Sunday, May 26, 2024

The absence of city councillor Craig Kelley no doubt tamped down the drama at a Monday morning meeting delving into the details of five 1998 civil rights lawsuits now lost or settled by the city. But a letter he filed for reading in his absence brought more detail of the $12 million spent on the cases, and a request for a city apology to be heard waits to ramp the drama back up.

“It is not clear that the city manager has ever apologized to the City of Cambridge or anyone else involved for any role he may have played in creating this situation,” Kelley wrote, asking that the council apologize in place of City Manager Robert W. Healy and let him “know of its disapproval of his judgement and actions regarding this situation.”

The order will arrive when the council hears a report from that Finance Committee meeting, and it’s not known when that will be, Kelley said Monday night.

The morning meeting was formally to discuss the transfer of $11,917,462 from free cash to the Law Department to cover the expense of fighting, paying damages for and settling the cases, and Healy portrayed the “strictly financial piece” as a fairly dry matter, describing free cash as one of two city accounts that could be overdrawn during the year (along with the snow and ice removal budget) but must be replenished by June 30 without risking a rise in city taxes. The assertion surprised some in the audience, who’d thought the snow and ice budget was unique that way. “I’m recommending the sum paid out in 1998 claims be appropriated from free cash and expect it will be replenished when we close the books June 30,” Healy said.

Kelley’s questions

Then committee chairwoman Marjorie Decker — explaining that had she known of a conflicting family event for Kelley, she wouldn’t have scheduled the meeting for the same time — read questions e-mailed by Kelley, starting with a request for how much money was paid for outside legal counsel before the city’s appeal of a judgment in the case of Malvina Monteiro.

Healy’s response: $2,144,000 from the 1998 complaint through the 2008 trial.

Decker also read out for the absent Kelley a request to know what was paid for counsel on the appeal of the Monteiro case and to handle the cases of Mary Wong and Linda Stamper.

Healy’s responses: $488,409 for the Monteiro appeal, but the other question was more complicated, since the Wong and Stamper cases were intertwined in the Monteiro case. “I don’t have the answer to No. 3,” Healy said. “It will take some extraction to do it, and we might incur some legal fees to do it. But we’ll see if we can do it in in-house.”

Other information Kelley sought through Decker, including “How much in extra costs — opponents legal fees, interest and so forth — as a result of our appeal of the Monteiro verdict?” was also not immediately on hand, Healy said. Decker asked for the answers to be sent in a report. Healy also said he could not answer whether there were similar legal cases pending, telling councillor Minka vanBeuzekom when she pursued the issue that “There are always pending claims, and we defend them vigorously and we succeed usually.”

The city has written policies and training in place to guard against racial discrimination or other kinds of workplace issues claimed by the five women of color who complained in 1998, Healy said, but “there are disputes sometimes … I don’t think I can stop anyone from bringing suit.”

When vanBeuzekom if the city had since put policies in place to minimize the litigation, Healy said simply, “No.”

Council takes criticism

While Healy took a hit for deciding to appeal a case in which he was involved, residents speaking during public comment also directed criticism toward the council — two of whom are new enough to be exempt — for its lack of oversight of Healy. “You cannot leave it in the hands of any individual,” said Lawrence J. Adkins, once a candidate for the council. “Nine are elected for that purpose.” (Resident Elie Yarden even exempted Healy completely, saying “I am not here to criticize the the city manager in any way” but citing the council for “dereliction of duty.”)

With the accounting of the legal cases being exposed in finer detail, only attorney Richard Clarey’s comments struck closer to the remaining mystery of the Monteiro case, which wound up costing the city $8.3 million after a failed appeal: Why did the councillors think the city had such a strong case? Despite years of trial testimony, incumbents said during the November campaign there were untold details in the Monteiro case that could have swayed public opinion; After the voting, when some details of closed-door meetings were released, a June 2009 meeting about whether to appeal the case cited one or more councillor as saying, “Despite the fact that the city is losing the PR war, the prudent and wise course is to appeal. What the plaintiff did was egregious.”

Clarey noted that the city hired Boston’s Ropes & Gray, “one of the richest law firms,” only to see its lead counsel Joan A. Lukey “perform miserably” time and again,  with a “pathetic brief with nothing in it and pathetic oral argument” leading to an “eye-popping” verdict and building an “impregnable, bulletproof” case for the plaintiff that meant there was “almost no way the city could appeal.” He even suggested the city look into suing the law firm, which Kelley tried to preserve as a right in May 2011, but six councillors voted it down.

This post was updated by adding Kelley’s comments explaining the timing of his policy order.