City councillors have the power of subpoena, but may have to command a lesson on its use
City councillors take their oath of office Jan. 6, with two new members taking their seats. If the past is any guide, all nine will be taught about their responsibilities, processes and powers with one key bit of information missing: The City Council has the powers of subpoena.
They’re granted by the state’s general laws (Part III, Title II, Chapter 233, Section 8), which makes clear that “witnesses may be summoned to attend and testify and to produce books and papers at a hearing” of the council, with the mayor administering oaths of truthfulness to witnesses.
Our council has been willing to use these rights in the past, such as in compelling testimony from Harvard president Derek Bok in 1974 when he refused to come speak on development plans for the Agassiz neighborhood. “If he does not appear in response to the subpoena, he can be held in contempt and go to jail,” councillor Alfred E. Vellucci said, as quoted in The Harvard Crimson. Councillor Saundra Graham is named as supporting the proposal to subpoena Bok. The council is cited as using the subpoena at least as recently as October 2015, when councillor E. Denise Simmons sought responses from the companies Uber and Lyft for the work of the Economic Development & University Committee.
Yet several councillors have admitted over the past year to not knowing of this ability to enable testimony and documentation, because it hasn’t been part of their municipal training.
Especially in a city where serving the wishes of constituents is curtailed by a Plan E charter giving most power to an unelected city manager, it’s crucial that councillors know what powers they do have. If they’re not educated about the subpoena, they should demand to be. It could have untold effects over what happens in Cambridge over the next two years, just as we have no way of knowing what could have happened in recent terms if councillors knew all the tools – or weapons – they had to oversee what happens on their watch.