Departing police commissioner Branville G. Bard Jr.

The City Council’s respect for free speech has long been a bit dodgy, easily sacrificed for what members think constitutes a well-run meeting. The rule against carrying signs in Sullivan Chamber isn’t great from a civil liberties point of view, and might be shocking to people who think of Cambridge as the ultimate in progressivism. There’s also the demand to speak to items only on the agenda unless, in practical terms, you’re a local eccentric named Peter Valentine, which is a source of some sighs. And there’s an injunction that members speak only about the question under debate and “avoid personalities,” while public commenters must limit themselves to specific agenda items “and shall not engage in personal or rude remarks.”

“Rude” is not just in the ear of the beholder, but is a questionably subjective standard, and the rules around the “personal” or “personalities” are obvious nonsense. It’s clear that the idea is not to avoid talking about personalities but not to say anything bad, at least about the personalities who have Cambridge officials’ stamp of approval.

We saw it in action Monday, when a resolution honoring departing police commissioner Branville G. Bard Jr. was heard with plenty of hagiography to go around: the “sacrifice” that he made to move to Cambridge from Philadelphia for a job, his being “a real role model” who was “committed to transparency” and so on. Then councillor Quinton Zondervan tried to speak about his perceptions of a public servant’s limitations and the controversy surrounding his upcoming role.

“I’m happy to thank commissioner Bard for his service. And while we didn’t always get along, particularly toward the end of his tenure, it was never personal for me and I appreciate him a lot as a person. Where we disagreed was on the role of policing in our society. And unfortunately, I do have trouble wishing him great success as he enters his exciting next chapter, because it’s to create a brand-new police department at Johns Hopkins University,” said Zondervan, an advocate for defunding police departments by moving their functions elsewhere.

Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui interrupted Zondervan to say it was “just not appropriate for you to talk about where you disagree with him,” since the resolution wished Bard well. “I don’t know where your manners are.” Councillor E. Denise Simmons thanked the mayor for shutting down Zondervan, while councillor Marc McGovern uttered his criticism of criticism loudly into his Zoom microphone: “Outrageous.”

It’s not a bad thing for city councillors and the police commissioner to get along well, but the relationship between Bard and the council is reflective of the comfortable back-slapping that defines much of how the city runs: Everything is very cozy until it isn’t, and an official either dares to acknowledge a problem or takes the easier path of ignoring it until staff makes it go away. A lot can get forgiven in Cambridge, and it seems to matter not one whit to most of the councillors that, for instance, Bard’s response to them about military-grade gear in his department was disingenuous, to say the least. Bard, the “role model,” joined in a License Commission vote that led to a court case that is still being litigated in which he identified a remark about making a job complaint as being tantamount to physical threats and “witness intimidation.” He was not transparent and refused to answer for his actions to the media, an approach signaled from his appointment onward: He was the sole candidate identified by City Manager Louis A. DePasquale for the role and was introduced to the public at a “forum” at which he read a speech and gave prepared answers to canned questions before disappearing quickly afterward.

Zondervan’s critiques, and mine, aren’t going to do anything to impede Bard’s career trajectory. Bard’s statement as he was hired by Johns Hopkins suggested the importance of the “individual constitutional rights of the citizenry” and promised that “we do not have to choose between being safer and sacrificing civil liberties,” though the ACLU found that his commission vote “appears to raise serious free speech issues.” The Johns Hopkins’ press release also praised a online Procedural Justice Dashboard that is yet to be finished.

Clearly, Bard does enough right that these breaks in the narrative are unimportant. And he’s liked and admired enough that his friends on the council don’t want to be bummed out by criticism about the guy at an otherwise nice moment.

If that doesn’t exactly sound like a robust democracy, well, just refer back to our national profile as a bastion for radical lefties and let’s say no more about it.

After Bard’s introductory “forum” in June 2017 – the one with prewritten responses and no questions or interactions with the public or media – the city manager came up to me and asked what I’d thought of the event. I shrugged and said I’d thought it was “kinda bullshit.”

It was the first and last time DePasquale initiated a conversation with me. In Cambridge, the officials are happy to listen to you so long as you’re saying what they want to hear.

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