Thursday, July 18, 2024

Cambridge City Manager Yi-An Huang and Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui at a Wednesday meeting. (Photo: Marc Levy)

In a dramatic turn, Cambridge’s Charter Review Committee fell short of endorsing a change to a mayoral system and away from the current city manager form in a vote during a Tuesday meeting.

After deciding tentatively over the summer to keep Cambridge’s weak mayor and city manager positions, the Charter Review Committee changed course in early November after a straw poll of the committee saw most members favor a new mayoral system. The committee voted unanimously to start drafting text that would flesh out such a system, though it pushed its official vote on the question to the Tuesday meeting. 

After a month of debate, the committee settled on two options for its final decision. Members could vote to keep the current manager-council system, which has existed in Cambridge for eight decades as a part of the city’s “Plan E” charter, or vote for a hybrid mayoral system that the committee had developed throughout November. Under that hybrid system, which differs in a few ways from a strong mayor system like that in Boston, Cambridge residents would directly elect a mayor who would then appoint a chief administrative and finance officer to assist in running the city.

Member Mosammat Faria Afreen, who favors the hybrid system, said, “We’re not proposing a strong mayor. We’re proposing a mayor who is directly accountable to the council and also to the voters.” 

She also pointed out that, through the “cafo” assistant position, the city would retain the professional management it has enjoyed under Plan E. 

Member Mina Makarious, who supports an updated manager system, said, “I agree on some of the things that aren’t working. I agree we don’t have enough affordable housing. I agree on other issues. I do not see our counterparts in cities that have mayors doing necessarily a better job.”

Replacing a manager with a mayor, Makarious continued, would not by itself improve transparency. Transparency is characteristic of a well-balanced system, he said, regardless of the form it takes.

After some debate, charter review project manager Anna Corning asked the members, in the form of an official roll call vote, if they supported a new hybrid mayoral system. Eight members voted in favor of the system, while seven voted against it, meaning the measure failed, as it didn’t reach the two-thirds threshold required by law.

Though the committee will officially endorse neither system, it will include its work on both systems in its final report, which it must send to the City Council by the end of the year. According to Corning, Afreen and member Kai Long have volunteered to write a statement explaining their support for the hybrid mayoral system. 

“This is not going to be an extremely long statement. It can just be a couple of paragraphs for the final report to be a reflection of the discussions,” Corning said.

Makarious said that he and member Jim Stockard plan to write a similar statement voicing support for the manager system.

Public comment

Though most Charter Review Committee sessions have been relatively quiet, Tuesday’s saw a relative onslaught of public engagement – more than 20 Cambridge residents and workers spoke during the comment period, by far the most of any of the committee’s meetings. 

The vast majority spoke on behalf of the city manager system, imploring the committee to keep the current setup.

Councillor E. Denise Simmons, recently reelected to a 12th term, spoke first and set the pace for the defenders of the manager system.

“I’ve only known the operation of our government through the Plan E charter, and I certainly do support it,” Simmons said. “Our city’s government model has been a testament to effective, equitable and stable leadership, and so in my humble opinion, it’s imperative that we approach any change to that system with caution.”

Fourteen other community members joined Simmons in defending the manager system, including recent School Committee candidate Eugenia Schraa Huh and City Council candidate Robert Winters. Many of the commenters were concerned that an elected mayor would be more susceptible than an appointed city manager to special interests and the pressures of campaigning.

The hybrid mayoral system was not without defenders. Another recent council candidate, Dan Totten, who has vocally supported a change in government structure in past meetings, said, “I’ve witnessed firsthand the disrespect and difficulty that can come with the only real check on executive power being that the council can fire the manager … It means that the council essentially has no direct leverage over what the manager decides or does not decide to do.”

Other speakers joining Totten in supporting a change saw the manager position as inherently undemocratic, as residents have only indirect control over the powerful administrator.

More time?

Though the committee is supposed to send its final report to the council by the end of the year, some members are unsure whether they can meet the deadline. 

With a few more important issues to decide and more charter text to draft, the committee has only one more meeting, which is scheduled for Dec. 19. 

In a nearly unanimous vote, the committee requested that the City Council extend its time until the end of January – a request that will be heard by the council Monday. If the council says no, the committee would be unable to consider new provisions. It would be permitted only to edit and finalize its report.

While such an extension has precedent – the committee asked for and got an extension in April – it is unclear whether the city’s lame duck council, which has only two of its own meetings remaining, will approve an extension so close to the deadline. A process of deliberating over proposed charter changes before they go to voters would likely happen next year, regardless.

After noting the dozens of residents who showed up to Tuesday’s meeting, member Jessica Dejesus Acevedo said an extension would allow the committee to turn in its best possible work while considering residents’ concerns.

“This is not just us not being able to decide or make decisions as a committee. I think it’s also important that we’re being reflective of all of the feedback we’re getting, and I think that needs to be reflected in our writing and our report,” Dejesus Acevedo said.