Saturday, June 22, 2024

A 2018 City Council meeting is produced and broadcast in Cambridge City Hall. (Photo: Ceilidh Yurenka)

Meeting an end-of-year deadline is forcing procedural compromises for Cambridge’s Charter Review Committee, which is rewriting the city’s entire governing document after 80 years with modern language and some new proposed practices.

It adopted during its Tuesday meeting the first article of a draft charter that will end up in final recommendations to the City Council. The committee is aiming for a November presentation after asking the council in April for a six-month extension from its original deadline.

The section, Article I, deals with some of the charter’s most basic functions, such as establishing the council as the city’s legislative branch, said Michael Ward, director of the Edward J. Collins Jr. Center for Public Management at the University of Massachusetts Boston. The center is the city’s consultant on charter change.

“It’s mostly technical, but it is important for laying the foundation of the city and its powers,” Ward said.

After the roll call vote, the committee’s clerk announced that nine members had voted to approve the article, while six were absent. Chair Kathleen Born let out a concerned sigh. 

“That was not a two-thirds vote,” she said. After thinking for a moment, she continued, “We’ll proceed with these individual votes, then aim to have a two-thirds acceptance of the final report.”

Concern raised

In the Zoom meeting’s comments, John Hawkinson, who has written for Cambridge Day, questioned whether the committee could approve the article without a two-thirds majority. Approving the final draft as a whole, he noted, was insufficient.

The Charter Review Committee has run into this issue before. In May, Hawkinson sent a letter to the committee on its voting procedures.

“The governing legislation suggests that the committee should require a separate two-thirds supermajority on each of its recommendations,” Hawkinson wrote.

After reading Hawkinson’s letter, the committee requested a legal opinion. City solicitor Nancy Glowa responded June 1, writing that though the committee did not need a two-thirds majority for interim votes, it did need to meet that threshold for final votes.

The city’s charter and municipal code require “that each and every recommendation in the final report to the City Council must be voted upon by a separate, final two-thirds vote by the committee’s members,” Glowa wrote.

Mindful of procedure

In an interview, Born said that the committee could always return to Article 1 if it needed to.

“We can always bring up a matter again and take a second vote,” Born said. “In this case, we didn’t have full attendance. It wasn’t necessarily that people were opposed to it.”

She also said that whenever possible, the committee will try to achieve two-thirds approval of its recommendations, but in some cases, attaining that level of support might be impossible. For recommendations that fall short of the two-thirds benchmark, the committee could note those in its report.

“I certainly intend that, when we get to the conclusion, we’ll have a report that has two-thirds support, but the report may make note of some individual issues where the support is less than unanimous,” Born said.

Because of its quickly approaching deadline, the committee needs to move forward, Born said. It still has many recommendation to consider.

“We are mindful of procedure, but we’re not going to be hamstrung by it,” she said.

The current “Plan E” charter with a council, city manager and weak mayor was adopted in 1940 and has received no major revisions since. After voters approved a review of the charter in 2021, the council appointed the 15-member committee responsible for analyzing the charter and recommending changes. The committee will send its final report to the council by the end of the year so the council can consider recommendations; Cambridge voters will ultimately decide on the surviving recommendations.