Saturday, May 18, 2024

Cambrdge’s charter reform process calls for an eventual special election. (Photo: Marc Levy)

A six-month extension was given Monday to an overhaul of Cambridge’s ruling document, which is being undertaken by a committee of 15 volunteers weighing such things as whether to keep a city manager form of government.

The extension was granted 8-1 by city councillors, with Quinton Zondervan opposed because he felt the voters who approved the process in 2021 deserved action. “I don’t in any way object to giving them as much time as they need,” Zondervan said of the charter group. “I think we are letting the voters down by not making any changes to the charter this term.”

The Charter Review Committee decided March 14 to ask for an extension, having looked at a timeline for a project taking into account more than eight decades of change – Cambridge adopted its “Plan E” charter, with its weak mayor and city council, in 1940. An extension allows time for public hearings on a complex, comprehensive process that moves a final report from the summer to November, with “wiggle room” in case there are details that take it to the end of the year.

“It’s important that we wrap up by November. We have an election in November and there will be a new council seated. It’s a time of natural turnover. I know it seems daunting to make these decisions, but we’ll lose credibility if we let it go on for too long,” charter committee chair Kathy Born said of the charter review. “It’s not over until it’s over, but I think we need to get to some point of closure.”

All dozen members present agreed, and the committee got back to business debating whether Cambridge’s current form of government or a stronger mayor was preferable. (The answer, bumping over to the March 28 meeting, leans in favor of keeping Plan E and a city manager.)

The next council decides

That moved the action to the City Council on Monday, when members and the city solicitor grappled with what a delay meant for charter reform.

For one thing, it means proposed changes will be voted on by whoever is elected or reelected Nov. 7. 

“I am one of those who wished that the Charter Review Committee had been able to do their work more quickly,” said councillor Patty Nolan, whose work put charter reform on the 2021 ballot, “so that we could have had a possibility of reviewing them ourselves.”

There’s a process after the committee presents its report, though, including a review that must be presented to the state Legislature for approval before returning for a final decision by Cambridge voters. That would likely be a special election in 2024 that would affect local races in 2025, Nolan said.

City solicitor Nancy Glowa had a slightly different take: that the Attorney General’s Office would have to review changes passed onward by the council. In the summer of 2021, the city sent its charter reform proposal to the attorney general instead of to the Legislature to avoid seeing a home rule petition get lost.

“A substantial delay”

Zondervan worried that there would be no changes to the way councillors or the mayor are elected until 2027, “because any changes we make now wouldn’t be on the ballot until 2025.”

“It’s not as simple as giving the committee six more months,” Zondervan said. Even if his initial worries were wrong, “holding a special election is not a trivial thing. Either way, we’re talking about a substantial delay beyond 2025.”

While that wasn’t ideal, councillors agreed, there also seemed no reasonable way around it.

Considering that the charter committee is made up of hardworking volunteers, “What’s the alternative?” councillor Marc McGovern asked. “They meet twice a month already. They’re doing the city a service here, and they want more time to do it well and do it right.”