Councillors shocked by meeting minutes, but not at voting under false pretenses
Add Marjorie Decker and Ken Reeves to the list of city councillors who care passionately about matters of procedure but have expressed no alarm over approving a major construction project under false pretenses.
They were among the councillors voting 7-2, on the recommendation of the Cambridge Redevelopment Authority, to let developer Boston Properties take away 40 percent of a public garden to build a structure linking offices of the search giant Google. The problem is that it was learned almost immediately after that vote some five months ago that there was no Cambridge Redevelopment Authority to make a recommendation.
But that hasn’t resulted in any apparent anguish. The fact the council was essentially duped has resulted in not a single public mention of concern by the seven members voting to approve.
We know, though, that Mayor Henrietta Davis and councillor David Maher, chairman of the Government Operation and Rules subcommittee, are zealous guardians and proponents of Robert’s Rules of Order. They’ll cut short or interrupt meetings to ensure these procedural rules are followed.
What gets the attention of Decker and Reeves? On Monday, as the council had its first regular meeting after its summer break, a report from an Aug. 8 meeting of the Environment Committee came forward as written up by Savitri Khalsa, aide to chairwoman Minka vanBeuzekom. Usually Interim City Clerk Donna Lopez or one of her staff take notes and type up minutes, but in this case no clerks were available.
Debate over this, driven by the outrage of Decker and Reeves, took up nearly 20 minutes of a meeting lasting nearly five and a half hours.
“I don’t think that’s how we guarantee an objective process,” Reeves said. “The minutes of a meeting are official city record from the official clerk’s office. They should be generated by that office … it is so important that a governing body have rules and follow them and that everybody know what the rules are.”
Lopez’ explanation that there was precedent for clerks using aides as backups didn’t matter. The mayor saying her own aide had been used as one didn’t end the discussion. Nor did her pointing out that staff from other departments had been used as fill-in staff. It also didn’t matter that councillors Leland Cheung and Craig Kelley were at the meeting in question and failed to register shock or dissent then or Monday.
Decker — after suggesting vanBeuzekom had put Lopez in the awkward situation of having to stand up to one of her nine councillor bosses — said she and Reeves would work on language for a rule that would prevent a councillor from scheduling a meeting for when a clerk wasn’t available.
“This is so obvious to me. It is about procedure, it is about the public record,” Decker said.
Reeves even suggested the Government Operations should hold an emergency meeting at 6 a.m. the next day to address the issue.
There’s no need to judge whether this topic was worthy of such lengthy, heated conversation except as context for the lack of conversation about what’s happening in Kendall Square, where the newly reconstituted Cambridge Redevelopment Authority — not coincidentally, its members are just short of five months into their reign — has persisted in working on the Google connector building because it was approved by the council. And only now are the board members kind-of-sort-of-not-really looking into the dubious legality of how one person with no documented authority to do so presented a plan as being the work of an imaginary five-member board.
Boston Properties got permission to start work Sept. 1. The public is losing 40 percent of a rooftop garden, and it’s never coming back. Procedurally, it could be argued, how this happened is more important to the public in perpetuity than whether the council follows the letter of every one of Robert’s Rules of Orders or whether it’s worthwhile spending so much time fearing a lack of objectivity from a council aide taking minutes at a committee meeting.
Granted, it’s all about slippery slopes. But for what’s it’s worth, here’s the topic of that Aug. 8 meeting of the Environmental Committee:
To conduct a public meeting to discuss implementation of a plan for separate trash or recycling curbside pickup for small businesses along existing curbside routes.