Sunday, June 16, 2024

Laura Borrelli speaks to the Cambridge City Council in 2018. A charter review committee is talking about direct democracy. (Photo: Ceilidh Yurenka)

The Charter Review Committee hopes to infuse more direct democracy into Cambridge – the recent discussion, Tuesday, was about introducing resident assemblies to a city without them – but doesn’t favor referendums or the recall of city officials.

The committee has debated for months whether it would include elements of direct democracy in its final draft charter, an update of the city’s governing document after eight decades that will be sent to the City Council by the end of the year. While most members have agreed that some direct democracy is beneficial, they have disagreed on scope and specifics.

During a Sept. 5 meeting, Anna Corning, the charter review project manager, held unofficial votes on a few different elements of direct democracy to see if members wanted to continue discussion.

The first vote pertained to free petitions, a tool residents could use to get an issue on a City Council agenda. (A topic must be on the agenda before residents can speak about it during a public comment period). The Charter Review Committee voted unanimously to continue discussing free petitions, meaning it will likely end up in the final report in some form.

This unanimous support comes after some members expressed skepticism in earlier meetings.

“Among the methods of public participation in the document, petitions are likely going to be the least influential in terms of giving residents of Cambridge meaningful decision-making power,” member Nikolas Bowie said in June.

The committee also voted on citizen initiatives. If granted this right in the charter, residents would be able to put a question to a citywide vote, assuming they meet signature thresholds and other requirements. Twelve of 15 committee members voted to further discuss citizen initiatives.

The final two votes ended much differently. On the issue of referendums, only six committee members voted to continue discussion.

A referendum is related to but different from a citizen initiative. Whereas an initiative asks voters whether they approve of a new measure, a referendum asks voters whether they approve of a law the council has already passed, functioning like a veto.

Many of the committee members are concerned that referendums could be abused. “I continue to have some serious concerns about the anti-democratic nature of referenda,” member Mina Makarious said before the vote. “It is a way to relitigate an argument after a decision is made without going back to the ballot or trying to influence the council directly.”

In the final vote, only four members voted to further discuss the recall of city officials.

“It seems like right now we’ll move forward talking about language for initiative and free petition, and not referenda or recall,” Corning said.

Residents assembly

Resident assemblies – a prime topic Tuesday that continued the theme of direct democracy – can vary from one community to the next, though they share core characteristics: Members are selected by lottery from the general population, in theory creating the most diverse group possible.

Member Max Clermont, who has served on the committee’s resident assembly working group, said the lottery system could get many more people involved in local government.

“We’re considering resident assemblies because there are many members of our community who don’t feel represented in our democratic process,” Clermont said. “Even the mechanisms we have around public comment and public meetings are often not the most ideal way to get representative voices and folks in marginalized communities really engaged in a very deliberate way.”

All resident assemblies have experts and advisers who guide the group. “They have access to experts who can close the gap in knowledge that they may have, but also who just have a lot of interesting perspectives and things to bring to the table,” Clermont said.

Resident assemblies often differ in their purviews. In some instances, the assemblies might address a single issue then disband; in other cases they might stand for a set term. Bowie suggested, for example, that a standing resident assembly could vet petitions for citizen initiatives.

Resident assemblies can also differ in their authority. Whereas some can make decisions, some can make only recommendations to a city council.

In its coming meetings, the committee will continue to debate – and potentially draft language for – a resident assembly provision in its final draft charter.