Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui gets flowers June 6 at Starlight Square in Cambridge’s Central Square. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Cambridge city councillors are unlikely to face term limits any time soon, based on discussion at the Tuesday meeting of the Charter Review Committee, but there will be more examination of a change in title for the mayor and the mayor’s automatic leadership of the School Committee. 

Cambridge adopted its “Plan E” charter, with its weak mayor, city council and city manager in 1940 – and there have been no major reviews or revisions since. Voters approved a review in 2021, and a 15-member Charter Review Committee was appointed, leading up to a final report late this year. The City Council will consider recommendations; Cambridge voters will ultimately decide surviving recommendations.

Under Cambridge’s current system, councillors may serve for as long as voters continue to elect them. During its meeting, the committee debated the merits and drawbacks of adding term limits to the charter.

Term limits could help infuse the council with new energy, member Ellen Shachter said, based on seeing how term limits benefited boards on which she served. 

“New generations of people bring in new ideas and bring in fresh associations and connections with the community,” Shachter said. “At some point, even though you carry expertise, you have to transition that expertise to new people to have a functioning democracy.”

Member Nikolas Bowie was concerned that term limits could prevent effective, experienced councillors from continuing to help their city. “Imposing limits on who can run again does a disservice when there are effective people who you would support to continue in the office,” Bowie said. “Having short terms with no term limits, I think, gives voters more power in deciding the kind of representation they want.” 

After the debate, Anna Corning, the charter review project manager, ran an unofficial vote in which she asked the committee members if they would like to continue discussing term limits. While three members voted to continue discussion, nine voted to move on and keep the current system of no term limits.

Title and roles of the mayor

The Charter Review Committee also discussed the title and roles of Cambridge’s mayor. 

Under the city’s current charter, the mayor is the presiding officer at council meetings and the chair of the School Committee. A city manager, who is appointed by the council, administers the city day-to-day. 

Members of the Charter Review Committee pointed out that the title “mayor” is confusing, as Cambridge’s mayor does not have the role most people associate with the term. Instead of serving as the city’s chief executive, as the mayors of other communities often do, Cambridge’s mayor is the head of the city’s legislative branch.

“We’ve already voted not to give the mayor any meaningful power, so I feel strongly that we should call the mayor what it is – which is the chair of the council or the speaker of the council,” Bowie said.

Though member Susan Shell agreed the term “mayor” is confusing, she wondered whether another title would cause outsiders, such as those from the Conference of Mayors, to respect the position less. “I wouldn’t want a change of title to make it harder for someone to speak meaningfully for the city and represent its interests in councils where they’re used to having mayors,” Shell said.

In response, member Mina Makarious said that no matter what Cambridge decides to call its leader, it is unlikely that the title alone would change the position’s prestige.

“I’m not sure that the person’s title or method of election is going to matter as much as the fact that they are authorized to speak for the city of Cambridge, a 110,000-resident city,” Makarious said.

In another unofficial vote, 11 members voted to continue entertaining a change to the mayor’s title. One member abstained, and none voted to keep the title as is.

The committee also discussed adjusting one of the mayor’s roles. Chair Kathleen Born said that the Charter Review Committee should consider removing the mayor as chair of the School Committee. With such a change, the mayor would remain a member of the School Committee, but the committee would have a chance to elect its own leader, she said. 

Many members agreed with Born’s suggestion, so the committee will revisit it in the future.