Citizen’s complaint to attorney general challenges city on master plan, zoning (update)
City councillors didn’t learn their lesson from an Attorney General’s Office finding in June that they were violating the open meeting law, according to a complaint filed last week by a resident.
In addition to going to the Municipal Law Unit in the Attorney General’s office, the complaint by Charles Teague was filed to appear on the communications agenda of Monday’s meeting of the City Council. (See update at bottom of story.)
The wide-ranging document says the city has no master plan as required by law, and that its flouting of state law on zoning petitions filed by residents is used as a “pocket veto,” mainly by councillor and Ordinance Committee chairman David Maher.
A spokeswoman for Margaret Hurley, director of the Municipal Law Unit, said Teague’s document wouldn’t be dealt with by the state until after city officials had 14 days to respond and potentially resolve the complaints on their own.
Messages seeking comment from Maher were left Thursday at his council offices and at home.
Master plan questions
The part of Teague’s complaint that may have the biggest effect on city government is his argument that there is no master plan for the city, as required by the state and described in the state’s general laws as having nine elements: a goals and policy statement; inventories of natural and cultural resources, recreational resources and open space areas, and circulation and transportation systems; plans for land use, housing, economic development and services and facilities; and an implementation program.
“By its own admission the city seeks instead to qualify its zoning ordinance and map, a 1993/2007 ‘growth policy document’ and other, disjointed planning studies it has undertaken, collectively, as its master plan,” Teague said. “It is not.”
“The state specifically requires nine specific points be planned in detail, including transportation, housing and implementation. We don’t have any of that,” he said.
It is true that the city’s Community Development Department website says “The Cambridge Master Plan is composed of a set of documents”:
These documents, taken together, reflect the evolution of the city over the last three centuries, and provide a planning framework into which new projects must be inserted with care and with attention to many trade-offs. The regulatory underpinning for the plan is the Zoning Ordinance and its map which together define land use constraints and limits on the physical aspects of new development. Zoning in Cambridge has always been a dynamic tool, with many refinements being made year after year, as needs and development opportunities change.
The argument has not been enough to convince various current candidates for the council, who have said in forums that a master plan is needed, nor even current councillors, some of whom have said during their regular meetings that the city should have a master plan.
A group called the Cambridge Residents Alliance – Teague is a member of its 19-person steering committee – asked each of the council candidates if they felt a “comprehensive master plan” was needed. Of the 14 candidates responding, only Janneke House said “no,” because “The city already has a comprehensive master plan (at least one that is called for in state law).”
Among those responding with a “yes” were three current councillors as well as Sam Seidel, a Harvard-educated urban planner who served two recent terms on the council, who said simply, “A comprehensive master plan makes sense to me.” (Challenger Dennis Carlone, a longtime urban designer also educated at Harvard whose work has included East Cambridge Riverfront Project, as well as the original NorthPoint and Broad Canal plans, agrees there is no master plan.)
In March, as discussions of the K2C2 process were under way about the future of Kendall and Central squares, another councillor spotted the march of development toward Alewife (where eight apartment complexes are under development with a combined 1,579 new residential units) and NorthPoint and spoke in favor of a more comprehensive approach.
“In the current means of drawing on the Community Development Department we are still too reactive to proposals and variance requests, when we could be shaping as opposed to reacting,” Ken Reeves said.
There are councillors who agree the zoning constitutes a master plan, though, including Leland Cheung.
But even the CDD’s piecemeal strategy seems to be lagging. After a two-year K2C2 process ended last year, even as zoning petitions and large building projects kept arriving, work has slowed to a crawl. The C2 process had its last announced meeting in July with no scheduled completion date in sight, and the K2 process is in queue behind it. There is little enough urgency behind the adoption of the K2C2 guidelines that as of Oct. 17, a “Schedule” tab still says “the MIT zoning petition is under consideration at the City Council” – despite the final vote on that petition taking place more than six months earlier.
Maher is named in the complaint in large part because his Ordinance Committee is where zoning petitions are discussed – or not.
In the current complaint, Teague points to Maher’s failure to schedule a hearing within the required 65 days for the so-called Walker petition, which looked at zoning around the linear park in North Cambridge. When told there couldn’t be a hearing within the 65 days, Teague asked City Clerk Donna Lopez the next step.
“It would have to be refiled,” Lopez told Teague via e-mail.
The city charges $150 per filing – a cost Teague knows well as the man behind the Teague petition, a six-year attempt to get the city to make its own lighting laws enforceable. (Maher submitted a policy order for the Monday council meeting asking that the petition, which expired Oct. 2, be refiled apparently without an additional fee.) Having paid for the anti-glare zoning petition three times, Teague notes in his complaint that when councillors failed to act on one filing before the end of a two-year council term, Maher voted against shifting it to the next year’s agenda. When it finally got before him for a vote, Maher voted against the petition itself.
Having to bring a zoning petition through repeated council, Ordinance Committee and Planning Board processes is difficult and burdensome, Teague said, making expirations caused by the city amount to a “pocket veto” that gives developers a chance to file plans that could be considered grandfathered in with old rules even if new zoning is passed.
Teague also dislikes Maher’s limiting of public comment at hearings to three minutes when council rules say five minutes, while allowing presenters such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology developers so much time “that hearings have lasted nearly double the amount of time allowed by City Council rules [resulting] in both City Councillors and members of the public being unable to participate in the entire hearing.”
Maher “has exhibited a prejudice against citizen participation, especially citizen zoning petitions,” Teague says in his complaint.
An earlier residents’ attempt to address linear park zoning called the Phillips petition fell victim to a rule that petitions become “inactive” if not decided within a 90-day period – but the city’s rule on what triggers the 90-day period differs from the state’s rule. The flaw was revealed in March in dealing with MIT’s zoning in Kendall Square, when councillors fast-forwarded a vote to ensure the school’s plan didn’t expire unexpectedly.
“The council has known for months that a trivial, two-word, administrative fix is needed to define when exactly it is that the clock runs out,” Teague said. “And the administrative process for extending the clock to try to get councillors to go on the record with an up-or-down vote does not conform with state law. I just want a clear process for residents trying to better their neighborhoods.”
This is not the first time Maher’s legislative processes and approach to running meetings have been under the microscope.
The June finding there had been a violation of open-meeting law, made by the attorney general’s Division of Open Government, came about because the council had promised short- and long-term searches to find a city manager to replace the retiring Robert W. Healy and given itself – and Maher’s Ordinance Committee specifically – nine months in which to set a process. As the clock ticked down on the nine months, though, it was revealed virtually nothing had been accomplished.
The council caucused by e-mail and, upsetting several members of the public, came into a Dec. 3 meeting with an order ready to go promoting Richard C. Rossi from deputy city manager.
“I’m appalled by how we’ve bypassed the public process,” said resident Mike Nakagawa during public comment, a sentiment still being echoed in forums of the candidates running for City Council in the Nov. 5 elections.
Resident Tom Stohlman brought his complaint to the attorney general, and state officials agreed that the council’s method of deciding on Rossi – and, in fact, its entire method of “co-sponsoring” legislation – was illegal.
In June 2011, when Maher was mayor, he cut short a special meeting of the School Committee he was chairing with the clear collusion of three committee members, another obvious violation of the open meeting law. After explaining he had no choice in how things played out because he was just following Robert’s Rules of Order, he casually violated those rules at the next council meeting he ran.
Update on Oct. 18, 2013: Teague’s letter does not appear on the communications agenda for the Monday council meeting, despite Teague saying it was dropped off on time. Because of a glitch in the agenda that showed the Sept. 16, 2013, meeting Thursday night and council offices closing at noon Friday, no clarification was possible from the council.
This story was updated further Oct. 21, 2013, to show that Maher had asked for the Walker petition to be refiled apparently without an additional citizen’s filing fee.