Police commissioner finalist public forum was barely public, and not really a forum
Not many people came out for Tuesday’s hourlong public forum with police commissioner finalist Branville G. Bard Jr. Which is okay. It was an embarrassment.
That’s not a reflection on Bard, who seems – at least, based on a process that produced a single finalist giving a written speech and prepared answers to canned questions – like he could make a very good police commissioner for Cambridge.
But he’s a candidate saying all the right things about legitimacy, accountability and transparency in an opaque process that feeds cynicism, including not just a “prepared speech [and] prepared answers to prepared questions,” in the words of reporter John Hawkinson, but being “whisked out the door at the end without a meet-and-greet [and] asked not to answer questions from the media unless he’s selected.”
Over the past months, police commissioner candidates went from 39 applicants to five semifinalists, then to two finalists, at which point one dropped out, leaving just Bard for City Manager Louis A. DePasquale to accept or reject – based on feedback from residents and officials, DePasquale said, but feedback from what? The people filling out cards from Tuesday’s forum got a show that was barely live. (“The prepared answers were concise. No time was wasted,” is a presumable rave. “The candidate has certainly done adequate research to ensure he can say the right thing without actually being challenged or called upon to give details.”)
This hiring process follows one last year for DePasquale himself, which ended with DePasquale among three finalists. One was a dark horse referred to privately by a city official as “unappointable,” and the other … dropped out. Seems familiar.
Tuesday’s forum wasn’t even intended to be open to the public – a week ago, plans were for an invitation-only event that included city councillors. As Hawkinson said:
DePasquale has not explained how the City Council, a public body subject to the Open Meeting Law, can be invited to a private meeting whose subject is “public business within its jurisdiction.” Nor is there any explanation of why the meeting would be private, even if permitted under the law.
But what resulted after being made public was not actually a forum at all, in that the essence of a forum is the exchange of ideas and views on a topic; it is not a passive thing. While begrudgingly opening an improperly private forum to the public, city staff created a public event the public had minimal reason to attend and one giving ample excuse for people to shrug off attending such events in the future. It’s a strange look on an administration that touts its participatory budgeting so aggressively as a model for civic engagement, and feels much more like the “L’etat c’est moi” days under former city manager Robert W. Healy.
If hired, Bard will likely work out fine as police commissioner. The evidence could come quickly after an appointment, when members of the public and media seek to take the measure of someone who’s already been hired and the new hire decides whether to make himself available – signaling the extent to which he’ll truly be accountable and transparent, as he promised in his speech.
Watch it here: