Wednesday, April 24, 2024

The only thing dumber than the way the Cambridge Redevelopment Authority is being run is trying to excuse the way the Cambridge Redevelopment Authority is being run, but this week the authority’s executive director and Cambridge’s city manager dared to be dumb.

By getting too comfortable with rules that let the authority’s five board members keep working after their five-year terms expire, the state, authority and City Manager Robert W. Healy have allowed the board membership to fall to zero. The rules say members have to live in Cambridge, and one moved away possibly as long as three years ago — no one knows, including, somehow, the authority executive director who was also that member’s partner in a business run out of authority offices — but Healy shrugged off responsibility for that by telling the City Council on Monday that “I don’t hang over people’s heads that they’re holdovers.”

And why wouldn’t that member feel comfortable moving? His last term expired 11 years ago. Another member’s term expired six years ago this month. The city lucked out: As the last working member (although he was actually a nonmember) that guy only resigned in January.

The last recorded meeting of the board was two years ago, and the one before that was three years ago.

But executive director Joseph Tulimieri goes on doing business, deeding parks to the city, proposing sculptures for the city gateway at the Longfellow Bridge, crafting a deal with the developer (and its landlord) Boston Properties that removes 40 percent of a beloved rooftop garden from public use and okaying lobby expansion and a giant illuminated sign for Microsoft.

His justification? According to an interview he gave the Cambridge Chronicle on Monday:

Tulimieri said the CRA had taken some “administrative actions” since its last meeting but nothing that would require a board vote. Tulimieri himself approved Microsoft’s plans for a new sign towering above the Longfellow Bridge … Tulimieri clarified that both “signage review” and the lobby construction fall under administrative actions, but said there is no objective trigger for transferring authority from CRA staff to the CRA board. “It’s a reasonable determination that’s made,” Tulimieri said. “It’s totally up to the board.”

In the case of Google’s expansion plans, Tulimieri said, the board would meet in publicly posted meetings for a three-stage approval of Google’s expansion plans.

Just to be clear: The authority’s bylaws make no reference to “signage review” — they say only that the board decides things and the executive director has “general supervision over the administration of its business and affairs, subject to the direction of the authority.” No offense to Tulimieri, but saying that approving installation for a giant sign is an “administrative action” is like saying that the person you hired to clean and shop for groceries can also hire an architect and contractors and surprise you by adding a wing to your house. Because, you know, it’s all about administering the place, right?

Saying the Boston Properties/Google rooftop garden deal is acceptable because there’s a three-stage approval process on the way ignores the fact that the council already voted on it. Now the council gets to approve Healy’s suggested board members to look over the details. That sounds very much like they get to approve the paint for the wing they never asked to be built.

Now, this is Cambridge. The Microsoft sign, rooftop garden deal and all these other shenanigans would almost certainly have been gone through anyway if Healy and the state had bothered to find the board members they were supposed to. But Healy’s been city manager for 31 years and Tulimieri’s been executive director of the authority for 34 years, and they’re used to running things as city councillors and board members come and go — probably because councillors and board members are happy to let them.

That seems increasingly like a dumb idea.

And, by the way, keeping public records on the fourth floor of a private building guarded by private security and public employees who don’t understand the concept of public records? That goes way beyond dumb. Either that office should be moved to a publicly accessible place or the records should — or the authority and Boston Properties should get an education fast in what “public records” means.