The Preliminary Screening Committee to find Cambridge’s next city manager, chaired by city councillor David Maher, prepares to interview Paul J. Fetherston for the position Sept. 12.(Photo: John Hawkinson)

The Preliminary Screening Committee to find Cambridge’s next city manager, chaired by city councillor David Maher, prepares to interview Paul J. Fetherston for the position Sept. 12. (Photo: John Hawkinson)

Paul Fetherston is one of three finalists to replace Richard C. Rossi as city manager. He’s a new face: The other two are Louis A. DePasquale Jr., longtime assistant city manager for fiscal affairs and a Cambridge resident; and Robert “Jay” Ash Jr., Massachusetts’ secretary of Housing and Economic Development and former Chelsea city manager.

At 50, Fetherston is the youngest of the three; DePasquale is 62 and Ash is 54 or 55. He is a bachelor (“nine nieces and nephews,” he adds) and serves as assistant city manager for Asheville, N.C., population 90,000. Before that he served six years as deputy city manager for Boulder, Colo. (then population 106,000), and was previously chief administrative officer in Canton, Conn., and town manager in Newington, Conn.

“My goal would be to live in Cambridge. For the past eight years I have lived within walking distance [of work]. Particularly I enjoy being able to walk to work, to commute to work by bike,” said Fetherston (pronounced FEATHERS-tunn), who calls himself a big hiker, runner and lover of the outdoors. “I can’t be outside enough. I love living in an urban setting, it really jazzes me,” a turn of phrase he uses often.

Cambridge Day talked to Fetherston on Sunday. This piece is edited and condensed from that interview.

091516i-hawkinson-paul-j-fetherstonYou’re an outsider running against a true insider and a quasi-, semi- insider, and Cambridge has a history of favoring insiders. So what do you bring? The city is generally seen as being well-managed and not in need of a gross correction or huge change, perhaps unlike its school department.

It’s a really interesting question. I don’t necessarily think that way, though. Part of your question is, “The city is generally seen as well-managed,” and it clearly is. From my perspective, I have to tell you, I don’t think whether you come from inside or outside is an indication of whether it’s well-managed – it depends on what each of us brings to the table, where Cambridge is at and where Cambridge wants to go, and who is the best person to do that. They’re looking at who the best person is to continue success in that organization and that community, who’s the best person to bring them where their vision wants them to be.

I’ve heard concern that department heads might leave the city. What’re your thoughts on staff retention, and whether you’re likely to want to bring in new people, or leverage the existing bench?

The way I look at it, there’s three things that draw me to Cambridge. One is the tradition of service excellence, another is innovation, the third is collaboration. In the tradition of service excellence there’s financial stability, and the other part is the tenure most of the staff has had there. That tells me there is stability and continuity in that organization. The way I manage, I love to help to support others be successful, and so I don’t go into any organization with any preconceived notions that ‘This needs to change, that needs to change.’ It’s all about getting to know the organization, getting to know the team. Earlier in my career, I wouldn’t have said this, but actually I find it a pretty good asset that there’s such stability within the team – it’s a 1,400-employee ship, so to speak. Change doesn’t happen overnight.

How would you work with Louie DePasquale as your finance director if you get the job and he does not?

I have no problems with that, the financial conditions of the organization are a positive reflection –

  Oh, absolutely, everyone’s like “Triple A credit score, yay! Yay! Yay!”

Not only that. Looking at the budget document, it is really well constructed.  It seems to be a really well thought out and managed process and finances –

But how do you continue to work with someone you just competed with and beat out in some competition?

I’d handle it like any other situation. My job as a manager is to help get to know the people that I support and who support me. To get to know where they are in their career. To get to know what is important to them, what they want to achieve, how they can continue adding value to the community and organization. And so that’s the dynamic and the dialogue that I would have with anybody that I work with.

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Right now, development and  affordable housing are the hot-button issues, and there are advocates within the city who say the system is tilted in favor of developers; surely in some ways it is. How do you deal with that?

At least in my experience over the last eight years, affordable housing and development have been the key issues in each of the cities that I’ve served. It’s probably a theme nationally. Affordable housing is a really tricky issue; there are no silver bullets in it. Same thing with development, there’s always the balance of “Is it too much development?” and “The developer’s getting too much of an advantage.” Usually there’s some truth and there’s some not-truth to both sides. It’s really just trying to figure out the balance and the needs and trying to meet the needs of the community. It’s an ongoing dialogue. It’s a continuous dialogue. In most cases that I’ve been in, I don’t think either side has been happy in that type of dialogue.

At the moment the city is contemplating raising its inclusionary housing percentage requirement –

  – to 20 percent –

– Right. That’s producing some consternation from developers, and people are having difficulty assessing how real the consternation is.

With any type of increase – people are going to argue that there’s private impacts. I’ve been in communities where they’ve put development moratoriums in place to try to get a handle on how to best manage and design.

Do you have an affordable housing requirement in Asheville now?

North Carolina’s interesting. It’s a Dillon’s Rule state [in which most powers are reserved to the state legislature], so inclusionary housing is not legal. Everything is by negotiation.

How do you feel about negotiation versus predictability?

You know, I have to tell you, especially reading all the things on inclusionary housing and affordability in Cambridge – it’s also my experience in Boulder, because Boulder had a pretty assertive inclusionary housing program – there’s a lot to be said about the predictability and certainty for developers, knowing going in what to expect. I definitely see the pros of the inclusionary housing. I do think it provides great certainty and predictability for developers.

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Have you looked at our City Council’s goals?

I have looked at the goals, and I have also looked at the visioning process that’s going on in the community [Envision Cambridge].

This term’s council is finishing its first year of a two-year term and hasn’t really gotten to goals yet. Last time they tried, some councillors wanted to make the goals more specific, but there was resistance. They’re extremely general, and it can be argued that they don’t provide a lot of direction. No one’s going to say don’t “foster community/neighborhood vitality”; no one’s going to say don’t “preserve affordable housing” though some people will say “How much?” Do you think the goals are insufficiently specific? Or what would you do and how would you guide that process?

No, in my experience I don’t find the goals to be too high-level. What I have tried to do in communities that I have been a part of, as a team, is to really work with the council so they can identify a vision for the community, what type of community they want in 20 years, and then back it up and say, “In your council term, what do you want us to try to achieve” with staff, with community and council? That’s when we go to work to identify the two- to three-year work plan that gives the very specific details to get to that vision, because think about it – this is not just Cambridge, it’s for any community – when you have a council, a local legislative body that changes every two to four years, it’s very hard to achieve long-term. That’s where the vision really helps. Because every two years you calibrate your vision and your work plan. It’s not really a hard left or right.

Thoughts on Envision Cambridge?

Actually I think it’s a fascinating process. I think it’s great process. I’m really interested to see what comes out of it, I think they’re still in [the visioning phase]. I think it’s the most robust community visioning process that I’ve seen move forward. I’m used to comprehensive planning about land use that becomes very robust, but this looks to be a little bit higher-level than land use. I think, yeah, it looks like a great process.

Much of Envision Cambridge is looking at existing plans on the shelf and saying “How do we bring them together?”

That’s what I find to be the most impactful part of the process, because what I found in Boulder is, the more integrated your plans are into a comprehensive plan at the top, that drives all of your plans, master plans and strategic plans, it integrates all of your efforts so all of your efforts are moving toward a common vision.

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Have you read about the Volpe Center parcel in Kendall Square? 

Is that the Foundry?

Volpe is an federal parcel the Department of Transportation owns. They want to sell off the parcel in exchange for having a contractor build them a new building.

I have not looked at that.

Well, the question is, “What experience do you have dealing with the federal government?”

Across the board I have a pretty good experience in Boulder. We had a lot of partnerships because we had a lot of federal labs, so they’re a big part of our economy. We had NCAR, we had NOAA, we had NIST. Asheville, we have a few. Yeah, I am pretty well versed with working with the federal government for partnerships or when needed. [The National Center for Atmospheric Research, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Institute of Standards.]

Tell me about your accomplishments that make you ideal for Cambridge.

I have been a leader within two communities nationally respected and recognized for their work in the areas of sustainability, resiliency, affordable housing and multimodal transportation. There are many incredible things they have done and continue to do and things in which I have specifically played a role, including but not limited to the development of a comprehensive housing strategy and the redesign of the housing function to implement those strategies, and emergency management during disasters, including floods and wildfires and corresponding efforts to strengthen resiliency –

Okay, but tell me a story. What was a flood or wildfire like? How serious was it? What changes did you make? 

Flooding in Boulder in 2013. Boulder experienced more than 16 inches of rain during the period of Sept. 8-16 – which was 85 percent of the city’s annual precipitation. The rainfall caused 25- to 50-year flooding across the city, resulting in over $50 million damage to city infrastructure.  While there were many evacuations, and approximately eight fatalities from the storm, I don’t believe any of the fatalities occurred within the city. For the entire period of the rain event, I worked directly in managing the flood response efforts with local, county, state and federal agencies. Following the conclusion, I worked to develop a recovery effort that included clearing the city and neighborhoods of debris and essentially reopening the city.  The efforts then moved to long-term recovery efforts that involved creating a team to manage the complex FEMA flood disaster structure – and management of the projects to restore areas as well as rebuild areas with longer-term resiliency in mind. The community’s awareness of the significant flooding risks it faces was heightened, along with its commitment to become stronger and more resilient.

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You do have a couple of big appointments coming up. Our police chief just retired, and a superintendent is now acting police commissioner. And our fire chief is due to retire sometime in the next year.

In Asheville I supervised both. In Boulder I supervised both. I’ve supervised public safety, directly or indirectly, for most of my career. I’ve hired a number of police chiefs in my career, I assisted in hiring one in Asheville. What I believe is really is to have a process which includes feedback and input from the departments and community the position serves.

Cambridge tends to be fairly process oriented. Some other communities sometimes mock us for it. Some people think that Cambridge reaches out too much.

Part of the attraction I have to Cambridge is that it’s similar to some of my experience, particularly in Boulder and to some degree in Asheville. University communities tend to want to have “high engagement.” And I think there’s always positives to that; as you’ve identified, some people attribute some negativity to that. But I find the public engagement to be an important part of the process.

If you actually live within the city, do you get any downtime when people see you shopping?

Early in my career when I managed communities, I was cognizant of the concerns you raised – my downtime will not be my downtime. But I have to tell you, I wouldn’t trade the last eight years for anything. I love being part of the community and being able to walk wherever I want, restaurants – you name it. And I haven’t found it to be any infringement on my personal life at all.


The public forum for candidates runs 6 to 8:30 p.m. Tuesday at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, 459 Broadway, Mid-Cambridge. It’s followed by 45 minutes of public meet-and-greet. The city has not yet publicly released biographical packets for the three candidates, citing Friday an ongoing review by the Law Department. Packets were distributed to the City Council on Friday morning.