The Community Development Department’s Jeff Roberts is the only city employee handling zoning, the City Council was told last month. (Photo: Ceilidh Yurenka)

Watching the spectacle of two city lawyers spend multiple days in court defending an indefensible vendetta against a small business – not to mention however many hours it’s taken to prepare the city’s case – gets even worse when you think about how this prioritizes a meaningless, brutal display of power over stuff that’s actually wanted and needed by residents and the City Council.

It was explained to the council last month that around a dozen items were dragging through the zoning process because the Community Development Department has only one person to handle them.

That’s one person for urban farming – which, it should be noted, is an issue dating back to 2015 as a council order but has been on the mind of Cantabrigians since at least 2010, leaving Cambridge trailing behind Somerville by at least seven years. There’s one person for lodging houses in a city that needs lower-income housing desperately. And there’s one person for a reworking of a long outdated table of uses for retail and small business in a city that’s supposed to be a mecca for entrepreneurs and innovation. That one person is working on details needed for “in-law” apartments; Alexandria Real Estate Equity’s space along the Grand Junction path; a hotel for Kendall Square; a potentially massive rethinking of the CambridgeSide mall; Ware Street innovation space; green building requirements; the affordable housing overlay; and a Climate Resilience Zoning Task Force process.

And it’s not like this zoning bottleneck is a new problem.

“I recall we had a discussion,” councillor Dennis Carlone said April 22, as city staff begged more time for three of the languishing topics, “and I believe there were 12 to 14 issues that Community Development was looking at. And there are new ones on this list.”

“So much is happening in Cambridge. It isn’t just not having the staff, it’s that things keep being added to this and becoming a priority,” Carlone said. “It’s going to be hard to keep up even with a new employee.”

So it’s nice that there’s going to be two additional staff working with zoning and development director Jeff Roberts, though it’s odd that Community Development has grown to an office of 61 from 44 over the past very busy decade without building in more capacity. In the same period, the city’s Law Department has grown to 13 from 12, including eight staffers making more than $100,000 in salary – topped by city solicitor Nancy Glowa at $187,480 annually.

City lawyers Keplin Allwaters and Katherine Sarmini Hoffman, right, are defending a city action against the UpperWest bar in North Cambridge. Several city employees have attended multiple days of hearings to give testimony. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Glowa has responsibility not just for sending fire inspectors to threaten a North Cambridge bar with being shut down for violating a law that literally does not exist – which, of course, she reasonably must have known did not exist – but for devoting the time of two of her highly paid staff to defending a five-day suspension for the bar based on that imaginary law. It’s hard to see this play out in the hearing room of the state Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission for day after day and not recall the role of our Law Department in overseeing the Monteiro and related cases, which cost the city around $14 million. That was another train wreck we all watched happen in slow motion, and another case that ended with questions about our priorities: It was no more a good look for our government to be seen retaliating against women of color with complaints about working for the City of Cambridge than it is for our government to work so hard to crush its own hardworking small-business owners. The sin of these particular small-business owners? Daring to accuse the License Commission of corruption, and being correct.

In the end, the City Council accepted meekly that zoning asked for years ago would miss another deadline, and that staff sought to help speed up that zoning hasn’t quite made it to employee orientation. Councillors also seem pretty complacent about the fact that we’ve so far paid two city attorneys an estimated $3,000 over four days to sit in a state hearing room and argue that a bar should be suspended for five days for setting out candles that are allowed by city law. (Plenty of other well-paid city employees have been sitting in that hearing room too, as witnesses waiting to be called.)

There are more days in court coming on the case. There shouldn’t be.

But it’s all about priorities.


This post was updated May 10, 2019, to clarify that Jeff Roberts does not necessarily write all zoning, and to add a link and update the amount disbursed in the Monteiro and related legal cases.