City councillor E. Denise Simmons, second from right, seen in January 2020. (Photo: Derek Kouyoumjian)

A surprising outburst from councillor E. Denise Simmons accused a fellow councillor of using his “charter right” rudely at Monday’s meeting of the City Council – though the maneuver was used the same way it has been countless times over the years.

In the exchange, a policy order by Simmons proposing to name a new playground after City Manager Louis A. DePasquale was put on hold for a week by councillor Jivan Sobrinho-Wheeler. The “charter right” provided for in council rules usually ends discussion immediately, though the action is sometimes signaled to allow for final comments by other councillors.

“I’m going to exercise my charter right because I want to talk to the motion maker a bit more to understand the naming process for parks. My concern is that of all the parks we have in Cambridge, only a small percentage are named after women and people of color. And with some of the recent namings, we’re making that percentage even smaller,” Sobrinho-Wheeler said. A park in East Cambridge opened Oct. 2 named after longtime councillor Tim Toomey, who is retiring when his current term ends at the end of the year. (Sobrinho-Wheeler, who this month lost reelection to a second two-year term, also won’t be returning to the council in January.)

“I want to make sure that we’re being equitable with our representation, and maybe there’s a joint naming possibility here,” Sobrinho-Wheeler said. “So we look forward to discussing this next week.”

Councillor Jivan Sobrinho-Wheeler in an image from January 2020. (Photo: Derek Kouyoumjian)

This could have been a topic close to Simmons’ heart. Simmons, who was first elected to the council in 2001 and becomes the senior member with Toomey’s departure, has spoken repeatedly about how few city parks are named after women. As recently as June 10, 2019, she remarked on how “we do not have one park in Cambridge named for a woman – they’re all named after guys,” though on July 27, 2020, she realized her mistake even while making the claim again and said, “I take that back. I named [Greene-Rose Heritage Park] after Janet Rose and Fran Greene.”

In fact, the city also has Joan Lorentz Park in Mid-Cambridge at the Cambridge Main Library and Jill Brown-Rhone Park in Lafayette Square. But in July 2020 Simmons said, “Let’s enlarge the opportunity to acknowledge formidable women, those known and unknown.”

“It would be polite”

Still, how Sobrinho-Wheeler used his charter right Monday upset her.

When Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui acknowledged his action, Simmons remarked, “That’s the problem I have, madam mayor: He exercises his charter right after he discusses it and chokes off any other discussion from anyone else.”

“When one exercises one’s charter right, it would be polite not to speak on it,” Simmons said. “But to say ‘I want to exercise my charter right’ and then wax eloquent as to why, which chokes off other people speaking – in other times, someone would say, ‘I’m going to exercise my charter right’ and then allow people to [speak]. I just want to make a note of the fact that my colleague exercised his charter right, which is his privilege, then speaks on it and exercises his charter right that chokes off discussion. I just want to make make that note for the record.”

Ordinary approach

In fact, what Sobrinho-Wheeler did was ordinary – taking the most common approach among councillors to say they are using their charter right and why, after which conversation must end.

There has been less frequent use of an approach allowing a round of speeches before the actual charter right is invoked. Toomey has been unique in that he often wields his charter right without explanation – making him the outlier.

Upon hearing Simmons’ complaint Monday, Sobrinho-Wheeler said he was “more than happy” to let councillors speak. But Toomey objected, noting that the charter right had been invoked, and said, “I believe there is absolutely no further discussion on this matter at this meeting.” The mayor agreed and the item was postponed without further consideration.

More charter rights

Later in the meeting, Toomey used his charter right to delay an order about Alewife zoning – neither explaining why nor giving notice that allowed further discussion.

Soon afterward, Simmons used her charter right too, on an order about bike lane installation in North Cambridge. Though two councillors managed to speak on it first, she did essentially the same thing as Sobrinho-Wheeler.

“I would like to have the opportunity to talk to councillor [Patty] Nolan and to the city manager. I don’t think a week will make a huge difference, so I’m going to exercise my charter right,” Simmons said.

That would have cut off discussion immediately, except that a motion to amend Nolan’s order was already pending. The city clerk advised the mayor that it should be disposed of first, she concurred, and the amendment was adopted 7-2 before the full matter was postponed. Toomey joined Simmons in opposing the amendment – but neither raised an objection to the unusual procedural approach.

All three topics are available to be taken up again Monday.

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