Friday, July 19, 2024

This letter was addressed originally to the Charter Review Committee by the city manager.


The Charter Review Committee has been meeting since August last year to discuss potential changes to municipal government in Cambridge. Recently, the committee has shifted toward eliminating the city manager position in favor of an elected mayor as the chief executive. A final vote is likely on Tuesday at the second-to-last meeting of the committee before sending a final report to the City Council by Dec. 31.

I started in the role of city manager at the same time the Charter Review Committee began meeting. I am the first city manager in 40 years to be hired from outside the city and the first person of color to serve in this role.

Trust in institutions is at an all-time low across the country, and one of the reasons I was excited about this job was the opportunity to strengthen our democracy, create a more inclusive local government and find a path toward more transparency and accountability.

While I recognize that as the city manager, I’m not an impartial third party, I wanted to share my perspective from the past year as the committee is preparing to make major decisions.

First, a lot is going well in the current form of government! Cambridge has done more than any neighboring community on affordable housing, including tripling funding for the Affordable Housing Trust over the past decade, raising the inclusionary requirement to 20 percent, eliminating parking minimums and passing two affordable-housing overlays. We have established the most aggressive climate goals for building emissions in the state. We host more adult emergency shelter beds for the unhoused relative to population than any community. And we have the strongest municipal financials in the commonwealth.

Further, our community is really engaged. Voters recently elected one of the most diverse and representative city councils in our history in a competitive election with 24 candidates knocking on tens of thousands of doors. In our 2023 representative resident survey, 90 percent of residents rated Cambridge as an excellent or good place to live; 89 percent would recommend living in Cambridge to someone who asks; and 45 percent of residents had watched a City Council meeting. Additionally, 40 percent of people said they had contacted a city councillor in the past year, which put us No. 2 out of 300 cities and towns across the country! There are challenges that we need to solve, but voices are being heard in public discussions, people are involved in local politics and things are getting done.

While an elected mayor as the chief executive is the most well-known practice of local democracy, I have come to appreciate how our current form puts a nine-person city council at the center of our city government. This is less direct – there isn’t just one person who makes executive decisions – but it is more inclusive. I’m excited about shared goal-setting in January with the new council, a process that makes less sense with a directly elected mayor. Instead, on each major decision, nine councillors have a voice and a vote, and so do all their constituents. In 2023, I prepared for and attended almost 40 council meetings with public comment on every issue confronting Cambridge. Meanwhile, strong mayors rarely attend council meetings. While I recognize the emotional resonance and simplicity of winner-take-all, concentrating political power isn’t necessarily more inclusive, representative or transparent.

Finally, one of my goals has been to build greater accountability into this form of government. I have worked hard to develop a strong and collaborative relationship with the council and to follow their direction. We have established a rigorous and transparent city manager performance review process, and I recently submitted a 2023 review of goals and performance to the council. If the executive branch is where power concentrates, there is a reasonable case for professional appointment and close oversight. With no poison pills in my contract, an empowered City Council can act more quickly if there is mismanagement or misconduct. Regular elections are seldom as responsive – while a city manager would have been placed on leave immediately then fired, elected officials such as George Santos and Robert Menendez have continued to serve for months or years in positions of power and privilege.

It will be up to the Charter Review Committee, the incoming City Council and ultimately the voters of Cambridge to make these important decisions. But perhaps my view is that this is not a debate between more or less democracy, but rather what kind of democracy we want as a community.

Proportional ranked-choice voting is more complex and harder to understand but offers unique benefits over more traditional choose-one voting. Similarly, there are benefits to the council-manager form of government, and I believe it can live up to our best democratic ideals: representation, inclusivity, transparency and accountability.

I will always love this amazing community and I will be committed to making our path forward the best that it can be, whichever journey we ultimately choose.

Yi-An Huang

The writer is city manager of Cambridge.