Tuesday, July 23, 2024

A ballot drop box at Cambridge City Hall seen Nov. 13. (Photo: Marc Levy)

After tentatively voting to move away from a city-manager form of government and proceed with a strong mayor system, Cambridge’s Charter Review Committee has been further defining the powers – and limitations – of the new mayoral position.

It considered term limits two weeks ago and approved the creation of a chief administrative and finance officer, who would follow the mayor’s orders but could temper the mayor’s power.

The committee on Tuesday debated a mayoral veto. According to Patricia Lloyd, an associate at the Edward J. Collins Jr. Center for Public Management at the University of Massachusetts, granting veto power is standard in most Massachusetts cities with a strong mayor.

Typically in the proposed form of government, mayors can veto items passed by city councils and councils can override that veto with a two-thirds vote, Lloyd said.

The committee members agreed quickly that some form of veto is necessary, though they disagreed on how powerful that veto ought to be. 

Member Jim Stockard worried that, given Cambridge’s relatively small, nine-member council, a two-thirds threshold would be too low – the City Council would need five votes to pass an ordinance and only six to override a veto.

“On most issues, the veto will be meaningless because [the vetoed legislation] will have six or seven or eight votes at the council,” Stockard said. “The math of it seems a little odd to me.”

Members Nikolas Bowie and Faria Afreen, by contrast, said that a two-thirds threshold would be too high. Both worried that a mayor with a weak mandate could overpower the City Council, which, Bowie said, is fundamentally more representative.

“I would be inclined to reduce the two-thirds threshold to a one-half threshold,” Bowie said. “I’m not sure I see the justification for giving the mayor that much authority relative to the council when I can see how a barely popular mayor could use vetoes to increase their power pretty significantly.”

After more discussion, the committee settled on a two-thirds threshold as the most reasonable compromise.

In an official roll call vote, every present member of the committee approved of the veto provision with a two-thirds threshold. Fourteen members voted “Yes,” while one was absent.

Recall

The committee also considered a recall provision. Though it previously shot down such a provision, it decided to reconsider after proposing to grant the mayor four-year terms.

If the city eventually adopted recall elections, Cambridge residents could trigger a mayoral election (outside of the regularly scheduled municipal elections) by following a few steps. First, the petitioners would need to collect signatures. In other cities, the number of required signatures ranges from 10 residents to 500. Once the Cambridge Election Commission approved those signatures, the petitioners would need to collect a much larger number – a common number in other cities is 20 percent of registered voters as of the most recent regular municipal election. If the petitioners were to complete these steps, the city would host a recall election.

The Charter Review Committee, which seemed to support a recall provision in principle, disagreed on how many signatures that petitioners should need to collect. The membership especially disagreed on how the city ought to determine the number for the second round of signature collection. Some members said the required number should be based on the city’s registered voters; others said it should be based on how many people voted in the most recent municipal election.

Like on the veto issue, Stockard favored a high threshold. Basing the number on the city’s registered voters, he said, would create a high enough bar.

“I really want it to be a percentage of the registered voters, not the ones who came to the most recent election,” Stockard said. “I would like for it to be 20 percent of the registered voters. That is a fairly demanding number.”

Chair Kathy Born said that such a threshold would be much too high. Since Cambridge rarely sees more than 30 percent turnout for municipal elections, Born said, Stockard’s suggestion would require that petitioners collect signatures from almost 75 percent of the residents who voted.

“That’s a very, very high threshold. If you put that in, it will be impossible to meet it,” she said.

Born favored basing the number on the turnout at the most recent municipal election.

In an official roll call vote, most of the committee members supported adding a recall provision to their draft charter, though the measure failed to reach the required two-thirds threshold. Nine members voted in favor, four against, and two were absent. 

 After more than a year of debate, the Charter Review Committee has only two meetings remaining before it must send its report to the City Council. At its next meeting, scheduled for Dec. 5, the committee will officially endorse a government structure: either the current city manager system or a new strong mayor system, assuming one of the options can gain two-thirds support. Regardless of the result, the committee will include drafted text for both options in it final report.