Sunday, July 14, 2024

The City Manager’s Office in Cambridge City Hall. (Photo: Marc Levy)

The City Council’s special meeting on charter review (set for 5:30 p.m. Wednesday) is long overdue – arguably as much as 75 years, since the city’s Plan E form of government was adopted around 80 years ago. Gratitude is due to councillor Patty Nolan for calling for the meeting July 27 and to Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui for scheduling it so quickly. Speed is relative: Though Nolan’s order was nearly two months ago, it’s only been a week since the council began meeting again after a summer break; and while this conversation is more than seven decades overdue, it’s also been a recurring theme in at least the past few council elections.

Opinion box

Because adopting an entirely new form of government is a very big deal, and the bigger the deal the more likely it is to scare away supporters, councillors should use this meeting to start thinking about ways to regain the power that is actually granted them in the charter. The council needs oversight that reflects the interests of its residents; using the subpoena powers granted it would be one way to assert power.

One significant thing the council could do short of full-on overturning a charter is to tweak it so the council hires the city solicitor and oversees the Law Department, not the city manager. (Or it could get its own counsel.) The idea that the Law Department represents both our legislative and administrative branches of government has shown itself to be unworkable in Cambridge; the branches are too often at odds.

There will surely be other ideas to be heard starting Wednesday. Many people in Cambridge have thought about this for a long time – one of the loudest voices for charter reform being from Ilan Levy, at least back to 2015; before him, John Pitkin had ideas on decentralizing power that he articulated on the stump in 2003. In this past election, candidate Derek Kopon said during a forum that he’d been amused to come across an article from 1951 saying that the city manager was “drunk with power.”

Regardless, there are few people today who can argue that the system is working how it should. Robert W. Healy held office for three decades, and the city managers that have followed rose under Healy’s reign; in a way, we’re still in the Healy era some 39 years after he moved over from the deputy city manager’s office (which he’d occupied since the mid-1970s). Cambridge has thrived in some ways but has failed wholly to grapple with crises in housing, the arts and small business. The city is incompetent at technology and miserable at following through with initiatives, which is tantamount to wasting money. The city is addicted to its commercial tax base in a way that is likely unsustainable, and staff resists holistic planning, prefers corporate obfuscation to transparency and generally prefers to do its work outside the public eye, to the extent that it seems to sabotage supposedly public processes important to the city and City Council. It is as the raving radicals have been saying for so many years: The Plan E form of government is not democratic, because our democracy stops at the council, which is helpless to control the manager.

There is only one check and balance to that end in the Plan E charter, which is the power to appoint a city manager and set their pay. The ongoing debate over current City Manager Louis A. DePasquale’s contract extension shows how hard it is to lower the pay, which is inflated like the price of everything else in Cambridge. Bosses have to earn more than their underlings, and the underlings here earn into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Firing a city manager is something of a nuclear option, considering the expense, turmoil and practical complications of replacing one, and that makes reprimanding a city manager difficult especially when they are doing much of their job adequately or well; it will be difficult for a council to ever punish a city manager for a single act or a single failure, or even multiple acts or multiple failures. A city manager could act (or fail to act) with impunity between contract negotiations despite unrest or misgivings from citizens and even councillors because the only punishment that can be meted out is essentially the death penalty.

That’s become obvious.

Despite the rhetoric from 1951, this conversation probably wouldn’t be happening if the city manager respected the council’s power more or the council acknowledged it. If this conversation doesn’t happen quickly, it’ll surely complicate the hiring of the next city manager – but maybe making it as difficult to hire a city manager as it is to fire one is exactly the nudge the council needs to be efficient in its debate.