Three things the next City Council will handle, or mishandle, depending how you rank votes
As we head to the polls today to vote for city councillors, allowed to rank them from a top choice down to a 15th, I propose some key issues to keep in mind, since they will together shape this city for the crucial next decade of development, demographics and climate change preparation.
The city manager’s contract is up next term.
The current officeholder, Louis A. DePasquale, is a holdover from the three-decade Healy era that has a winning formula to keep Cambridge awash in money, with everything else feeling like a distant second in terms of importance. DePasquale is awful for the city in several ways, with priority-setting that is roughly congruent with official council goals but disrespectful of councillor wishes as expressed by policy order, and outright resistant to the will of the people; as a result, the administration lurches from crisis to crisis, mismanaging things either through incompetence or malevolence that results in setting neighbor against neighbor. From an Alewife bridge to Envision master planning and the Affordable Housing Overlay to municipal broadband and bike lanes, this is an administration with an approach that seems simultaneously paternalistic and like a sullen kid who, forced to finally clean their room, shoves everything under the bed. It very likely looks nothing like how
our Plan E charter form of government was intended, but our recent councils have failed in their responsibility to run proper manager searches, and have compounded the problem through an utter failure to adjust the balance of power. The city manager also allows malfeasance among his departments that abuses the citizens they’re supposed to serve and wastes taxpayer resources, from the License Commission and Police Review & Advisory Board to the law, fire and police departments, and again city councillors seem largely not to care and ineffectual in the moments they do. Who among the council candidates will assess DePasquale as you want? Who will insist on running a proper, comprehensive search for a next city manager, if it comes to that? Who will hold the city manager and his departments to a high standard of ethics and professionalism? Do you think it’s the current council?
The Envision Cambridge master plan is due.
The City Manager’s Office and city planners didn’t want to do it – they fought holding a master plan process, arguing that our current patchwork of priests’ vellums was good enough, and officials still argue that the hodgepodge resulting from decades of “contract zoning” is a winning strategy. Forced into it by an ongoing “tsunami of development,” organizing efforts by councillor Dennis Carlone in 2014 and then the City Council as a whole, officials trudged into a $6 million, three-year process that made Alewife an “early action item” because development there had tilted so far from what planners had somehow expected. (Administrators still somehow made an effort to argue that the master plan wasn’t necessarily about development.) Even the Alewife District Plan showed up for consideration only Oct. 23, the same day a zoning request for Alewife was heard and as a half-dozen more jostled for attention from a Planning Board that should be using an enacted Envision as a guide. There are nearly 200 proposals in Envision, and councillors have looked at … a couple. One was the Affordable Housing Overlay, which incited a citywide civil war and had to be set aside. Whom do you want handling Envision Cambridge? Who will make sense of it? Who will handle its dozens of proposals with intelligence, common sense and clarity? Whom do you trust with the process to bring together potentially angry camps in the community, rather than enflame the situation? Who among the current council can handle the job?
The Affordable Housing Overlay will return.
The City Manager’s Office has long used free cash to keep property taxes low, with the approval of the City Council, yet somehow – despite rent control being voted down in 1994 – it’s taken until very recently for the council to tie that to a need to help renters as well. With virtually nothing substantive and systemic done in the past quarter-century about ensuring there’s housing for the middle class in Cambridge, of course the city’s going to explode in class warfare over a provocative proposal that simultaneously promises massive change but zero results. The overlay, as presented, was essentially to build a Tower of Babel, and the result has certainly been a lot of people talking and not understanding each other, with all the conflict that follows. Councillors were incapable of bringing this process home and their people together, and it’s only one aspect of how housing as a whole will be decided, with who gets to live here (or keep living here) the prize. Who will be able to handle the overlay better when it returns, forcing the city to resolve its contradictions? Who can bring people together instead of letting them war as factions?
Or is that, at this point, beyond the power of any councillor we could elect?