Sunday, June 16, 2024

Fritz Donovan, president of the Mid-Cambridge Neighborhood Association, speaks to the City Council during public comment. He is seen at a January meeting. (Photo: Derek Kouyoumjian)

An order to “ensure equitable access” to neighborhood organizations was put on hold Monday after city councillors heard clashing visions of what that meant – for some, diversity; for others, an infringement on First Amendment rights with suspect motivations.

“Even though I’m a cosigner, I think there’s just some work to be done,” said councillor Patty Nolan, using her “charter right” to delay further debate by one meeting. “There was just such a stark difference of opinion.”

The order was written by councillor Marc McGovern, who said he’d gone to some of the city’s various neighborhood organizations ahead of its appearance on the agenda to reassure them there was nothing sinister at work. “Clearly, they didn’t believe me,” he said, alluding to public comment from some group leaders and members earlier in the evening.

Fritz Donovan, president of the Mid-Cambridge Neighborhood Association, for one, said the order was “wrapped in the language of civil rights in an effort to cloak that in reality, it’s an outrageous overreach and power grab – but that description is an understatement. It is an insult to every Cambridge neighborhood organization, to every resident of Cambridge and to the U.S. Constitution itself.” He suggested that a formal apology for “this offending policy order … would be a good start.”

But Donovan’s colleague at the Cambridgeport Neighborhood Association, president Rebecca Bowie, told councillors – though with the note that she was speaking for herself – that municipal help with resources and outreach could help make her own organization more inclusive and representative. “We have a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee that’s trying to get three major projects off the ground, and we have a list of ways the city could help. Most of them would be so little for you and so substantial for us,” Bowie said. “We are committed to this work, whether you join us or not. But I’m really excited at the potential for the communities we could build if the city and the neighborhood organizations come together.”

Issue gets complicated

Even Bowie hoped to see some changes to the order, which refers to a specific incident surrounding the East Cambridge Planning Team in which a board member at the time, Chris Matthews, commented Oct. 18 on a group email list in a way many people found offensive. The comment came in reaction to a Cambridge Chronicle essay by Loren Crowe, but went off-topic to refer to Crowe’s Etsy store, which sells men’s underwear, jocks and harnesses. Crowe said the remarks went beyond a personal attack into the territory of “homophobic sexual harassment.”

Matthews resigned from the board and, depending whom you ask, either did or did not offer a formal apology; the group’s president, Chuck Hinds, also apologized formally for the quip, followed by a personal apology from ECPT vice president Ilan Levy. Still, several speakers and writers of letters to the council have charged the group’s leadership with fostering an environment that’s hostile to people who don’t agree with their point of view, along with criticizing it as being made up of older, white homeowners.

One resident, Justin Saif, provided emails showing that Hinds had been forced repeatedly to remind posters in the email group to avoid personal attacks or questioning of motives.

Especially in the focus on East Cambridge, though, the issue gets complicated quickly.

The neighborhood groups deal with many real estate issues, providing a place for developers to come and present projects to win support and hash out the community benefits that might result. In addition to dealing with the same crush of development facing every part of the city, East Cambridge is grappling with whether to adopt a neighborhood conservation district – an issue that could affect development, and so has become as contentious as any major proposed project of the past several years.

History of toxicity

Seemingly each such project over the past decade has had neighbors at each others’ throats, with pro- and anti- development forces being equally salty during in-person debates, exchanges of letters and on social media. Some of the same voices decrying the “toxic” atmosphere at the East Cambridge Planning Team have delivered slashing attacks of their own against people who don’t share their views – and are associated not with a specific neighborhood group, but with the powerful citywide “yimby” group A Better Cambridge. (A term urging the construction of new homes “yes, in my backyard.”)

As a result, it’s hard to determine where the toxicity begins. And in this hothouse atmosphere, some see housing proponents as pouncing on Matthews’ offense as a pretext to destabilize the East Cambridge Planning Team and possibly any neighborhood group that might prevent development.

“Given the ECPT’s history of opposition to certain large, out-of-scale developmental projects, it suggests that the goal in initiating this policy order is to set an example to other neighborhood organizations that might want to stand in the way of large-scale developers in the future,” East Cambridge resident Alan Green said.

Basis for support

Still, there were nearly two dozen comments on the order, and a significant majority of them tilted toward supporting its call for a Neighborhood & Long Term Planning, Public Facilities, Arts & Celebration Committee meeting – a committee run by Nolan – to talk about such things as: rules and regulations for neighborhood groups that ensure greater diversity and representation; formal codes of conduct; and a grievance process. (One complaint about “inclusion and diversity” was that East Cambridge Planning Team meetings were held at times that were difficult for young parents to attend. So was that night’s City Council meeting, the speaker said.)

A few people questioned how that could be done without heavy-handed intrusion of the kind progressive Cambridge would oppose if it came down from the federal government. And councillor Dennis Carlone questioned the city’s right as well, remembering how things had changed since the 1970s. Then, “Community Development had planners that worked with the neighborhood meeting groups and facilitated some of the discussions about developments [and the groups] received $2,000 for expenses,” Carlone said. “If we [still] did that – which I do believe we should be doing – then we could say certain things about those meetings.”

“Nobody was in cahoots”

McGovern did recommend giving the groups money, albeit targeted at outreach, but also wanted the city to bring the groups together to talk about the obstacles they faced. He defended his order against suspicions that there was more behind it with the assurance that “Nobody was in cahoots … this has got nothing to do with one or the other organizations being pro or con development.” But he did not quite respond to several complaints about the inclusion of the East Cambridge Planning Team incident as having nothing to do with neighborhood groups as a whole, or to Green’s direct call for it to be removed.

“That was a particularly egregious situation. That’s not the norm, thankfully. But what is the norm is that it’s really hard to get representative and diverse groups of people involved – we struggle with it on the city level too,” McGovern said. “Let’s figure this out.”

Changes to the text look likely, though.

Immediately after McGovern spoke, Nolan signaled that she was uncomfortable with the “confusion” the order raised, and she ended debate “so that we can work on some of the language.”

This post was updated shortly after publication to correct that Chris Matthews was not replying directly to Loren Crowe when making offensive comments Oct. 18.