Sunday, June 23, 2024

The City Council in session in early 2020. (Photo: Derek Kouyoumjian)

The Attorney General’s Office has approved putting changes to the city’s governing document on the Nov. 2 municipal ballot, city councillor Patty Nolan said Monday.

Three small reforms of the city charter are proposed: council approval of more appointments by the city manager; annual reviews of the city manager; and reviews of the city charter itself every 10 years, starting next year. Before the changes can be enacted, their inclusion on the Nov. 2 municipal ballot had to be approved at the state level, and in November they must be approved by a majority of voters.

Nolan sparked the charter review process last year after realizing Cambridge hadn’t reconsidered its Plan E charter in eight decades, while other communities review theirs regularly.

The motion to send the ballot request passed 8-1 at the June 28 meeting of the council, with the opposition coming from Tim Toomey. He’d already delayed the vote by a week by using his “charter right” at the previous meeting without explanation; when the order was finally up for discussion, he said that his objections were based on fears that “each councillor every Monday night could be bringing in a formal petition to change one part of the of the city charter, and I don’t think that would go over very well with the state Legislature.”

He preferred there to be a charter commission proposal on the ballot, followed by a “really robust community process” – which Nolan pointed out was exactly what was called for in the order’s proposed charter amendments.

“If we pass this order tonight, the public process will continue, will unfold and will broaden,” Nolan said in June.

But sending the proposed changes to the state Legislature for approval was just one path to getting them on the ballot; sending them to the Attorney General’s Office was another, and it was suggested shortly before debate by the city’s charter consultants, The Collins Center for Public Management at the University of Massachusetts at Boston.

“Sending these amendments to the attorney general directly is a better path. It is more straightforward, it is less bureaucratic. And frankly, it’s less burdensome for our state delegation, which has so much on their plate,” Nolan said.

Home rule petition was never filed

At the same June 28 meeting, it was revealed that a 2018 home rule petition asking the Legislature to grant Cambridge early voting had gone missing. A “communication informs us that this the item was never filed during the session and can’t be acted on, and so the City Council would need to vote on this home rule petition again in order for the language to be refiled,” Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui explained.

There was not much explanation beyond that to offer. “We received an email from [state Rep. Marjorie] Decker’s office and they informed us that this had not been filed,” city clerk Anthony Wilson said. “I’m not sure of all of the legislative machinations that happened at the State House, but maybe they have to refile it every legislative session, and it wasn’t refiled this year. But they did not elaborate.”

Though there are times legislation is sent to every member of the city’s delegation, traditionally it goes only to the longest-serving member, Wilson said. That is Decker, who was elected to the 25th Middlesex State district in 2012 while still a city councillor. She finished out her council term in an overlap with the start of her work on Beacon Hill and has been a state representative since.

“I honestly don’t know what happened … I made a lot of inquiries,” Siddiqui said. “If we do [readopt] it, I’ll make sure that the Legislature has it and it doesn’t happen again.” On Tuesday, Siddiqui said that the City Clerk’s Office in 2018 may have played a role in the confusion, but did not clarify how.

During an encounter Tuesday in Harvard Square, Decker said this story was wrong, but did not say how beyond that it was impossible for her to file a 2018 order in 2021 – without saying what happened to the 2018 order. Decker and Siddiqui were told that details leading to a correction were welcome, but none have been offered.

The order to refile, now for early voting to begin in 2021, was approved 9-0 by the council.