Sunday, July 21, 2024

Yi-An Huang, seen at City Hall on May 2, could be Cambridge’s last city manager. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Cambridge’s city manager will be a position of the past if the Charter Review Committee has its way, residents learned in the committee’s two most recent meetings.

In its discussions throughout the summer, the Charter Review Committee tentatively settled on retaining Cambridge’s weak mayor and city manager positions, which, as provisions of the city’s “Plan E” charter, have existed in Cambridge for eight decades. In a weak-mayor system, the City Council elects the mayor from among its own members. The committee debated removing the mayor as head of the School Committee and changing the title to “president” or “chair,” though the city manager was to remain almost untouched, except for a new goal-setting process.

The committee took a dramatic turn in a Nov. 7 meeting when it decided to abandon its earlier plan in favor of a strong-mayor structure like that in Boston and many surrounding cities – under such a structure, Cambridge residents would vote for mayor in a citywide election. In a nonbinding straw poll led by Anna Corning, the charter review project manager, seven members voted to implement a strong-mayor system; five voted in favor of the city’s current system; and three were absent.

Member Jim Stockard supported retaining the city’s current city manager system. He appreciated that the manager is exempt from campaigning that opens the door for undue influence, he said. The manager is free to focus on implementing the council’s policies. The city manager system, he argued, also results in more professional administration.

“I’m not so convinced that we need to make a change in terms of the way in which our city is functioning now,” Stockard said. “The city manager system is likely to produce more professional management … This city functions pretty well. We have a wonderful low tax rate, a very high bond rating.”

Member Nikolas Bowie, on the other hand, advocated for the switch to a strong-mayor system. He said that, because the council’s primary recourse against the city manager is removing him from office, which the council is unlikely to do, the city manager is insulated from political pressure, allowing him to ignore the wishes of residents. 

“It’s great to have a professional form of government. I think it’s fantastic that people who know what they’re doing are setting policy,” Bowie said. “But I don’t want to live in a city run by people who know what they’re doing but have no real need to listen to what everyone else in the city wants. I want to live in a democracy.”

In a subsequent official roll call vote, the committee’s present members voted unanimously to at least start drafting text that would flesh out the strong-mayor concept.

Strong mayor

In its Tuesday meeting, the committee debated how best to implement a strong-mayor system. In a roll call vote, the present members agreed unanimously that the mayor should serve a four-year term, while city councillors would continue to serve two-year terms. 

Given the mayor’s broad powers and lengthened terms, some committee members were worried that granting the mayor too much power could repeat some of the same issues that occur with the city manager system.

“I do have concerns about a mayor being so powerful that they don’t need to necessarily consider the perspective of City Council,” said member Lisa Peterson, the city’s former deputy city manager. “I do want to think about these ways where we can bring a little bit more accountability to the mayor.”

To prevent a mayor from accumulating too much power, the committee considered a few safeguards. One idea was term limits, which the committee initially shot down but is reconsidering. 

Peterson suggested that the charter could establish a three-term limit for mayors, regardless of whether those terms are consecutive. Though this measure was broadly supported, it failed on the roll call vote, as it did not hit the required two-thirds threshold: nine members voted in favor, one voted against and five were absent.

Chief administrative and finance officer

The committee did approve, however, the creation of a chief administrative and finance officer, who would be a professional administrator with qualifications similar to a city manager, but appointed and supervised by the mayor. The cafo would be partly responsible for implementing the vision of the mayor and policy directives of the council.

“The intent here is to try to get the best of both forms, if you can, by putting at the top of the executive the political authority who is chosen by the voters … but also ensuring there is a professional manager near the top, right under the mayor, who has the skills, experience, training and understanding of the complexities of the city government,” said Michael Ward, director of the committee’s consultant, the Edward J. Collins Jr. Center for Public Management at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.

As a third check on the mayor’s power, the committee discussed recall, another tool it originally shot down. Ward said that, if the committee were to move forward with a four-year term for the mayor, a recall provision would likely make sense. Most of the committee members agreed, though they pushed an official vote until their next meeting, expected Tuesday.

After more than a year of meetings, the Charter Review Committee is reaching its end – it has three more meetings and must present its final report to the City Council by the end of the year. The newly elected council will likely consider the report within its first few meetings.