Wednesday, July 17, 2024

Cambridge, renowned for its academic brilliance and cultural diversity, stands at a crossroads in its governance. Since the adoption of a “Plan E” form of government in 1941, the city has evolved, and so too have the demands on its leadership. To better align with contemporary challenges and foster a more responsive and accountable municipal administration, it’s time for Cambridge to transition from Plan E to a strong-mayor system.

Cambridge adopted this novel form of government aimed at combining the strengths of city manager and city council systems. Under Plan E, the council serves as the legislative body while an appointed city manager oversees day-to-day operations. This structure was envisioned to mitigate the risks of political patronage and enhance efficiency by having a professional administrator at the helm. At the time, Plan E was seen as a progressive and innovative approach to municipal governance, aligning with the prevailing thoughts on good government.

Plan E no longer serves Cambridge’s needs. Over the decades, Cambridge has undergone significant transformations, emerging as a hub for technology, innovation and cultural diversity. The governance structure outlined in Plan E has not evolved at the same pace. Several factors contribute to the argument that it no longer serves the city effectively:

Accountability and responsiveness: Plan E has created a separation between the elected council and appointed city manager that results in a lack of direct accountability to the electorate. The absence of a democratically elected executive figure often hampers the responsiveness of the city government to the rapidly changing needs of the community. An appointed city manager removes accountability to the electorate. Furthermore, a city manager cannot be directed or overruled by a council. The only option the council has is to fire the city manager, which, due to the enormous severance pay and difficulty in replacement, they are loath to do.

Decision-making delays: The managerial structure of Plan E, while designed to ensure professional administration, can lead to bureaucratic delays. A strong-mayor system, with a clear executive at the helm, can expedite decision-making processes, crucial in addressing urgent matters such as public safety, infrastructure and economic development.

Community engagement: Cambridge is known for its vibrant and engaged community. Plan E’s division of responsibilities has, at times, hindered effective community engagement. A strong-mayor form of government can enhance transparency and public participation by providing a singular executive figure to engage with residents and community organizations.

Misplaced focus: City managers have historically touted our “AAA” bond rating, which allows the city to issue bonds at slightly better interest rates. While borrowing money at lower rates is advantageous, the city should instead focus on working within a reasonable budget and borrowing less. Almost all homeowners have seen huge increases in their property taxes; efforts need to be made to govern more efficiently.

A strong mayor serves as chief executive and the head of the legislative branch, providing a unified and accountable leadership structure. Many municipalities have transitioned to more dynamic and accountable governance models, including strong-mayor systems. These models empower elected leaders to take direct responsibility for the city’s affairs, ensuring a more direct link between the government and its constituents.that could lead to increased accountability, more efficient decision-making and better community engagement.

Cambridge, with its rich history and vibrant community, deserves a governance structure that reflects its current needs and future aspirations. While Plan E was a forward-thinking approach in its time, it is essential to acknowledge its limitations in the context of contemporary challenges. Transitioning to a strong-mayor form of government can provide the responsiveness, accountability and efficiency required to navigate the complexities of the 21st century. As the city continues to evolve, so too should its governance, ensuring a brighter and more inclusive future for Cambridge and all of its residents.


Phillip Sego lives on Norfolk Street.

This essay includes information from Robert S. Katz, “Plan E Government in Cambridge: An Analysis of the First Ten Years” and John A. Smith, “The Evolution of City Manager Government in the United States.”