Richard C. Rossi was appointed Monday to a three-year term as city manager after the retirement of the current manager, Robert W. Healy. (Photo: Marc Levy)

A promotion to city manager for Deputy City Manager Richard C. Rossi was approved 8-1 on Monday by the City Council, after nearly two hours of public comment split between citizens outraged over a lack of process and officials and representatives of business interest speaking in favor of Rossi as a leader.

No member of the public opposed to the three-year appointment spoke against Rossi, something noted by councillor Leland Cheung as he explained his vote in favor.

But the disconnect between those upset about process versus those who spoke in favor of Rossi’s professional abilities and love and understanding of the city — apples and oranges — continued as the council took up the debate.

Councillor Craig Kelley, who was the sole “no” vote and had asked to begin a process for handling the retirement of 32-year City Manager Robert W. Healy as far back as December 2010, said in reference to the sudden vote on Rossi’s contact: “That we’re here is extremely bothersome to me. It’s a question of us doing or not doing our jobs, and we did not. We abjectly failed … frankly, I’m embarrassed.”

Minka vanBeuzekom also said she had been surprised to see the policy order for Rossi’s appointment arrive via city clerk e-mail seeking co-sponsors, since the most recent council discussion on the topic had suggested “a different process we had committed to do.” A council meeting Nov. 5 was taken up with discussion of organizational meetings, search committees, official vendors, “visioning” processes, “stakeholder interviews,” citizen engagement surveys, analyses, reports and ensuring updates went on city websites, with no mention of Rossi.

Yet councillor Tim Toomey’s sharp response to Kelley was that he was “certainly not embarrassed at all,” not addressing process concerns while calling it “imperative we take this vote for the citizens of the city. They deserve to know who is the leader of the city.”

Rossi has been deputy city manager since 1981 under City Manager Robert W. Healy, who will retire in June after 32 years overseeing Cambridge’s government operations. Back in June, Healy said Rossi could be acting city manager “without batting an eyelash.”

Respect for Rossi

The 28 citizens who spoke agreed, with all lauding Rossi and his accomplishments and expressing confidence in his abilities to carry out the work of the city manager’s office, described by the city charter as being “chief administrative officer … responsible for the administration of all departments, commissioners, boards and officers of the city,” while the council “shall have and exercise all legislative powers.”

Councillors, newly returned from a meeting of the National League of Cities — at which Cheung was elected to the league’s 19-member board — spoke of other communities’ awe at Cambridge’s triple-A bond rating, fiscal stability and ability to launch and complete a steady stream of large building projects amid a recession that has devastated services and capital programs nationwide. Many, as well as many residents during public comment, referred to as a three-year vote for Rossi as a way to ensure “stability and continuity.”

Terrence Smith, director of government affairs for the Cambridge Chamber of Commerce, used the terms twice when he spoke as one of eight people giving the vote a strong endorsement. Others in the group included former mayor Frank Duehay, the heads of the Central Square, Harvard Square and Kendall Square business associations and city Office of Tourism, as well as businessman Sal DiDomenico Sr. and resident Bill Neukomm.

There were four speakers whose stances on the vote were not entirely clear, including former councillor Sam Seidel, and the remaining 16 speakers expressed disappointment, frustration and even anger over what they saw as a lack of process in the appointment.

Public process

“I’m appalled by how we’ve bypassed the public process. We have an opportunity for change I don’t think we’re taking advantage of by going directly to a full term. I agree he’s probably very qualified … but benevolent dictatorships are efficient, if not democratic,” said Mike Nakagawa of Madison Avenue, suggesting the bypassing of process was similar to what has been seen recently in Syria and Egypt. “The council has abdicated their governance in this issue by ramming this through. If you’re not going to do this correctly, then please let people have your positions and make comprehensive decisions and take on the difficult tasks.”

Kelley’s December 2010 suggestion for retirement planning was rejected scathingly by other councillors as insensitive, ageist and potentially illegal, and the council didn’t face the issue again until March, when Healy announced his retirement. But the council voted 6-3 then to give Healy a nine-month extension based on a policy order saying:

it is imperative to the overall stability of the City of Cambridge that the City Council develop both a comprehensive short-term and long-term succession plan that will assist the City Council in their ongoing goal of providing fiscal stability and thoughtful strategic planning and any short-term plan should be in place before the FY 2014 budget process begins.

Staying on while the council looked for someone else to take the helm “made a lot of sense,” Healy told The Cambridge Chronicle.

David Maher, the councillor who leads the Government Operations and Rules Committee for the council, said his committee had met some five times since,  but a month ago said his committee was “still in the early stages of the process.”

He missed his own deadline for setting the next committee meeting, and the one finally set for Wednesday has been canceled.

In voting Monday, councillors made clear that they intended to go through the “visioning” process discussed in early November, asking constituencies around the city about their ideas for Cambridge and the priorities they would set for a future city manager. Maher vowed to do the “most comprehensive outreach the city has ever undertaken … we are going to make sure we do this the right way,” and said that process could take up to nine months. The actual search for candidates to suit those goals would come afterward.

Cheung said the councillors were “coming to an understanding of the process of the process, and we’re putting in place a plan to have the city run well while we do that process.”

“Lucky man”

Ken Reeves said that only recently he’d been joined with Kelley in “utter frustration,” but was content with voting for Rossi’s appointment. “When I put my head on my pillow tonight it’ll be a good sleep,” he said, explaining that he felt having an interim city manager put Cambridge on a weak footing when negotiating with Harvard, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology or other business interests. He said he also feared the instability brought about by the frequent hiring and firing of city managers that was the norm before Healy and Rossi were brought on more than three decades ago.

He also expressed frustration with some residents’ reactions to the process and the lack of understanding of or effort to confirm how the council worked, which led to suspicions that councillors had violated open meeting laws and conspired to appoint Rossi.

Reeves had good reason for feeling that, as residents expressed those suspicions outright. Elie Yarden of Pleasant Street advised “total mistrust” in city government, since he felt he’d been “suckerpunched” again, and Gary Dmytryk of Massachusetts Avenue asked councillors to see how their move had “all the appearances of cronyism [that will] inspire feelings of cynicism.” Priscilla McMillan of Hilliard Street called it “a stealth move” and her neighbor Pebble Gifford weighed the smooth transition ensured by Rossi’s appointment against her feeling “it starts the process under a cloud, a serious cloud.”

Two amendments were proposed by vanBeuzekom and sent to Maher’s committee, both dealing with the writing of Rossi’s contract. She wanted the council as a whole involved in its writing and for an outside attorney to assess it before its presentation. Maher and then councillor Brian Murphy wrote Healy’s previous contract alone, prompting Cheung and others to call for more transparency in the process and in presenting how rewards in the next city manager contract are calculated.

Welcomed by applause after the vote, Rossi thanked his wife, assured residents he was not just “pro-business” and teared up briefly as he spoke about growing up in Cambridge as the son of a widowed father of humble means. “I will never forget  what it’s like to need assistance,” he said.

He also named advancing the city’s information technology as one priority for his term and said he was “lucky to be part of Bob Healy’s administration … He’s always allowed me my different opinions.”

“I really look forward to this,” Rossi said. “I thank you all so much. I’m blessed. I’m a lucky man.”

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