Friday, April 19, 2024


Only two City Council meetings remain before the summer break and nomination papers for council candidates become available July 1, with nearly two dozen people already identified as likely to swing by Election Commission offices to pick some up.

Nomination papers are usually due back at the end of July, and the campaigning and politicking through the Nov. 5 voting is likely to be fierce, considering the size of the field (which includes a half-dozen more candidates than two years ago); what we’ve glimpsed of the action so far (including incumbent Tim Toomey fighting off Michael Connolly in November to keep his seat in the State House, and the recent kerfuffle over the schools budget); and the overall quality (low, very low) of the council’s work in the past term.

Here’s a look at some council actions of the past year and a half that could inspire challengers to step in or serve as flashpoints in upcoming candidate debates:


Aggregation No. 1The Google debacle. The gold medal of council failure really has to go, once again, to the Google land deal from March 2012. The tech giant renting space from Kendall Square developers Boston Properties won a 7-2 vote that took away 42 percent of a public rooftop garden, a deal that began and ended within a startlingly fast single month, during which the councillors:

bullet-gray-smallbought the city manager’s premise that even though handing off the land at $127 a square foot was a matter of incredible urgency, the land was also too “insignificant” to go through a prescribed disposition process;

bullet-gray-smallnever bothered to ask or confirm whether there was any actual urgency to the plan;

bullet-gray-smallignored warnings (including in a letter from citizen Charles Marquardt, where he outright urged councillors to look into the situation) that the plan had been put together by a single rogue employee of the Cambridge Redevelopment Authority with no board oversight;

bullet-gray-smallfailed to recognize that of the five “commitments” Boston Properties made in exchange for the garden, only two were real (the other three had already been promised or were compelled by zoning law);

bullet-gray-smallagreed to one of those commitments even though the apartment tower Boston Properties promised to build was not only already promised, but literally can’t be built without further bending by the council. (The councillors voted ignorant of this.) In fact, Boston Properties said later that the Google structure needed to be built the exact way it requested because it has to function with a housing tower – yet there was no design for the tower, which couldn’t be built anyway unless the council opts well over a year later to give the company land to do it on. And, in fact, the 42 percent of space that got taken away wasn’t even all for Google so it wouldn’t leave Cambridge; it includes rooftop garden space that will belong only to residents of that high-rise tower Boston Properties hasn’t designed yet and can’t build.

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Aggregation No. 2Failing its own goal of a short-term city manager search. City Manager Robert W. Healy announced in March 2012 that he’d retire Sept. 30 after more than three decades in office, but that came with a council vote to add nine months to his contract and have him leave at the end of June so there would be time for a short- and long-term process to find a replacement. Considering “its ongoing goal of providing fiscal stability and thoughtful strategic planning,” the council said in a policy order, “any short-term plan should be in place before the FY 2014 budget process begins.”

Skip forward eight months and it turns out that almost nothing had happened in that process, so suddenly the entire “short-term” part of the process became an 8-1 vote appointing Richard C. Rossi to a three-year term as city manager. Part of the reason? “Planning for the 2014 fiscal budget is fast approaching.” Yes, that’s the very reason they said it had been so important to keep Healy around and get a replacement policy started.

Many people spoke up to protest the council’s failure. Their criticisms of the council were portrayed as somehow impugning Rossi, even though none had, and some speakers even went out of their way to praise him. It was a transparent ploy to distract from the council’s failure.

The surprise appointment of Rossi also prompted a citizen complaint that the open meeting law has been violated – again a critique of the council, not Rossi.

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Aggregation No. 3Lack of action on the Foundry building. At last! At the end of April, after only 14 months, councillors sprang into action: They approved a $40,000 study.

The Foundry building, a 52,000-square-foot structure at 101 Rogers St., was given the city in January 2012 as part of the rezoning that let Alexandria Real Estate Equities build its lab and office space tall and dense on a 15-acre campus along Binney Street. As part of the deal, 10,000 square feet of the Foundry is set aside for community use.

Councillor Leland Cheung began work on repurposing the Foundry building with a June 2012 Neighborhood and Long Term Planning Committee meeting, soon being joined by Toomey in asking how to sell, reuse or lease the space. Both asked late the next month such specific questions as whether it could be rented as is or “what would make the building operational, habitable and safe to use.” On Dec. 3, Toomey, Cheung and the other seven councillors issued a joint order reminding Healy of the earlier order and asking for an update.

Yet another order came Feb. 11: a full-council request for a task force of real estate and engineering professionals that could give an independent assessment of the building’s strengths and weaknesses. Healy responded two months later with the suggestion for a $40,000 study that could be passed off to a “house doctor” architect firm – meaning one that had been on contract all along and could probably have been asked to do a study immediately after Alexandria delivered ownership to the city.

This section of this post was updated June 6, 2013, to reflect that Cheung began the Foundry discussion.

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Aggregation No. 4Letting a legal loophole slip through even after it’s pointed out. When the long-gestating Forest City zoning change went through in February, councillors Craig Kelley and Minka vanBeuzekom pointed out that one of the developer’s five options for providing affordable housing could result in less of the stuff than was hoped. Since it was one of the key reasons the zoning took nearly 10 months and two tries to get through, they suggested putting off a vote by a week or so to ensure the language was smoothed out.

Other councillors, led by state representative and thus lame duck councillor Marjorie Decker, rejected that there was a loophole, didn’t seem to understand it anyway, ridiculed Kelley and vanBeuzekom for their fears and wound up voting the zoning through with the loophole in place.

Two days after the vote, councillor David Maher wrote the developer seeking reassurance that Forest City wouldn’t take advantage of the “ambiguity” – marking at least the second time a problem has been shoved in councillors’ faces and ignored, and less than a year after learning they would have done well to listen to Marquardt’s concerns about the CRA board.

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Aggregation No. 5Enforcing rules that make no sense that they don’t know anyway. Thanks to Mayor Henrietta Davis, there’s been more focus on enforcing Robert’s Rules of Order in the past months. Or Davis’ Rules of Order. Or David Maher’s, or whoever’s happens to be speaking at the time. In general, councillors are always happy when they get to use their esoteric knowledge of decorum and diplomacy to rule how a meeting is run, even when it turns out they’re making up the rules. It’s especially striking when the rules they cite hurt more than they help, or just make no sense.

The council’s “roundtable” meetings can’t be televised by city-owned cameras, for instance, because a majority of councillors think they’re able to speak more freely when city-owned cameras aren’t watching them – even though roundtables are attended by citizens, recorded and written about and can be livestreamed over the Internet for free (and two roundtables recently were, just to make the point). Yet after voting April 9, 2012, to hold the no-city-cameras rule sacred, Maher tried in March to televise a roundtable simply because at a previous meeting “I made a commitment.” Never mind that this is a tacit admission of the pointlessness of the rule; the solution to fulfilling Maher’s accidental, one-off commitment to transparency was to change the name of a roundtable so it was called something else. Certainly if it looks like a duck, swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, it probably is a duck, but in this case the duck was renamed “working group of the Ordinance Committee.”

Davis has been enforcing the rules of public comment with a clunky, distracting and intrusive insistence, but she took her approach up a notch in March by literally making one up: that even though a matter appears on the agenda, members of the public aren’t allowed to talk about it unless there’s extensive conversation about it later. Note that there’s no way for a member of the public (or, for that matter, a member of the City Council) to know whether an item will be chosen for conversation.

If Davis was really concerned about the time taken up by public comment on especially hot-button issues, and her repeated warnings about time limits suggest she is, she and the council could take note of what worries members of the public the most week by week and suspend rules to address an issue upfront before person after person stands and burns through their allotted time expressing fears and anger about something that will be a non-issue. The most recent examples of this concerned the schools budget, which some alarmist officials and residents portrayed as being “voted down” instead of being simply on the way toward a vote, and a School Committee meeting run by the mayor where parents and faculty panicked over “dramatic” changes coming to certain schools. At the end of lengthy public comment, committee member Fred Fantini simply told the crowd there was no need to worry. It’s a step that could be taken in response to the first speaker sounding a theme, or even before public comment but in response to e-mail or phone calls received by city officials or their aides. Councillors talk often about how the city can communicate better with its residents, but they don’t seem to know they can do it too.

This also could have been done in July, when Davis bumped a vote by a week without explanation – then was forced to answer when citizens occupied the public comment lectern and refused to leave until she gave an answer. City officials cognizant enough of public unrest to literally call in a police officer should also know enough to communicate what’s happening and defuse the situation.

“We have a process here. If we change [the rules] for bad behavior, we’re simply going to be in pandemonium,” councillor Ken Reeves said.

The pandemonium already happened, though, and in fact councillors change the rules all the time, whenever they find it convenient.

At the March 7 meeting of the Ordinance Committee, for instance, Davis called for a vote before any public comment had been heard, explaining that she had to leave early (and at which “members of the public hissed audibly,” Erin Baldassari noted in the Cambridge Chronicle). That shortcut to a vote and around the rules, brought on for the mayor’s convenience, is why Maher promised to flout the rules and his own vote to televise the next roundtable. No surprise, then, that Davis suddenly saw that “we’ve found a place where the rules need to be changed.”

Keep clicking these page numbers to see the rest:


Aggregation No. 6Letting personal issues get in the way of governing. Speaking of abusing the rules, councillors  have also made it an occasional game to torture each other with reminders of how the rules work, even if they don’t know or apply them inconsistently. While it’s embarrassing to watch Decker snipe at Kelley and ally with Maher go after Cheung, it’s bizarre to see Simmons insist Minka vanBeuzekom be literally in Sullivan Chamber to vote (a rule that seems to have been applied exactly once in the past term) or Decker attacking vanBeuzekom for using an aide to take notes at a committee meeting when a city clerk wasn’t available, despite testimony from the mayor, other councillors and the city clerk that it’s allowed and has precedent. By its members’ own admission, this council is incredibly dysfunctional.

It began with the election of a mayor, like in 2010 a situation that took two months to resolve. This time, though, it took 10 ballots to find an acceptable mayor in comparison with the six ballots it took in the last term. When there’s no mayor, there are no committees doing the detail work on initiatives that will go to the full council for votes.

Davis, in her role leading the council and School Committee, has shown in the way she runs meeting that she’s no stranger to letting the personal get in the way of the professional, so it’s no wonder she hasn’t been able to get her peers focused more on work and less on subjecting citizens to dramas that should be kept behind the scenes. It’s a toss-up whether that’s a bigger sin than the combination of voting before public comment, calling in police to a meeting or taking back a vote on net-zero energy use in Kendall Square. Which is a good segue to …

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Aggregation No. 7Bending for business. Davis said she took back her vote asking MIT to make its new campus in Kendall Square net-zero on energy use because Steve Marsh, managing director of real estate with the MIT Investment Management Co., “just said to me that [MIT officials] don’t understand the implications.” Yet this was less than two months before the city, MIT and Harvard signed a “Community Compact for a Sustainable Future” about which institute president L. Rafael Reif said:

Climate change is a global challenge. But momentum for action begins with strong local collaborations. Cambridge has helped to pioneer the idea of urban environmentalism. Building on that commitment, and drawing on the scientific, technological and policy expertise of MIT and Harvard, together we can make a difference for our local community and perhaps extract lessons with global value as well.

Davis has always been a leader in environmental awareness. In this case in which a personal issue and governing should have gone hand in hand, she let MIT dictate her conscience for reasons that are at best dubious and more likely an outright whopper and stand out even more when you consider that the city’s own $84 million Martin Luther King Jr. School project is essentially net zero, with 65 geothermal wells and a cladding of photovoltaic cells. How can the institute commit to a LEED Gold standard of building and sign that compact but not “understand the implications” of  net-zero construction? How did they commit to LEED Gold – throw a dart?

The claim to institute ignorance also came shortly after Cheung praised it for addressing what is now a “climate crisis,” saying that he’d seen various institutions’ work and “by far and away MIT is doing more work on this than anyone else … and I hope MIT sees this [campus] as a part of it.”

But this is just one example of most councillors’ general lack of steel and brains when it comes to dealing with the city’s academic and corporate partners. While Kelley and vanBeuzekom tend to keep their heads, other councillors’ reactions range from occasional rebelliousness to outright acquiescence, with the Google structure being the ultimate example. (Runner-up: Councillors claiming that Reif showing up to speak at a meeting for three minutes was significant in any way other than as an illustration that MIT wanted its zoning put through.)

The council also reversed itself in January on zoning it wrote compelling Kendall Square corporations to have ground-floor cafeterias open to the public 20 hours per week. The Community Development Department’s Brian Murphy, who helped write the zoning when he was a councillor, brought the idea forward because he was supposed to “identify any possible barriers that would hinder Biogen Idec Inc. from relocating its headquarters back to Cambridge” – but Biogen’s return to Cambridge from the suburbs became official in July 2011, a year and a half before Murphy’s request. (It’s even less encouraging that attorney James Rafferty, who also helped write the zoning, called the rule “very much an eleventh-hour brainstorming idea.” It suggests city zoning is written without much thought.)

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Aggregation No. 8Acting too late, or being all talk and no action. There is an estimated 5,500 units of housing on the way within the next decade or so, likely bringing the city quickly back to and past the peak population of 120,740 recorded in the 1950 census, and much of it is targeted for Central and Kendall squares, where it’ll be able to support lots of new retail, offices and institutional uses. That’s why it’s a good thing the city embarked on a red ribbon commission in Central and the so-called K2C2 process, so the city can be shaped thoughtfully and intentionally.

Except, whoops, development has been deluging city officials throughout the K2C2 process and has been handled largely as though the city already knows what it’s doing. The Forest City proposal near Central and MIT’s other massive, 26-acre development in Kendall, referred to as PUD-5, both drew complaints that they’d be shaping the areas for generations yet were coming ahead of an official decision on the months-long, $350,000 process. Development boosters have noted that the proposals are “in line with the K2C2 recommendations.” If we’re going to be using them to justify or guide current development, maybe councillors should, what the heck, vote on the recommendations and make them law. (Given how the council works, of course it was okay approving the Kendall Square zoning long before hearing from an MIT committee on the need for housing there.)

Cheung also worries that there’s a bunch of residential units being built where developers are making a de facto 11.5 percent of units affordable, when the figure is supposed to be 15 percent and some councillors (including Cheung) would prefer 18 percent. “The impetus is that we’re anticipating a lot of development in Cambridge within the next couple of years. We certainly don’t want to be caught having this come out after that development is on the way,” Cheung said in May.

Citizens have been complaining about the 11.5 percent trick for years, of course. And they’ve been sounding the alarm about the middle class being squeezed out for years as well, but the council has shown signs of the life on the issue only as recently as September (and then again in May, as though the September conversation never took place). The need for a policy on “community benefits” is another issue that flares up predictably every time development is on the table, whether it’s Forest City, Education First, Novartis or another zoning request, but an answer on how to ensure and disburse them fades away just as reliably. (And, of course, that issue about televising roundtables has been around since at least April 2012.) The Foundry building is another example of council fail, although in this case it’s slow-moving object meeting slowly yielding force in the form of the city manager.

Councillors express little sense of urgency when a crisis isn’t staring them in the face, but they also can’t seem to look ahead to a legislative need. In November, Cambridge had the largest voting majority in the county (and was among tops in the state) on letting medical marijuana dispensaries become law as of Jan. 1, beating the 63 percent of voters statewide by 10 percentage points or 16 if you eliminate those who didn’t vote on the initiative. Towns such as Melrose, Reading, Wakefield and Westborough managed to have laws and policies in place before Jan. 1; Cambridge barely roused itself in late December to vote to delay any policy-making until many months after the state set its rules. Despite their constituents’ obvious enthusiasm and embrace of the dispensaries, councillors also offered no comment when the city manager suggested three times that they not be permitted in the city at all.

But perhaps the most succinct example of the council’s lack of timeliness is its inability to handle Healy’s retirement. Kelley tried to get the council working on a policy two terms ago, in December 2010, before Sam Seidel was replaced by vanBeuzekom, and was forced to withdraw his motion in the face of hysterical charges of illegal and offensive ageism from other councillors.

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Aggregation No. 9Embracing helplessness. The city has a noise ordinance meant to keep things peaceful for residents, but hasn’t been able to enforce it at least back to 2007. The city also has an ordinance saying lighting must be “installed in a manner that will prevent light from shining onto any street or adjacent property,” yet it too is unenforceable. And the