Friday, April 12, 2024

The MBTA green line extension project opened a relocated Lechmere station March 21. (Photo: Marc Levy)

The departure of City Manager Louis A. DePasquale is less than two months away, and he has begun to kick things down the road to his unknown replacement.

On Monday, as a few city councillors expressed frustration over a returned $5 million going back into free cash instead of transit improvements, DePasquale offered a response with the faint tang of a piña colada being sipped on a beach somewhere: “If that’s what the council wants, and the new manager will consider it, then I’d certainly think we’d look at that.”

“But the plan would not be in the next two months to come up with a $5 million recommendation,” DePasquale said.

With an injection of federal American Rescue Plan Act money, as of December the green line extension subway project officially no longer needed $25 million from Cambridge and $50 million from Somerville to keep going. The green line extension began rolling March 21 back into Lechmere and onto Union Square in Somerville, and the money, committed in May 2016, was coming back. Councillors and residents had plenty of ideas what to do with it.

DivcoWest, the developer of Cambridge Crossing in North Point, was to provide half the money; of the $15 million already sent to the state, the company had provided $10 million. And though DePasquale said he asked DivcoWest if it would keep its money focused on transit improvements,  the company declined. “They have a board that they’re responsible to,” DePasquale told councillors. “They [said they] would continue to work with us, but at this point the board felt that they should get the money.”

That left the city’s $5 million, which DePasquale said was going back into free cash as staff considered the best way to spend it. “We’ve made no determination,” he said, while mentioning ongoing citywide bike lane installations. Traffic, Parking & Transportation Department director Joe Barr said what came first to his mind were changes to First Street as part of a silver line extension that would connect Kendall Square and East Cambridge more directly with Logan Airport.

“As the manager said, we haven’t determined exactly how we might want to use these funds, but I think there are definitely needs out there and we’ll certainly be keeping this unexpected refund in mind,” Barr said.

“Not the response we were looking for”

This, councillors shot back, was not the idea. In the order they not only approved unanimously Dec. 13 but amended to be sponsored by the entire council, they imagined returning features to a stripped-down Lechmere T station, improving bus stops, expanding bus service hours and trying fare-free rides. On Monday, resident Heather Hoffman reminded councillors that the station still lacks protection from winter weather and even effective status announcements for train arrivals.

It’s hardly the first time the city manager has shrugged off council orders – in a way, the dynamic is built into the city manager form of government. But that doesn’t stop councillors from being upset.

“We put forward a pretty clear policy order, and this was not the response we were looking for. We have asked for a study report and we’re not getting one back,” vice mayor Alanna Mallon said. “There was a desire by this body to talk about what the city was going to be doing with that unexpected refund and enhancing transit access for our residents.”

Councillors Quinton Zondervan and Patty Nolan agreed there was a risk of the money getting lost in the larger pool of free cash – and while Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui seemed to agree, she also suggested immediately that “we’re all on the same page now” and could put in a new policy order going over the same ground or “talk offline about how we want this $5 million to be used to serve the council priorities.” (It was, strangely, only the first of two references Monday to the virtues of councillors conducting business with staff outside of the public eye; in discussing how the city would decide the use of federal Covid recovery money, councillor Dennis Carlone remarked that “what we do behind the scenes is just as important as what we do publicly.” Councillors aren’t usually so blatant about nodding to the occasional uselessness of public processes.)

The next manager

From DePasquale’s perspective, the return of the $5 million helped make up for poor parking revenue during two years of pandemic – and was small potatoes anyway. “We have an $800 million budget. This is a $5 million refund. It is limited on what we’re going to do with $5 million,” he said. Despite the council’s order, which “we didn’t think was a priority,” DePasquale said he didn’t expect there to be “a specific plan” for the money.

“Surely in the future, we could say that this [project] is because of that [refund],” DePasquale said. “If the new manager feels like they should say it’s ‘that $5 million,’ I certainly think that’s something they would consider.”

DePasquale leaves office July 5, ending a run of a little over five and a half years. The City Council, led by Mallon, interviews potential candidates starting this week to replace DePasquale; that could mean the end of the so-far 41-year Robert W. Healy era – meaning that DePasquale and his predecessor, Richard C. Rossi, were internal hires from the tenure of Healy, who took office in 1981, and policy bedfellows.