Wednesday, April 24, 2024

whitespaceLots of good stuff has happened in Cambridge under the watch of City Manager Robert W. Healy, who officially ends a 32-year run today. Residents are generally happy, according to city surveys, and there have been a slew of successful big construction projects and a consistently strong credit rating and supply of free cash.

There are a couple of areas, though, where Healy’s leadership has resulted in terrible outcomes, and where starting Monday the city might benefit from a different approach.

Each begins with the city manager’s failure to appoint members to boards, includes a result that demands investigation and ends with a report that doesn’t answer even the most basic questions about what happened.


Click on this image to see the Cambridge Review Commission report on the Gates arrest.

Click on this image to see the Cambridge Review Commission report on the Gates arrest.

In the first and more famous case, you could guess at the strength of the report’s findings from the name of the body writing it, the blandly titled Cambridge Review Committee.

You may remember it better by its informal name: the Gates committee. This dozen-member, $241,360 committee spent nine months producing a 60-page report about the July 16, 2009, arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates on charges of disorderly conduct after police investigated reports of a break-in at his Ware Street home.

The city already had a Police Review and Advisory Board, a group of citizen overseers that is supposed to investigate complaints against the department or individual officers. But Healy appoints its members and executive secretary and has been historically and notably slow to fill vacancies. When the Gates controversy flared, the board had been missing an executive director for nearly a year. It also took 16 months for Healy to fill a board vacancy.

When the Gates arrest drew international attention, the board was understaffed and passed over for playing a role in the response that followed. It ultimately released its own Gates report, but without city support or cooperation from key witnesses.

Police Commissioner Robert Haas told the City Council that he and Healy had decided that the best way to learn after the Gates incident was to “bring together national people that had varying perspectives,” but councillor Ken Reeves didn’t buy it.

“The people of Cambridge are not stupid. They know PRAB has been destabilized … It hasn’t been there. If Gates wanted to go [to the board after his arrest], it didn’t exist. It was on hiatus, and I hold the council responsible for this, because we have known for way too long that the city manager, for reasons best known to him, is not trying to empower the Police Review and Advisory Board to protect the rights of the people,” Reeves said.

Further, the official commission was literally instructed by Healy and Haas not to address what happened the day of the arrest, but only to look forward at “broad lessons” and “lessons learned.” The report confirmed that, saying the committee “was not charged with conducting a definitive fact-finding regarding the incident of July 16, and has not attempted to do so. The committee feels strongly that such an inquiry would likely prove fruitless.”

What were the results of the non-fact-finding mission?

bullet-gray-smallWell, first, there was no examination of errors and potentially lies or shocking sloppiness in Crowley’s official report. The pretense in it for Gates’ arrest was “loud and tumultuous behavior, in a public place, directed at a uniformed police officer who was present investigating a report of a crime in process [and serving] no legitimate purpose [that] caused citizens passing by this location to stop and take notice while appearing surprised and alarmed” – meaning Gates was asking questions of an officer who was walking away having finished an investigation, and he was doing so on his front porch, which was needlessly surrounded by multiple cruisers and officers from two police forces, which undoubtedly drew more people “to stop and take notice” than one guy on a porch yelling at the officer who called in all the backup. In fact, Harvard University police had been called to the scene only after Gates’ right to be in the house was established, another part of the investigation the committee didn’t question – even in the context of its key concern about “de-escalation.” Crowley also said the 911 caller told him she’d “observed what appeared to be two black males with backpacks,” which is totally and mysteriously at odds with the actual 911 call referring to “two suitcases” with one person of unknown race and another who “looked kind of Hispanic, but I’m not really sure” and a caveat that “I don’t know if they live there and they just had a hard time with their key … I don’t know if they had a key or not, ’cause I couldn’t see from my angle.”

bullet-gray-smallThen there is no critique of the police department’s lackluster “internal investigation,” which talked to only a single person who’d seen Gates’ arrest; nor a questioning of the department’s failure to release its internal review to the public, which city councillor Craig Kelley suggested in August 2009 would be the case. Cambridge Day had to go through legal channels for documents in the “investigation.”

bullet-gray-smallThe report had a single relevant sentence on the charge on which Gates was arrested, saying “Courts generally have upheld disorderly conduct statutes, declining to strike them down unless they are unconstitutionally vague. But courts have imposed some restrictions on such laws” – ignoring the fact that the basis for Crowley’s actions was unsupported in Massachusetts law, and that lawyers had a near-universal belief that conviction would have been impossible.

bullet-gray-smallIt also predicated its findings on the notion the men were equally afraid of each other and each should have tried harder to “de-escalate” the situation so an arrest could have been avoided.

This “fear” factor largely ignores the fact that Gates was a slight man using a cane who, as a prominent black intellectual and historian, would know well the staggering number of black men shot and killed by police for reasons such as reaching for a candy bar or wallet or pulling up their pants or leaving a strip club or even for lying on the ground face down and handcuffed. Arresting officer James Crowley is a police sergeant who was armed and, by his own account, had “several Cambridge and Harvard University police officers assembled” watching as he literally turned his back on Gates and walked away before making an arrest.

The report does put more blame on Crowley and the police than on Gates, but so vaguely that most readers missed it, and it took pains to obscure its own conclusions by saying “Readers are cautioned against attempting to read between the lines of this report or interpreting any particular sentence beyond what it says.”

In the end, city councillor Ken Reeves complained that the money, time and effort had produced a report that failed to answer the question his constituents kept asking him: Could we be arrested just like Gates was – and, if so, what happens when it turns out we’re not world-famous Harvard professors who are friends with the president of the United States?

Weighing in months after the committee’s report was released, councillors and members of the public tore it apart, calling it a “shabby document” done in an “odd” way that left many feeling “profoundly underwhelmed” by failing to answer basic questions and done without proper input from elected officials or concerned citizens.

But in terms of “lessons learned,” not much here seems to have made an impact on Healy.



Foley Hoag’s report can be read as a PDF by clicking on this image.

The Cambridge Redevelopment Authority, which has been focused for decades on building up Kendall Square, has five members, four of which are appointed – or, rather, sometimes are not appointed – by the city manager. When their terms expire, sometimes members keep serving, and results have been further muddled by members moving away or retiring without being replaced.

It’s certain that the authority went at least 32 months without an active board from September 2009 through April 2012, but citizens who have looked into its activities and membership see another period dating from the late 1990s when there were only three identified members and one was no longer living in Cambridge – thus no longer qualified to serve. Business went on during these periods because executive director Joseph Tulimieri, who’d been aboard since 1982, kept doing it.

He seems to have overreached in cutting a deal with developer Boston Properties to take away 42 percent of a public rooftop garden to satisfy the architectural needs of its tenant, Google. When Tulimieri handed that deal to Healy for presentation in February 2012, the effect on a popular amenity drew attention to the authority and its lack of board, which drew attention to how Tulimieri had handled his financial compensation in those blank 32 months. He was forced to resign and is to repay $80,000, which is less than the suspect funds he took out in that time.

Since then there has been a $65,000 report accepted this year from Boston law firm Donnelly, Conroy & Gelhaar focused solely on Tulimieri’s finances (net win for the CRA: a potential $15,000); and a wider-ranging, 113-page document last year by Foley Hoag that was supposed to look at the entire 32-month period. Authority finances show $102,392 were spent on legal services in two months last summer, reflecting roughly the time from when the report was ordered in mid-July to its presentation in mid-September (net result for the CRA: Everything’s hunky-dory).

The flaws of this earlier report are many, starting with the fact it was produced by Foley Hoag, the law firm that served as counsel to the authority during those 32 months. In fact, one of three authors, Sandra Shapiro, was direct counsel during that time. This was identified by every member of the public present at the unveiling of the report as a conflict of interest, but not by the five members of the board.

There are extensive critiques of the Foley Hoag report here and here that, among other things, wonder how Tulimieri and Shapiro made it through almost three years of doing CRA business without noticing they weren’t holding the monthly meetings called for in authority bylaws or thinking to remind someone they needed a board; why an audit that literally couldn’t be turned in didn’t serve as a red flag to anyone; and what document or precedent allowed Tulimieri to concoct a deal such as the one for Google.

When the Foley Hoag report was presented Sept. 19, seven members of the public stood to react with disappointment and alarm, especially at the conflict of interest. In contrast, the five board members then congratulated the firm: “It was exactly what we expected and very well done, and I would like to congratulate counsel on it,” board chairwoman Kathy Born told the firm’s Jeffrey Mullan and Shapiro.

Board members said they would accept the report (although officially they agreed to table the item) and likely discuss it over the course of several meetings, with Born saying “it wasn’t just whipped off as accepted tonight.”

I want to assure members of the public that if the board has any reservations or worries about this, we can always ask for an independent review. But right now this is definitely the place to start. This law firm knew the material better than anybody else. It may be all the board decides we need and it may be a beginning, but we needed this context in order to begin to have this discussion about whether there was anything that needed to be remedied or redone or not.

Even Foley Hoag said in its report’s conclusion that “the CRA should openly discuss these projects, the conclusions of this report and other matters at public meetings in the months ahead.”

But the board members never talked about it again.

The public heard Born’s spoken charge to Foley Hoag to look at CRA actions between September 2009 and May 2012 “and evaluate whether appropriate votes and procedures were taken during that time and followed in the absence of a full quorum, [then] make a recommendation whether any action by the current board might be necessary or appropriate in light of that review.” That took the form of a written agenda item described simply as a “request to authority counsel for a lookback of authority actions during past two-year period.”

So how did every member of the public paying attention come to expect something different from what the board expected? Maybe a follow-up order had been issued by the board describing the desired scope?

“There are no additional written communications relating to this topic,” said the board’s new executive redevelopment officer, Tom Evans, meaning that the board somehow got “exactly what we expected” without saying in public – or communicating to the public – what that was.

Just as members of the public have no straight answer on whether they’re safe from being arrested and dragged to jail on a frivolous “disorderly conduct” charge, whether a police officer can write anything in a report without being questioned or corrected or whether Cambridge Police can be relied on to do a serious internal affairs investigation, they are equally in the dark on how there can be repercussions for taking too much pay but not for acting without oversight on matters that actually affect the public, or whether it’s really appropriate to have a law firm do a “lookback” of its own eyebrow-raising actions.

Whatever their various causes, these questions are as much part of Healy’s legacy as the beautiful library and triple-A credit ratings.

Here’s hoping new City Manager Richard C. Rossi either avoids the need for such extraordinary measures altogether, or at least that the reports that come in under his watch answer more questions than they raise.