Cambridge City Hall. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Longer terms for city councillors, direct elections of a “strong mayor” and various other options for forms of government came up Wednesday during officials’ first step toward modernizing Cambridge’s charter. But it was late in a City Council special meeting when a basic question got asked: Whether the current charter was working as intended.

“Are we even operating correctly?” councillor Marc McGovern asked. “A big concern people have is if the council has to pay too much deference to an unelected city manager. I’ve talked to folks who say we give far more authority to the city manager than we need to.”

He asked the assembled experts from The Collins Center for Public Management at the University of Massachusetts at Boston if they could help interpret the charter “and what authority the council actually has versus what the council has given up over decades to the city manager.”

The city’s Plan E charter calls for a city manager who administers day-to-day business under a nine-member council, a legislative body that elects a mayor from within its ranks. While most cities and towns review their charters every five to 10 years, Cambridge hasn’t done a review since adoption eight decades ago.

“You’re operating under a form of government that was passed in 1940. It’s time to look under the hood,” said Stephen McGoldrick, a former  director of the Collins Center. “Whether that means total structural change or not, that’s up to you guys to decide. But you’re still operating under a Plan E that was adopted in 1938 … it’s time to kind of, like, get with the times here.”

Long time coming

Calls for a look at charter reform have been heard in Cambridge politics for decades. One of the loudest recent voices has been council candidate Ilan Levy, but before him, John Pitkin had ideas on decentralizing power that he articulated on the stump in 2003. There was talk around 2006 of following a model adopted by Worcester: Holding direct mayoral elections while keeping the rest of the Plan E structure, a former public official recalled.

But it took until this summer for newly elected councillor Patty Nolan to call for a charter reform meeting; Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui convened it, bringing in the Collins Center for advice. This was probably the first of many conversations, Siddiqui said.

The Collins Center experts ran through the history of Plan E in Cambridge and the other plans available – and assured Nolan that no matter what plan was swapped in, the city could keep its ranked choice form of voting.

They also discussed the processes for change, and timelines that could take from 10 months to two years, or longer. But a city contemplating a charter change would want to time anything it did to coincide with a municipal election rather than a state election, which would require sign-off from state officials and a complicated two-ballot process for voters, who would be essentially voting in two elections on the same day. “It’s a logistical challenge,” said Marilyn Contreas of the Collins Center.

Months to years

Framingham pulled off a 10-month charter process, but it’s not common and is less likely to be possible with a major rethinking than with simple modernization, such as to staying up to date on gender pronouns. (In researching for the Wednesday meeting, vice mayor Alanna Mallon said she discovered that her title is actually “vice chairman.”)

Change by charter commission starts by getting 15 percent of voters to sign an authorizing petition, followed by election of a nine-member commission that has 18 months to prepare a charter (including 16 months to prepare a draft for review by the attorney general). It’s distributed to every household with a registered voter two weeks before the charter appears on a ballot, and voters must adopt or reject the charter in its entirety. The pass/fail rate in this process is about 50 percent, Contreas said.

Most cities use the “special act process,” which brings them to the state Legislature for permission for a change. Elected officials usually appoint advisory committees to help them, but there is no requirement for publication or public participation, Contreas said, and no timeline.

Causes for hesitation

It’s vital that the reasons and goals for charter change be clear, and that there be buy-in from the community, the experts said.

“It doesn’t feel to me like we’re ready to move ahead,” councillor Quinton Zondervan said. But he raised the possibility of a short process to modernize the charter without changing the structure of government, and “as part of that review, we [could] work on bigger changes … that we can then consider whether to advance to a more extensive charter reform process.”

There’s a town doing exactly that right now, said Michael Ward, director of the Collins Center. But Contreas warned against “putting the energy and effort into changing a document that might immediately be changed again.”

Complicating the timing further for Cambridge is a looming change of leadership. City Manager Louis A. DePasquale has a contract extension on offer that could keep him in office through July 5, 2022 – which some councillors called vital because of the coronavirus and its drag on the economy. With the likely retirement of DePasquale and a possible second retirement from within his office, the council faces either a multitasking that would be difficult under the best of circumstances or needing to find a next city manager who would sign on knowing their job might be quickly eliminated.

Public comment

In public comment, Mike Nakagawa criticized the power the city manager has to direct policy by choosing all appointees to boards and commissions, and Suzanne Preston Blier said she’d seen something similar when city staff were ordered to do a development master plan: “We paid for a city plan, we got the best firm in Boston … And then we didn’t ask them to do a plan; indeed, we told them not to do a plan.”

Several of the speakers expressed wariness about where the charter talk would go. But not all.

“This is really potentially one of the most exciting things that has happened in the city in decades,” public speaker James Williamson said.

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