil, Holland seems serious about bringing his professional experience to bear in guaranteeing taxpayers know those reasons and see the results.