Five low points for Cambridge in 2012
As with the high points for Cambridge in the past year, the low points gathered here were chosen mainly for what they might say about the nature of the city historically and in the long term rather than simply being specific moments that are meaningful only fleetingly. They are chosen and ranked subjectively and, like nearly all such lists, should be seen as the start of a conversation rather than even an attempt at a final word.
The City Council gets conned by Boston Properties
The months-long process that lost the public 42 percent of a rooftop garden so Google could have more office space is funny in a sad way and sad in an epic way. The newly reconstituted Cambridge Redevelopment Authority board (which didn’t like that its executive director gave himself raises without oversight or approval but basically think it’s fine that he cut development deals solo) played a role, but it was the City Council that really showed its comedy chops in this affair. After being spitting mad over the temerity of the deal in February, the councillors were pretty content a month later after being promised apartments (already promised and yet actually, literally impossible to build); programming in a nearby plaza (also already promised); years more public access to the 58 percent of the park that remains (also basically guaranteed by open space laws had they done nothing); $250,000 for design of an intersection and $2 million for a 2-acre pork chop-shaped park elsewhere in Kendall Square, which is a tiny fraction of both developer Boston Properties’s annual profits and the city’s gargantuan and often-boasted-of free cash fund. In voting this $2.3 million payoff in the space of a madcap month, the council bought that there was some kind of urgency to the deal, agreed with the city manager that the land was vital to Google and therefore to Cambridge and yet of “little significance” and taught the world this lesson: “If you get enough Cambridge city officials in a room together and wait patiently while they talk tough you can pretty much make them do anything you want.”
A teen is killed, and an overlap of violence makes a city seem briefly out of control
Nearly seven months ago, a drive-by shooting on Willow Street killed Charlene Holmes, 16, and injured Thanialee Cotto, 17. While officials say the intended target of the shooting is gone and the neighborhood is safer and better as a result, it’s dismaying that there has been no arrest in that time, especially with the amount of information known and shared immediately after the violence. District Attorney Gerry Leone and Cambridge Police Commissioner Robert Haas told the Cambridge Chronicle their departments had an “all hands on deck” effort in place to solve this case so there was “a [solid] piece of litigation at the end … these officers are working so hard on the case [because] we want a prosecution that’s going to stick and be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.”
At least the spate of violent incidents that followed Willow Street was short-lived. Three days after Charlene Holmes was killed, there was a shooting without apparent injury in Hoyt Field. Three days after that came another shooting without apparent injury in Dana Park. And four days after that brought a high-speed car chase that included a trooper firing his weapon, a car crash in Charles Street Circle, an attempt to flee via the T and an arrest at the Kendall Square T stop.
City officials flunk their short-term city manager search (and plenty of other stuff)
It was no secret City Manager Robert W. Healy was near retirement after more than three decades running the city, and city councillor Craig Kelley asked in 2010 for a process to handle the retirement wisely. Too bad the other councillors chose to act like they were 4 and Kelley had just told them there was no such thing as Santa (and insinuate Kelley had indulged in illegal ageism that made the council vulnerable to lawsuits). That meant that when Healy did announce in March that he’d retire Sept. 30, it was with a council vote to add nine months to his contract and have him leave this coming June 30 instead. Part of the reason: “It is imperative to the overall stability of the city that the City Council develop both a comprehensive short-term and long-term succession plan that will assist the council in its 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.” The same policy order that extended the contract ordered that councillor David Maher’s Government Operations and Rules Committee, “with the assistance of the city manager,” get those succession plans in place.
Skip forward seven months and it turns out that almost nothing had happened in that process – requiring organizational meetings, search committees, official vendors, “visioning” processes, “stakeholder interviews,” citizen engagement surveys, analyses, reports and ensuring updates went on city websites – meaning there would have to be an interim city manager.
Skip forward another month, during which Maher failed to convene his committee as promised, and suddenly the entire “short-term” part of the process ordered in March became an 8-1 vote appointing Richard C. Rossi to a three-year term as city manager, a promotion from his three decades as deputy city manager. (Kelley voted no, rightly noting the council had “failed” in its goal.)
Part of the reason? “Planning for the 2014 fiscal budget is fast approaching,” councillors said in their Dec. 3 policy order – yes, the very reason they said it had been so important to keep Healy around and get a replacement policy started.
If councillors wanted to seem less feckless, complacent and reactive and more capable of following through on their own policy orders, they could have just said back in March that promoting Rossi was not just an option, but the ideal solution given his experience and ability.
Unfortunately, this was just one in a series of lazy punts city officials have taken recently. Councillors started talking about middle-class sustainability in September, although residents have made panic at being squeezed out of the city a theme in public comment for years. Guarded, slow, wait-and-see or outright hostile reactions to such things as parking meter technology, car-service smartphone technology, micro-unit apartments and even bike helmet dispensers at Hubway bike rental sites make Cambridge seem less like a city interested in innovation and solutions and more like a city willing to let Boston and Somerville prove their superior agility, engagement and vibrancy. There must be some municipal endeavor in which Cambridge leads – an argument could be made for the long established example of maintaining an independent water supply, for instance – but aside from fiscal accomplishments such as piling up free cash and maintaining high credit rankings, it’s hard to think of one. Anyone?
It’s early to outright condemn Cambridge’s approach to medical marijuana, but it’s a little sad to see towns such as Melrose, Reading, Wakefield and Westborough act with alacrity on the issue and Cambridge – where 79 percent of voters who cared to express an opinion were in favor of pot dispensaries – simply kick the can down the road nine months, let alone talk of banning dispensaries completely. Should those 79 percent really expect to forget about finding pot in Cambridge, which is walkable and has adequate public transportation, and instead try to figure out a way to get to (in a worst case) Ashby, which is 50 miles and about an hour, 15 minutes’ drive away? Ashby is also in Middlesex County, after all, and there will be at least one dispensary in the county somewhere. It’s just hard to see why it shouldn’t be in the community that, out of 54 in the county, voted most enthusiastically in favor of the idea.
Neighbors fight a driveway with the very froth from their mouths
If Avon Hill set out to make its residents and Cambridge sound like a bunch of hyperbolic nimbys, the Case of the Second Curb Cut – in which owners of large homes whinged about the coming of a really, really large home – would be a prime way to do it. And so it was, from October 2011 to Feb. 27, when the council finally locked in a policy order letting Eric Griffith have a second driveway for his his 53,665-square-foot lot so long as it was used the way it was allowed to be used. Redundant? Yes. But this is how things go when you have residents calling the driveway a threat to “the 99 percent” (it was the Occupy era) and to children who play there amid three other driveways and a large number of cars. The neighbors may have had valid complaints about how Griffith got permission for the curb cut and questions about whether it was needed or deserved. But their method of arguing, which included fears that the lot would be used in ways zoning doesn’t even allow, made them seem either like lunatics or like people trying really hard to get what they wanted without coming right out and saying why they really wanted it.
Councillors and committee members let the personal get in the way of the professional
Only weeks ago, to cap a year that began with a two-month, 10-ballot delay in naming a mayor, councillors Marjorie Decker and Ken Reeves stated the obvious: the council had never gelled to a degree of working together without sniping or legislative undercutting. “This council has had a really challenging time trying to find its rhythm with each other … in my almost 14 years, this is probably the most challenging City Council. The rhythm of the nine city councillors, it’s been a year now and it hasn’t clicked.” Reeves agreed with Decker’s words that the council wasn’t able to “function in a healthy way,” saying: “This is the oddest DNA in the council I’ve experienced.”
They’ve experienced it firsthand, of course, including when they were outraged that notes of a public meeting about trash pickup were taken by an aide of councillor Minka vanBeuzekom rather than by someone from the city clerk’s office. An explanation from the interim city clerk herself that there was precedent didn’t matter. The mayor saying her own aide had done it 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 when Decker and Reeves brought it up.
The dysfunction can be a little more subtle, too, such as Denise Simmons – sitting in briefly for the mayor – once demanding that vanBeuzekom be in the chamber to vote, a selective bit of enforcement for a body whose members frequently call in ayes or nays from their private chamber or the lobby.
It’s not limited to the council. Similar interactions have taken place on the School Committee, where Mayor Henrietta Davis has snapped almost bizarrely at member Patty Nolan, and members of each board have said privately that some of the acting out and resistance to legislation results from blowback against members who don’t follow council or committee traditions. As with Kelley and the deferred process of replacing the city manager, there can be obvious but unintended consequences; the committee saw that in April when the issue of school choice at the Amigos School flared anew after the topic was aborted by infighting in the members’ previous term.
Honorable mentions: After spending $14.6 million ending five civil rights lawsuits begun in 1998 and settling a sixth, it was dismaying to hear in June that there were yet another half-dozen “similar” cases facing three city departments; the movie theaters at the 10 Church St. AMC Loews Harvard Square 5 closed July 8, ending the run of interactive midnight “Rocky Horror Picture Show” showings that had been held there regularly since 1984.
This post was updated Jan. 14, 2013, because Healy explained the timeline for his retirement: That the council’s extension of his service by nine months was in place when he retired, not that the council added nine months upon his retirement.