Saturday, May 18, 2024

Yi-an Huang at a May 31 city manager candidate forum. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Yi-An Huang, a Cambridge resident who is an executive director at the nonprofit Boston Medical Center, has been voted by the City Council to be the next city manager.

Though there was plenty of praise for all four finalists to replace City Manager Louis A. DePasquale after he leaves July 5, the only runner-up to Huang with votes to show for it was Cheryl Watson Fisher. She is a former resident of The Port and still a practicing Cambridge lawyer, though it was her current role as city solicitor in Chelsea that put her within reach of the city manager role.

The final vote for Huang was 8-1, with only city councillor E. Denise Simmons holding out for Fisher at the end. In an initial round of voting, the tally was 6-3 for Huang over Fisher, but councillors Marc McGovern and Paul Toner switched their votes to give the next city manager “a strong vote of support,” in Toner’s words.

The other candidates were Iram Farooq, assistant city manager for the Community Development Department since 2015, who received the next most amount of verbal support as councillors went around the room explaining their thinking for the vote they were about to formalize; and Norman Khumalo, town manager of Hopkinton.

Cheryl Watson Fisher at the May 31 forum at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School’s Fitzgerald Auditorium. (Photo: Marc Levy)

The search process led by vice mayor Alanna Mallon since January drew 30 applications from potential city managers nationwide. That was narrowed to 10, and then to five finalists. One dropped out, councillor Dennis Carlone said.

Huang and Fisher got significant support during public comment before the vote Monday, though there were roughly twice as many speakers with support for Huang than for Fisher. About 60 percent of emails sent to councillors were in favor of Huang, Carlone said.

“There’s not a person I reached out to who wasn’t impressed” by Huang, Mallon said.

An anecdote from resident Carol Weiss about Huang was particularly powerful to Mallon.

 “He knew I was on my own and didn’t have a car. One day he just offered to come by once a week and we could go [shopping at] Market Basket together. That was several years ago, and we’ve been doing that ever since,” Weiss said. “He brings me home. He carries in my groceries. When I came home from the hospital after having a stroke several years ago, Yi-an said to give him a list and he did my grocery shopping for me until I was able to do it. I tell you this as an illustration of his character.”

Councillor Patty Nolan, meanwhile, was struck by hearing that Huang had taken in three young Afghan refugees – and that she heard it from residents’ testimony, not as something Huang said about himself during the screening process. That Huang had kids in Cambridge Public Schools also made an impact.

Fisher vote could have been “historic”

Fisher, however, represented something more for The Port and black residents of Cambridge, who saw her potential appointment as a statement. 

After 11 white men leading the city since 1942, “it is well past time to shatter the status quo and appoint a woman and a woman of color,” councillor E. Denise Simmons said, calling the appointment of Fisher “imperative.”

“She knows what it’s like to be less than and to lift people up,” Simmons said, urging a vote for Fisher “so we can say we not only did the right thing, but the historic thing … so we can say to little girls and boys [of Cambridge], you can be mayor and you can be city manager.”

Fisher is partner in a 12-year-old law firm, Galluccio & Watson, where she practices family law with high school friend Anthony Galluccio, a former city councillor, mayor and state senator who now represents major developers in Cambridge. Though a social media and email campaign whipped through town over the weekend in support of her as city manager, Fisher was the only candidate obliged to answer questions about potential conflict of interests during a public forum.

Looking forward

Department of Public Works commissioner Owen O’Riordan, seen in 2016, is being asked to serve as interim city manager. (Photo: Ceilidh Yurenka)

Though Huang lacks direct experience in municipal government, he noted last week that BMC is a $4 billion nonprofit with 8,000 employees serving about 1 million patients yearly. 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 of 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.”

After the vote appointing Huang, the council went into a closed-door session to discuss negotiating a contract with him and to mull the appointment of an interim city manager. They returned to approve of hiring an attorney to start the negotiations formally and identify Public Works commissioner Owen O’Riordan as stepping in between DePasquale’s July 5 departure and whenever Huang is able to begin work.

“This would be an almost seamless transition with someone of [O’Riordan’s] caliber,” Carlone said. There would be a weekly stipend of $2,500 to fill the gap between his salary and DePasquale’s. (Farooq had not been considered for the interim role because she was a candidate for the permanent role, Mallon said.)

There may be even more for the next city manager to consider: filling the position of deputy city manager, which has been empty since the retirement of Lisa Peterson in January 2021 for what were understood to be health reasons. At a budget hearing in May 2021, Mallon pressed DePasquale to hire a new deputy “pretty quickly” – someone qualified to serve as interim city manager if necessary. Despite his legal duty to make the appointment, DePasquale has not done so or explained his decision as he assured the council he would.

In other news learned Monday, newly appointed city clerk Diane LeBlanc said she will begin work formally July 25.