Saturday, June 22, 2024

Michael Green speaks at a 2016 Cambridge Climate Congress, when he was executive director of the Climate Action Business Association, in a screen cap from a Cambridge Community Television video.

A form of democracy new to Cambridge called resident assemblies is not only supported by a Charter Review Committee, but most members want to force the City Council to convene at least one of the assemblies per term.

For months, the committee has debated the merits of including the assemblies, among other tools of direct democracy, in its review of Cambridge’s governing charter – the first in eight decades. The committee must give the City Council its final report, including a draft charter, by the end of the year. 

Though specifics can vary from city to city, resident assemblies are appointed by a city council to investigate a narrowly defined problem, such as climate change or bike lanes. The assemblies typically have more members than boards or committees (perhaps about a hundred), and those members are selected by lottery, much like jury duty, rather than for their expertise. The city convened climate-focused congresses in 2009-2010 and then in 2016.

In an official roll call vote Tuesday, committee members overwhelmingly supported including resident assemblies in its draft charter. Twelve members voted “Yes” with none opposed; three members were absent.

But some members feared that if the charter did not compel the council to establish an assembly, it would never do so.

“I would hate to do all of this for the council to say, ‘All right, we’re not going to do that,’” member Ellen Shachter said.

After some debate, the large majority of members agreed that the assemblies should be required: 12 in favor and one against. Two members were absent.

Requiring council action

On other points, the consensus deteriorated. Members disagreed on how the council ought to treat the final reports of the assemblies. The charter could require the council to hold a public hearing on an assembly’s proposal within three months of receiving a proposal with majority support, and require a council hearing and vote within three months of receiving a proposal that garnered two-thirds support.

“That’s really the ultimate sign of respect to the resident assembly,” said member Lisa Peterson, the city’s former deputy city manager. 

Member Nikolas Bowie argued that the committee should give the council flexibility to create rules by ordinance rather than enumerating in the charter specific deadlines for hearings or votes. He had support from member Patrick Magee: “The more bandwidth the [City Council] has to tackle this, the better.”

Assembly powers

Committee members also disagreed on the powers resident assemblies ought to have. Though a majority voted for them to wield more than just advisory power, the committee shot down multiple measures that would define the decision-making powers.

For example, based on an earlier suggestion from Bowie, the committee considered whether the charter would give the City Council the power to establish a standing resident assembly to vet petitions for ballot initiatives, something discussed  many times over the past few months that seemed ready for approval. When the official vote came Tuesday, only eight members supported it, failing to meet the two-thirds threshold required on all committee final votes.

Votes on Tuesday suggested assemblies will be proposed with the power to issue recommendations and propose legislation to the City Council, but short of the powers of traditional boards and commissions.