Iram Farooq, assistant city manager for community development, left, and Planning Board member Hugh Russell, right, listen to a board meeting presentation Feb. 4, 2020. Between them are associate members Corinne Espinoza and Nikolas Bowie – neither still active. (Photo: Marc Levy)

The city has started to look at paying some members of boards and commissions as a way to broaden the pool of candidates, City Manager Louis A. DePasquale said Monday. The comment came as he reappointed Planning Board members to five-year terms that were seen by some as a political response to the November elections.

Despite some discomfort among councillors and objections by members of the public, the City Council on Monday accepted notification of his reappointments in a 6-3 vote, beginning standard five-year terms for Mary Flynn and Louis Bacci Jr., both serving since 2014; chair Catherine Preston Connolly, serving since 2013; and H Theodore Cohen, serving since 2007.

The past elections have been seen as mandates by voters who want more and faster construction of residential units with less review by older, homeowning residents who might block them from seats of power on the Planning Board and Board of Zoning Appeal. November also saw 69 percent of voters approving a change to the city’s charter that gives the City Council power to confirm board and commission appointments made by the city manager.

Those powers don’t take effect until Jan. 1, though.

“Why now? I don’t understand why we need to do this in December and not wait until what the voters clearly said they wanted in passing the charter question,” councillor Marc McGovern said, noting that all seven members’current terms on the Planning Board had expired. “I’m not sure it sends the right message to the community doing this now, so close to the end of the year.”

Councillor Quinton Zondervan added, “Clearly, this looks like a bunch of reappointments before the council gets a voice.”

Four terms expired in late 2019 and three this year, DePasquale acknowledged, with all members operating in a “holdover” capacity that lasts until they are reappointed or replaced. The Planning Board also has two associate members.

“There was a thought that we come up with all seven tonight, and we decided no, that wasn’t appropriate. We wanted to be respectful of the council, but we also wanted to keep the ball rolling,” DePasquale said. “I felt this was a fair compromise in terms of trying to be fair to the voters and the councillors and to keep the ball rolling from a community development point of view.” The Community Development Department works closely with the Planning Board to keep rezoning and special permit requests reviewed at time-sensitive public hearings.

Board stability

Though he didn’t quite answer McGovern’s question, DePasquale also didn’t mention that the Planning Board is just one body among many now seeing reappointments. (The only person noting a recent wave of nearly 50 appointments was city councillor Patty Nolan.) Last week, the city manager put before the council appointments to the Foundry Advisory Committee and the Citizens Committee on Civic Unity; this week, in addition to the Planning Board, there were agenda items about his appointments to committees on transit, pedestrians and bicycles.

Iram Farooq, assistant city manager for community development, also offered part of an answer:“It got caught up in the pandemic,” she said of the reappointment process.

Farooq agreed the appointments provided stability as well as institutional knowledge to the board, ensuring that permit hearings didn’t have to start over. A law cited by Farooq can disqualify members from voting on projects if they miss testimony about them from more than a single meeting. “For any board, particularly one like the Planning Board, it’s important to have a mix of both stability as well as infusion of new thoughts” and the two associate members provide the latter, she said. All members can vote on zoning recommendations to the council; and on special permits, the “board really values the opinions of all of the members regardless of whether they’re full members or associates.” (An associate member can also vote on permits if a full member is absent.)

“To really create a wholesale change at any time will destabilize the board and the city’s ability to review projects,” Farooq said.

Hard to find people

Moreover, it is also not easy to find people to appoint to boards and commissions, which take a lot of time and energy as well as demand specific kinds of expertise, the city manager said.

Councillor Dennis Carlone said that when he was an urban designer active in the city, he’d been asked several times over the years to recommend people for the Planning Board and BZA – but even people he considered perfect for the role had balked. “Quite frankly, they don’t want it,” he said. “The interest is not there.”

DePasquale confirmed that. “We have had some difficulties, but we’ve really tried to do everything we can with outreach and trying to get as big a pool as possible,” he said. “We are starting to have discussions on should some of these be paid? We’re not ready to say yes or no, but I think realistically – and I’ve mentioned this to the mayor – the time has come to really start having that discussion.”

The council has been discussing it as well, Nolan said, and has found that offering food and child care was the minimum that could be done to lower barriers for participation.

Diversifying boards and commissions

During the recent campaign season, how to diversify boards and commissions was a topic of interest among voters and was included on a Cambridge Nonprofit Coalition candidate questionnaire.

On Monday, though, the main diversity mentioned by residents had to do with representation of renters.

If anything, the couple of residents who spoke sounded more aggrieved than the councillors. “The Planning Board is now majority homeowner at least until 2026. In a city where 60 percent of the residents are renters, this is unacceptable,” Nick Mazzeo said, followed by Jonathan Behrens expressing similar disappointment and the hope that “the city can move on with a supermajority of pro-housing councillors.”

Limits to power

After councillor Jivan Sobrinho-Wheeler discussed how the council might change the format of Planning Board appointments in light of what seemed like a thwarting of “the intent of the voters and the intent of the council,” Nolan reminded everyone of the limitations of the charter change.

“Come January, we will not be recommending. We will still have a process where the city manager will be doing all the recruitment, all the vetting, all of the handling applications and will be recommending [people] the council will have to either approve or not,” said Nolan, who led the process for the charter changes that won approval in last month’s election.

Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui called for a vote on the city manager’s reappointment announcement – while noting that any councillor could use the “charter right” procedure to delay action – saying the picks were within the city manager’s authority but “some of us would have preferred another six or seven weeks [and that] as of Jan. 1, it will be different.”

McGovern, Sobrinho-Wheeler and Zondervan voted against placing the city manager’s reappointment notice on file.

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