Saturday, July 20, 2024

City councillor Marc McGovern, center, on a panel at a Wednesday campaign forum near Porter Square. (Photo: Matt Rocha)

At many of this season’s Cambridge City Council candidate forums, councillor Marc McGovern has elicited applause for his stances on affordable housing, climate policy and other issues. At Wednesday’s forum, he got booed.

It was only the start of a relatively raucous event. Thanks to weak microphones and poor acoustics at Lesley’s University Hall near Porter Square, many audience members had a difficult time hearing candidates. To get the them to speak louder, audience members interrupted frequently and made odd hand gestures – in some cases, causing candidates to lose their trains of thought.

Someone shouted that the candidates ought to lick the microphone like an ice cream cone, implying that would be the appropriate distance at which to speak into the microphones. That comment elicited gasps from the crowd. 

The forum’s moderator asked audience members to not heckle the candidates. It didn’t calm the event.

Candidate Dan Totten nearly got shouted off of the stage. In response to the question, “In 2050, how many people would you like to see living in Cambridge,” Totten said that he didn’t have a specific number in mind and instead started explaining his position on affordable housing. The audience erupted, berating Totten for not answering directly. When Totten persisted, the audience roared even louder, cutting him off before he could finish his answer. Only after the moderator stepped in could he finish his thought.

Of a half-dozen candidate forums so far, Wednesday’s forum had by far the rowdiest crowd – in none other have audience members so frequently and egregiously interrupted candidates. It reflects what many have called a particularly polarized election cycle in which online antagonism from two years ago has moved into the physical world. Election Commission staff have asked for more workplace security after increasing shows of aggression, and the city manager has agreed to put more police officers in polling places as needed.

In addition to sparring over bike lanes and housing, vandalism of candidate signs has returned. After criticism of two candidates’ social media accounts as endorsing hate speech, an event by a group endorsing them was picketed; police were called to escort in the attendees and watch over the action on the street.

An organizer of the forum worried about protests during its planning. But on Wednesday the disruption was part of the forum itself.

Transparency and community input

In other ways Wednesday’s event was an ordinary candidate exchange of ideas on housing, energy policy and bike lanes, with transparency emerging as a theme.

With a field of 24 candidates for the council, the forum was broken into three self-selected panels by sponsors the Porter Square Neighbors Association, Baldwin Neighborhood Council and Association of Cambridge Neighborhoods.

Councillor Patty Nolan, a member of the first panel, started the conversation on transparency in city government.“For any candidate, including me, look for and ask for the receipts.” She said in her opening statement. “I’m totally transparent. Look at my website, and you’ll see everything I’ve done.” She also emphasized her efforts to improve communication between the City Council and Cambridge residents. 

Speakers who followed expanded the theme to communication and inclusion around projects that might dig up roads, add developments – or eliminate parking.

Throughout the election cycle, challenger Joan Pickett has argued that the council needs to include more voices in decision-making such as on Cycling Safety Ordinance bike lanes.

“How are we going to tackle this issue, which has been so divisive over the past several months?” Pickett asked. “I think the way to do it is an opportunity to bring people together and actually do a plan, actually sit and speak with each other.”

Adrienne Klein, another challenger, has similarly made transparency part of her campaign. On the urgent issue of installing power substations that the city will need to meet its Net Zero Action Plan, Klein said that the city must consult neighbors before siting the infrastructure, which can create an industrial buzzing noise.

“You need to make sure to focus on communication and transparency when you’re working with neighbors. That’s something that our city has been struggling to do, and I think we can do better,” Klein said. 

During the second panel, the moderator asked candidates about plans to redesign parts of Massachusetts Avenue, including bike lanes. Many candidates said the council needed to consider community input before it makes further changes to road infrastructure. (A 14-member working group is holding public meetings that began with walking tours of the area; it has a tentative proposed design that keeps parking spaces on both sides of the avenue. Meetings to share the design and get input are planned.)

“I came on the council after the Cycling Safety Ordinance was passed, and one of the things I was most concerned about was the lack of engagement and involvement of the community,” councillor Paul Toner said. After joining, one of his first actions was to speak with neighbors and local businesses about the CSO.

Challengers Cathie Zusy and Frantz Pierre agreed with Toner about increasing transparency and community involvement.

Zusy said, “I’ll bring my research skills to the job and engage you, the community, to understand all angles of an issue,” while Pierre said, “It seems like when things are getting rolled out, we’re not receiving the information, and to me, it seems like it’s happening on purpose.”

Doug Brown, during the third panel, said he opposed just-passed changes to Affordable Housing Overlay zoning – which now allows buildings of 100 percent affordable housing to reach 15 stories in the city’s squares – because it eliminates oversight and, therefore, community involvement.

“I think neighbors and neighborhoods should have some level of input. I think that community input makes for better projects, not worse projects,” Brown said.

This post was updated Oct. 25. 2023, to add a video except of the forum from a Cambridge Community Television recording,