Thursday, May 23, 2024

The first City Council meeting of the new year is Monday, a continuation of the smaller agendas and less controversial issues seen at the final few meetings of last year – a year in which the council flunked its short-term city manager search and plenty of other stuff and basically admitted that members’ inability to get along was getting in the way of city business.

In light of that, here are five suggestions for the council somewhat along the lines of new year’s resolutions. They involve a look at the city charter and some tailoring of Robert’s Rules of Order to reflect local needs and changing times. And they start, and finish, with the ridiculously obvious:

Stop letting personality get in the way of policy. Back on Dec. 3, councillors officially gave up on their own order to hold a real short-term appointment process and instead just voted to promote Deputy City Manager Richard C. Rossi to three years as city manager. That’s when councillor Marjorie Decker (with quick agreement by Ken Reeves) admitted that “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.”

There are too many variables in election campaigns to assume voters will take care of the problem in November, and two years is a long time to let dysfunction rule, especially when it’s all too possible two years will turn into four … or six … or more.

So the first suggestion would be for the councillors to simply take their positions seriously, follow through on their charge and find their way to constructive compromises just as clashing co-workers do every day in businesses, institutions, organizations and governments around the globe. I mean, really.

While a city manager search isn’t the same as one for a private-sector executive, as councillor David Maher pointed out when his committee failed to come up with a short-term process, at least the council can take its own deadlines more seriously. It set search deadlines and missed them – unnecessarily, since it would have been way ahead of the process if councillors had acted back in 2010, at the suggestion of councillor Craig Kelley, instead of opting to score cheap political points off him for bringing the idea forward.

Some help might be found in adapting procedures to cut out personality as much as possible, and the council and city clerks will know some good ways to do that. To get those creative juices flowing, here are two small and wonky suggestions to decrease the amount of personality being applied to what should be pure policy:

End the co-sponsorship process on policy orders. Resident and recent council candidate Tom Stohlman accused the council of violating open meeting law by soliciting co-sponsorships on a policy order to promote Rossi – and every similar policy order, which get e-mailed among the nine council members by the city clerk every week before a meeting. In Stohlman’s Dec. 28 letter to the attorney general asking for a legal judgment on the process, he notes that a review of hundreds of policy orders over the past two years shows a “strong correlation” between co-sponsorships and how those council ultimately vote. “It is hard to find an order among the hundreds offered by a quorum of the council where there is any variance,” Stohlman says.

In other words, the co-sponsorships are basically a pre-vote that is made official at the meeting.

City officials, on the other hand, argue that the co-sponsorships show only support for an order being put on a meeting’s agenda. But it’s totally unnecessary for councillors to support an order being put on a meeting agenda; a single councillor can do it, and single councillors do it all the time.

There should be less emphasis on behind-the-scenes politicking and getting-along anyway. This tradition is another invitation to voter cynicism that the council has decided an issue before public comment and public debate, with the tradeoff being merely that councillors get their name on more legislation and therefore look busier and more engaged. Tell you what, councillors: Just be engaged when you debate an issue before voting.

Leave councillors’ names off all resolutions, or just death resolutions. There were echoes of the co-sponsorship kerfuffle last year in a debate over resolutions filed too late to be on the formal council agenda, especially those honoring just-deceased constituents, in which councillors wound up sounding like they were simply in a race to look attentive and respectful: They wanted their names on a death resolution, and if it wasn’t on there, they felt robbed of an opportunity to show how respectful they were.

Just take all the names off. Let the council honor constituents solely as a body. When the resolutions are brought forward, councillors can speak about a person’s life and accomplishments as they do now.

Add question-and-answer periods to meetings. This is an idea that should be applied to all city boards, from the council and School Committee to the Planning Board, Cambridge Redevelopment Authority and onward. (And it probably stands about as much chance of happening as these previous suggestions.) It also takes a thoughtful approach to implementation, a willingness to tweak the model a bit when it’s in place and, frankly, a lot of bravery.

But every municipal board in Cambridge should have a question-and-answer period (likely as part of public comment) at their meetings – a chance for citizens to interact directly with their elected and appointed officials to ask data- and policy-driven questions and get information back immediately. This is officials’ chance to address and damp rumors immediately, eliminate misinformed outrage, guarantee a more informed electorate and possibly even shear wasted minutes off public comment on the city’s most inflammatory topics.

As it is now, questions or issues bothering residents and mentioned during public comment might get answered later in a meeting during discussion by a councillor or other official who remembers it and deigns to address it. If they don’t remember it being brought up or don’t consider it important, a question or issue can easily be ignored and fester in the body politic.

The discourse must be polite and stay away from the personal – the same rules that apply in current public comment periods – and relies on maturity on each side of the dais as well as a mayor who allows everyone their say but no more and is adept at conducting discussion that adds light and not heat.

Recognize that the city manager is not the leader of the city. Voters elect the City Council. And according to the Plan E Charter adopted by Cambridge in 1940, that’s because the council oversees “the government of the city and the general management and control of all its affairs” and has “all legislative powers” (except for those held by the School Committee and voters). The city manager’s role  is to be “chief administrative officer … responsible for the administration of all departments, commissions, boards and officers of the city.”

So it’s kind of dismaying to get a peek into the thoughts of current councillors via something Tim Toomey said – provoking no reaction – Dec. 3 during debate over whether to appoint Rossi to be city manager (the quote has been cleaned up grammatically):

It’s something we have to do for all the citizens of the city. They deserve to know who the leader of the city is going to be.

The leader of the city? The city manager isn’t the leader of the city. The council is supposed to be setting goals and policies that are followed by the city manager, although lord knows it’s been pretty well established current City Manager Robert W. Healy doesn’t know that. That Toomey doesn’t believe it either, and that no other councillor is interested enough to make the point, is news, though.

One of Healy’s strengths is that he’s been running the city so long – more than three decades – that he knows it better than any councillor. The promotion of Rossi, who’s been in place as long as Healy, means the council can go on dodging its collective responsibility for knowledge and thoughtful, forceful policy-setting for at least another three years.

It’s possible the November elections will introduce a crop of candidates who take Plan E seriously, but until then voters have to be content with putting in office (and paying) a group of people who think they were elected to watch the city manager – or at least most of whom don’t bother to say or act otherwise.