Radicalized by problems before board, lawyer says she’ll run for City Council
The first City Council challenger has emerged for November’s elections.
Formal nomination papers aren’t filed with the Election Commission until the end of July, but lawyer Kim Courtney has announced that she is running and put up an extensive website explaining her platform. The site also has a link to a series of Cambridge Community Round Tables she has launched to talk about improving the city.
“I am concerned with the overall principle of how the city should be run versus how it is working in practice,” Courtney said.
With the current city manager’s contract ending in 17 months and the potential for retirement by Richard C. Rossi, who has been involved in running the city for 34 years, Courtney said it was a critical time for setting the right balance of power between the elected nine-member council and the city manager it appoints.
She rejects some current councillors’ belief that calling their weekly agenda items “policy orders” is misleading because they cannot order the city manager to do anything – they can only request that city managers and their staff take action.
“Regardless whether you call them requests or orders, the city manager still has the same level of responsibility to perform the task to the best of his capabilities,” said Courtney, whose website lists bar admissions in Massachusetts and New York and federal district courts in those states, as well as work at law firms in Boston, New York, Washington, D.C., Tokyo and Madrid, including at Skadden, Arps, Slate Meagher & Flom in New York City.
License Commission experience
While her overall theme is “civic engagement,” it’s not hard to see how she came to run: She and partner Xavier Dietrich tried to open a wine bar called UpperWest and came up against strong opposition from a potential competitor and seemingly from the License Commission itself.
That may have been a mistake on the commissioners’ part.
The experience radicalized Courtney, taking an aspiring restaurateur and turning her into an activist. She and Dietrich began attending and recording every commission meeting, then council meetings and those of other public bodies in Cambridge. The materials they’ve gathered – interactive liquor license maps and a comprehensive library of audio and video recordings of meetings – are posted as a resource for citizens and entrepreneurs. And they’ve met repeatedly with councillors, city managers and the police to suss out commission rules and talk about what went wrong.
“Laws that are unclear fail to serve the public good. They are difficult to enforce, and often result in unfair, arbitrary and unequal application of the laws. The city can do a better job by cleaning up old, outdated laws and clarifying areas of the law that have presented a problem,” Courtney says as part of her campaign platform.
“When public records are not produced, set procedures are not followed and decisions are made behind closed doors, the public is harmed. Cambridge can, and should, do a better job being transparent and open in the production of public records, and in its activities,” she says. “Transparency alone is not enough if the city government does not properly oversee the activities and decisions of its boards and commissions, and hold city employees accountable for their official acts.”
In 2013 elections, four challengers were elected – Dennis Benzan, Dennis Carlone, Nadeem Mazen and School Committee transplant Marc McGovern – replacing longtime councillor Ken Reeves, first-termer Minka vanBeuzekom (who has signaled she would run again) and Marjorie Decker, who opted to focus on her work as state representative for Cambridge’s 25th Middlesex District, and the retiring mayor, Henrietta Davis.
The five remaining incumbents include Tim Toomey, who has been on the council 26 years; Mayor David Maher, who has served 16 years; E. Denise Simmons, 14 years; Craig Kelley, nine years; and Leland Cheung, five years.
Courtney’s biography and platform hit themes of technology and transparency that overlap most clearly with those of Mazen, Cheung and Carlone:
Rather than having the majority of people relying on the small group of lawmakers and engaged individuals who currently participate in city government activities, she proposes to give greater strength to the voices of those who are under represented at city meetings, hearings and events by using technology to provide the public with greater access to information. In order for these efforts to have an impact, the city must strive to have better oversight of boards and commissions, and more transparency of their activities and decisions.