Thursday, June 20, 2024

City Manager Yi-An Huang arrives at a Cambridge City Council meeting Sept. 12. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Setting more realistic goals for Cambridge’s city staff – especially when crises such as a police shooting might distract from them – was among conversations Thursday at a special City Council meeting about city manager performance reviews.

The meeting came just a day after an announcement that universal pre-kindergarten will be implemented for the 2024-2025 school year, achieving a goal that has frustrated the council for several terms. City Manager Yi-An Huang has been in office for around six months, picking up the project from retired manager Louis A. DePasquale.

Councillors praised Huang for the accomplishment while raising concerns about signaling which of their policy orders were practical given budgetary and staff constraints. “Every issue impacting residents is a priority” to them, councillor Quinton Zondervan said.

“We say ’This is a priority, we need to do this right now,’ and you might agree, but just not have the tools to actually get it done,” Zondervan said. “That’s the feedback that we need … so that we can navigate that.”

Councillor Dennis Carlone echoed the concern, advising Huang to be more decisive with the council, especially when members don’t give a clear deadline on motions and orders.

Managing priorities and setting expectations with the council was important, Huang agreed. Universal pre-k was set as a goal because he felt it served as the largest joint issue across all sectors of governmental and residential life.

“I’d be very excited to sit with the council and spend time putting those big [issues] on the table and collectively look at the really big things the council wants to get done over the course of the term,” Huang said. “If we can come to an agreement on those really big [issues], that will help a lot of the other conversations that we’re having, and we can really get focused.” He proposed a look early in the year.

Modifying after a missing evaluation

The council hires the city manager and make requests of him around goals and the day-to-day running of the city. Huang is the first outsider to run Cambridge after three decades of leadership by City Hall insiders – and the council missed the final evaluation of DePasquale and then had to vote on a contract extension while they ran the search that led to Huang’s hiring.

The council made several adjustments to Huang’s annual goals through a four-page report that included a timeline and template of the review process, evaluation criteria and an outlined list of Huang’s goals for the year spanning areas of community engagement, leadership and council relations. It will serve as a performance review for Huang to be measured against at the end of the year, councillors said.

“I’m excited about having a shared agreement on what the goals are at the beginning of the year and then a structure for how we’re going to do ratings and performance reviews at the end,” Huang said. “I am hoping that this also is a step toward modeling performance reviews for the organization.”

Community engagement

He proposed hosting nine meet-and-greets citywide with residents to talk about city initiatives and better engage with the community. Councillor E. Denise Simmons was concerned they would attract the same people whom staff and elected officials see at civic events all the time, and she asked how Huang would get a wider variety of resident involved.

“We do community engagement the same way expecting a different result,” Simmons said. “As we look at this in particular talk about community engagement and trying to draw people in, what are we going to do differently?”

Vice mayor Alanna Mallon suggested hosting a series of topical meetings with specific, invited groups – as the council did during the city manager search. “We had nonprofit community leaders, we had affordable-housing providers, senior representatives, homeless-shelter providers, small-business owners, and almost every single one expressed an interest in doing this with the city manager once [he was] hired – to have those really focused conversations,” Mallon said.

A top goal given by Huang would address that too: hiring a director of community engagement by the end of the year to help his office be consistent with interacting with residents and listening to their concerns.

Staying focused during crises

Navigating priorities and policy orders in times of crises that derail goals is the real leadership challenge, Zondervan said, and should be reflected in the city manager’s goals and review framework. Simmons agreed, acknowledging how emergencies such as the recent deadly police shooting of Arif Sayed Faisal could demand attention and halt city initiatives.

“There are going to be these contingencies, and part of what has kept the council from being as highly functional as we could be is [because] things happen and our attention goes to that,” Simmons said. “How do we not only acknowledge it but plan for it, so we’re not holding the city manager and staff accountable to a timeline where that gets preempted because of some event that happened in the city that we didn’t plan for?”

Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui concluded the meeting after explaining changes to the template and timeline Huang was asked to make to best address councillors’ concerns. Huang committed to drafting and circulating an updated timeline before the Feb. 27 meeting.