Are city manager candidates ready for the role? Councillors ask how each would make the leap
Along with describing their visions for Cambridge, four candidates to take over as city manager next month have been making their cases for how they would grow into the role from their current jobs.
While it’s merely a significant promotion for Iram Farooq, assistant city manager for Cambridge’s Community Development Department, candidates also include Yi-An Huang, a health care executive; Cheryl Watson Fisher, a city solicitor; and Norman Khumalo, manager of a town of 16,700, which is 14 percent of Cambridge’s population of 118,403.
In presentations and conversations Tuesday and Wednesday, each said the City Manager’s Office was not too much of a stretch. Louis A. DePasquale leaves July 5 after around five and a half years in the role. He’s a lifelong resident who began work at City Hall in 1975 and rose through the ranks. His pay started at $292,500 and rose to around $331,000.
Farooq said she’d been approached by recruiters several times over the past seven years to become a city or town manager elsewhere. “I have chosen not to apply,” she said, “because it is Cambridge I’m passionate about. I’m drawn to the opportunity to make change here.”
During her time in Community Development, which she said has given her an understanding of the core values and priorities of the city, she was promoted over her own supervisor, forcing her to go quickly not only from “peer to leader, but supervisor to [my peers’] leader.” There have been “some awkward situations that I’ve had to deal with.” Becoming city manager would be similar, she said, but her staff is supportive.
That was essentially confirmed by search consultant Randi Frank, who told city councillors Wednesday that her firm had done background and reference checks on each candidate. “She’s had to have quick transitions in past positions, so this will be similar,” Frank said of Farooq, summing up her findings. “She’s not used to promoting herself, but shouldn’t be underestimated – she’s a force to be reckoned with.” The research showed she was viewed as collaborative and able to “get the best out of people,” competent and detail-oriented as well as approachable and empathetic. If there was a flaw discovered in the checks, it was that Farooq’s time is spread thin and she lacks experience in areas outside planning, such as public safety.
Farooq said that despite the many successes of Cambridge government, there were areas such as infrastructure planning and the alignment of policies with values that inspired her to bid for leadership of city staff, where she would apply a planning perspective – which might look 20 years or more out – atop the five-year horizons of a finance perspective. That’s dominated under DePasquale, who was promoted from overseeing Cambridge’s finances.
“I felt like if I care deeply enough about [what happens in Cambridge] I need to step out of my comfort zone and really say I’m going to take the bull by the horns,” Farooq said after the Wednesday forum. “I’m going to have to be the person who’s accountable.”
Cheryl Watson Fisher
Fisher was asked to not just account for the step from Chelsea city attorney to Cambridge city manager, but what would happen to her 12-year-old law practice, Galluccio & Watson, which she runs with her high school friend – former councillor, mayor and state representative Anthony Galluccio.
In Chelsea, a city of 39,878 that shares Cambridge’s city manager form of government – perhaps with a stronger city manager and weaker council, Fisher said – she has been asked to fill in for various roles as personnel leave, most recently as interim head of health and human services during the pandemic. Even without those hands-on responsibilities, “I have experience in most of what the city council there will do, I have been a member of the management team. As city solicitor, I’m also school council, I have licensing directly under me, I have the Human Rights Commission under my authority,” she said. The city solicitor has to know what every department does to defend it in legal proceedings, must understand the rules and regulations of boards and commissions and know building and sanitary codes; her office also negotiates labor contracts. “The city solicitor has a say in probably 99 percent of the decisions that the city does.”
In addition, she is steeped in regional approaches to planning and problem-solving. “We have the [Metropolitan Area Planning Council] probably on speed dial,” she quipped.
As to questions of conflict of interest with Galluccio, who represents multiple major developments around the city while Fisher does family law part time, she said the partners were ready to dissolve the firm – but that the specifics of Galluccio’s side of the business was largely unknown to her and didn’t present a financial conflict. Having been raised in Cambridge and once serving as an assistant city solicitor here in addition to a 30-year career in law, “I have relationships throughout the community,” Fisher said. “I have family members who work very hard for the city.” If she felt she had a conflict, she would recuse herself from a decision, she said.
More than the other candidates, Huang has committed to listen to the council as the elected, governing body of the city – but not because the transition from health care to municipal leadership would be overwhelming. “I feel like I can come in and have an impact immediately,” Huang said Wednesday. “There are actually tremendous parallels between health care and city government … in the complexity of operations and the delivery of services.”
Boston Medical Center, where Huang is executive director, is a $4 billion nonprofit with 8,000 employees serving about 1 million patients yearly, he said. Cambridge has a $787.9 million budget and 3,564 employees. Both have financial, legal, regulatory and technological components and a diverse group of stakeholders. “A lot of the purpose of Boston Medical Center and the purpose the City of Cambridge is really service, and the ways that we can invest in our community in those who are most vulnerable,” Huang said, and that means having clear goals, accountability, plans and timelines. “Those are general management functions [where I’ve] been very effective … I also see similar aspects in how you build culture and empower leaders and how we think about diversity, equity and inclusion.”
Khumalo is town manager of Hopkinton, which grounds him in the details of governing in Massachusetts. (He has also been a planner or town manager in Wellesley, Walpole and Westford.) But his résumé includes work on a larger scale internationally. “Think of it this way. I started working for the city of Bulawayo, substantially larger than this city,” Khumalo said Tuesday after a candidates’ forum. That city in Zimbabwe, where he was senior planner, has a population of 640,000. “I worked with Oxfam and was responsible for programs in 15 countries working with the IMF, the World Bank, United Nations and Congress.”
The background checks for each candidate glowed. Huang was praised for his “strategic abilities, his intuitiveness, his extremely organized [nature as a] problem-solver,” with those who knew him saying he acclimates quickly, having always “gone into new places with learning curves and has done wonderfully in figuring out where to go.” Fisher’s assessment of her abilities was affirmed, with people finding her respectful and practical, with an “amazing grasp of systems [while being] involved in many projects,” and even her lack of financial experience didn’t seem to be a concern: “She’s a quick study,” Frank read off from her report. If there were flaws, they lay in her sometimes wanting “to do everything herself” and, perhaps emboldened by her experiences during the pandemic, in being direct with people – she “will not sugarcoat.”
Khumalo has talent, an inclusive, collaborative team approach that holds people accountable but is patient and fair, and is a highly intelligent, results-oriented problem solver, Frank recited. He had a learning curve upon arrival but “he’s come a long way [with] skills that are transferable to Cambridge. His biggest negative,” she said, “was that he doesn’t take enough vacation.”
The consultant checked criminal and civil court proceedings and found nothing on any candidate, Frank said, though “one person had a speeding ticket a long time ago.”