Thursday, July 18, 2024

Tim Toomey is sworn into a City Council term in January 2016. (Photo: Marc Levy)

A week ago, as he killed conversation about the second of two pieces of proposed legislation in one meeting, city councillor Tim Toomey explained: “A policy order of this magnitude at this hour, I just cannot support it.”

There’s two parts to this.

The order asked the city manager to confer with the Metro Mayor’s Association and to organize among several city departments a small-business and restaurant relief program for a potential second shutdown of “nonessential indoor activities.”

Never mind that the city manager regularly blows off or half-asses whatever “orders” of the City Council he wishes so he can keep staff directed on what he prioritizes – even if the manager devoted his full attention and energy to this task, a good-faith report back would likely say simply that it’s a logistical, political and fiscal impossibility to pull this off with helpful speed. On its own, the question of what is “nonessential” could effectively crash this proposal.

Toomey’s been on the City Council for three decades. He knows how to read a policy order, and none of this is a revelation to him.

But what’s really galling is the second part of his comment – that he couldn’t act on a policy of that magnitude “at this hour,” which was nearly the final words of a meeting that lasted less than three and a half hours. It wasn’t yet 9 p.m.

Almost exactly two months earlier, Toomey voted at around 1:15 a.m., at the end of a nine-hour meeting, to give City Manager Louis A. DePasquale a contract extension that will just start at $339,037 before a series of raises, despite fellow councillors noting that the document before them held unanswered questions and typos and not only didn’t need to be voted at that moment, but actually violated the council’s own promised process if it were voted.

Given a chance to reconsider that vote, and follow the process councillors agreed to publicly, Toomey declined.

His justification – and explanation for enacting something unnecessary at 1:15 a.m. while two months later freezing a proposal about an urgent problem before 9 p.m. – was an all too common sidestep of the actual question before him: “It is time that we move forward on this process. The issue for me is the stability of the city as we weather these very uncertain times.” It was quite literally not time, and councillors knew it when they voted.

It’s now less than a year to municipal elections, and if Toomey decides to run again, voters should remember this kind of shifting rationale from a councillor who has probably employed his policy-delaying “charter right” with more reckless insouciance over the years than any other, and all too often on orders with a ticking clock.

Let’s not forget the rest

Not that other councillors covered themselves in glory on the DePasquale vote, starting with E. Denise Simmons, who forced the issue with completed negotiations outside the process the council agreed to, then brought up a specious threat that DePasquale would leave the city in anger if the council followed the process outlined in his own previous contract.

When councillor Patty Nolan filed for reconsideration of the vote, it failed. Only Nolan, Jivan Sobrinho-Wheeler and Quinton Zondervan supported it.

There were many justifications given by the rest of the council for why the original vote should stand: “This process involves uncharted waters,” Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui said. (It really didn’t.) “Do I wish the process could have been different? It wouldn’t be a different conclusion for me.”

“I was clear on Monday night what I was voting for,” vice mayor Alanna Mallon said.

“I will not be voting for reconsideration. And at this point, I sort of wonder why we would anyway,” councillor Marc McGovern said. “I don’t think reconsideration is going to change anybody’s mind or change anybody’s vote … We know we’re bringing him back.”

“It’s incumbent upon us to to put the needs of the city first [and] it’s important that we promote stability in our city. And that is why I offered the recommendation,” Simmons said.

Dennis Carlone didn’t offer any justification. Yet he went on to question the contract’s three pay raises in 18 months as though he were disturbed by them.

Magnitudes of messiness

McGovern and Mallon talked about the vote being messy – “making the sausage is sometimes messy” were McGovern’s words – but that doesn’t quite cover it; it’s something you say when you follow the process to make sausage, not when you ignore it. When McGovern noted that “we dropped the ball” on evaluating the city manager as required, instead of using the point to underline the need to follow the remaining process faithfully, he used it to excuse another violation: “There’s all this talk about good governance. And yes, good governance is about process. But there’s all kinds of good governance, and good governance is also about making a tough decision, even if it’s not perfect, to provide stability to your city.”

Maybe this notion about different kinds of good governance is why Simmons can be so assiduous about Robert’s Rules of Order and yet shrug off negotiating and passing a city manager’s contract as she did. At the same Sept. 21 meeting where she rejected reconsideration, she had this reaction to Carlone being recognized by the mayor to make an explanatory comment before a procedural vote on Kendall Square zoning: “I was going to suggest that we pull [the order] if we’re going to speak on it.”

This fastidiousness about the minor and carelessness about the major is as dismaying as Toomey’s subjective sense of time: 9 p.m. is too late an hour for a topic related to a pandemic, while 1:15 a.m. is a fine time to approve hundreds of thousands of dollars for the city manager.

Toomey unnecessarily cut off dialogue and drove plenty of Cantabrigians into a panic over an imminent shutdown, because they don’t know how to read a policy order.

But again, after three decades on the council, Toomey does.