Sunday, June 16, 2024

Some of the 2017 campaign season’s 26 candidates for Cambridge City Council gather onstage for a Sept. 7 election forum at the Main Library. (Photo: Marc Levy)

The Charter Review Committee will likely keep Cambridge’s at-large City Council system, according to the committee’s Tuesday meeting.

Under Cambridge’s current system, residents elect nine city councillors to represent the city as a whole. In past meetings, the committee explored the possibility of district councillors, who would be elected by and represent a ward rather than the entire city. The committee has also discussed a hybrid system that would combine at-large and district council seats.

In an unofficial vote, Anna Corning, the charter review project manager, asked the committee members if they would like to continue discussing district council seats. Three members voted to keep exploring this option, whereas nine members voted to move on and keep the city’s current at-large setup.

“This indicates that we probably will not spend too much time on exploring district councillors,” Corning said after the vote.

Three other issues, starting with the possibility of lengthening councillor terms, were considered Tuesday. Cambridge city councillors currently serve two-year terms, though some have floated the idea of four-year terms. 

The committee members voted unanimously to keep two-year terms. 

Term limits and mayoral elections

The committee discussed term limits for councillors, which do not exist under Cambridge’s current charter.

The committee was split, with about half voting to continue discussion. Some members said that they needed to think about the issue more before deciding.

“We really haven’t had any conversation to discuss this issue,” member Ellen Shachter said. “I don’t want this meeting, when we’ve never had any conversation, to be dispositive of whether we continue to talk about this or not.”

Members Max Clermont, Jennifer Gilbert and Kevin Chen agreed. In response, Corning added a discussion on term limits to the agenda for next week’s committee meeting.

Finally, the committee considered changing the role of the mayor and the method by which the mayor is elected. Under the current charter, it’s city councillors who elect one of their own nine members to serve as the mayor – the presiding officer at council meetings and the chair of the School Committee. A city manager, who is appointed by the council, carries out the council’s policies and administers the city’s day-to-day operations. In past meetings, the Charter Review Committee has discussed electing the mayor through a citywide vote and giving the position more authority.

Past committee votes have leaned toward keeping the city manager form of government. But as with term limits, the committee agreed to continue considering the role and election of the mayor. Its next discussion is Tuesday.

Timing of a citywide vote

Responding to a council order from April 10, the Law Department sent the Charter Review Committee an opinion on when Cambridge could schedule a citywide vote on the charter. 

First Assistant City Solicitor Elliott Veloso, who joined the meeting to discuss the opinion, said that if the committee recommends substantial changes, the Massachusetts General Court will likely need to approve a new charter before Cambridge residents could vote on it. 

This General Court path is one of two by which the charter could be approved. The second involves sending the charter to the state Office of the Attorney General, but is likely inappropriate for the changes the committee has proposed in its work since Aug. 16 – the Attorney General will approve only minor changes.

Although the General Court path will probably take longer than the attorney general path, it gives Cambridge more flexibility on when it can hold a citywide vote on the charter. 

“There is some flexibility for the council as to how they would wish to proceed relative to the election,” Veloso said. “It could be a special election; it could be your next state election; it could be a local election.”

If Cambridge pursued the attorney general path, it would need to host a citywide vote during a scheduled municipal election. With the election Nov. 7 taking place before the committee has its suggestions reviewed by the council, the next one is now in 2025.