Councillor David Maher says Monday that the orchestration of further debate on the city's $151 million schools budget was "shameful."

Councillor David Maher says Monday that the orchestration of further debate on the city’s $151 million schools budget was “shameful.”

Did we miss a city press release about a contest for dumbest conspiracy theory?

While it’s doubtful anyone will beat the one about our Muslim Communist socialist fascist time-traveling Kenyan president, we do have a really good local entry.

Apparently there was a conspiracy on the part of four or five city councillors to stall the $151 million school budget instead of referring it immediately to the full council, talking about it until it came time for a vote – and then to vote on it. Thrilling.

Here’s how the Cambridge Chronicle described it:

[Councillor David] Maher chalked the vote against referral to a politically “orchestrated event,” pointing his finger to “certain members” of the City Council, who he said pulled councillors into “little quiet meetings” before the council voted against referring the budget. Maher refused to say just who had orchestrated the vote.

But [councillor Marjorie] Decker, who reiterated Maher’s comments when she spoke publicly, was less reticent.

“It’s absolutely Leland Cheung,” Decker told the Chronicle.

The result of this, the complaints went, was to cast the budget into “limbo” and create anxiety throughout the school community. This could have been avoided if everyone described the process more accurately. If the budget was in “limbo,” so is everything the council does up until a vote is held. The Forest City zoning was in limbo. The MIT proposal for Kendall Square was in limbo. There are 71 items on the city manager’s “Awaiting Report” list dating back to Feb. 13, but even that’s business as usual for the council process.

The plot

It is also unclear what the intent of the plotting would be – School Committee members, Decker and Maher have spoken only about orchestration and conspiracies rather than outcomes – but let’s just examine the plot on its merits.

Councillors Cheung, Craig Kelley, Denise Simmons and Minka vanBeuzekom voted May 9 against referring the proposed budget. Tim Toomey voted “present.” Ken Reeves left for another appointment before a vote came.

When they voted to hold the schools budget in committee, their calendar included a placeholder hearing May 16 (to be held only if there was a need), a tentative May 20 vote for the full city budget, within which the schools budget is a line item, a backup date of June 3 and a drop-dead adoption date of June 5. The state’s general laws say that a budget that isn’t voted goes into effect as submitted.

So not only were parents brought to the point of panic over a budget held May 9 that was supposed to be adopted June 5 at the latest – nearly a month afterward – or even not voted on at all with no ill effect; but with another hearing on the calendar for May 16.

That May 16 hearing never happened, because Superintendent Jeffrey Young and district Chief Operating Officer James Maloney were out of town and unable to attend, Decker said.

Some questions

How does that fit in to the councillors’ scheming? For there to be an actual scheme would they have to know Young and Maloney would be out of town a week later, making the May 16 hearing unworkable? Frankly, based on the work of the council this term, this level of conspiracy is well beyond even its cleverest members’ capacities.

And wouldn’t scheming councillors have to know people would freak out for no reason, acting as though the schools budget had been voted down instead of held temporarily in committee while a month or so ticked slowly down?

That is, if there’s a conspiracy at all, it seems getting attention for councillors’ obstructionism had to be a part of it. But here’s the rather undramatic thing Kelley told constituents via e-mail and Facebook almost immediately after the May 9 vote:

By keeping the school budget in committee, Councillors will get another chance in a few days (not yet scheduled) to review the budget with School Committee members and CPS and city staff to try to get a better understanding of how this budget proposal fits in with the educational and fiscal realities of the City of Cambridge.

Committee member Marc McGovern told people at the same time that councillors had taken “the unprecedented step of voting against the school department budget for next year” and had “voted down” vital programs, and he repeated the language with budget co-chairman Richard Harding three days later. Neither is true, but this made it seem like there was a crisis. That drew far more attention than councillors’ use of a process that is set up to work exactly as they were using it.

Yes, councillors were using a bully pulpit to make school officials show up and explain themselves, and maybe that’s grandstanding, obnoxious and a waste of time.

But how is that different than what the council does day in and day out for their entire term? Calling in the superintendent to explain stuff just means they’re making him do what City Manager Robert W. Healy has done at every single council meeting for the past three decades.

Takes one to know one

If we’re supposed to get exercised about a conspiracy theory, how about coming up with one that actually circumvents democracy – especially for no real reason?

What would that look like? Well, it would look like what happened at a School Committee meeting in June 2011, and for maximum effect it would involve at least one of the council members crying the loudest about conspiracies. Lo and behold: Maher, mayor at the time, was involved.

As mayor, he communicated before a meeting with School Committee members to have orders ready to go that shut the meeting down about six minutes after the end of public comment, ensuring that no official discussion or work took place.

Maher and Decker were asked early Thursday afternoon via e-mail if they could explain what motives they saw in their fellow councillors’ “orchestrated” actions, but neither replied.

But Maher explained his actions back in June 2011: He was just following the rules, he said. School Committee members just happened to have orders ready to go, and he just happened to call on them and hold votes in such a manner that shut down debate and ended a meeting abruptly.

Cheung, Kelley, Simmons, Toomey and vanBeuzekom did something similar, in a way: They were following the rules. But their actions would have made for more public debate – not cut it off.

So which is dumber: A “conspiracy” to create more public debate or a conspiracy theory that accuses politicians of doing so?