Wednesday, July 17, 2024

A charter reform committee has ended work without a firm position on Cambridge’s form of government, which now has a weak mayor (E. Denise Simmons, right, with vice mayor Marc McGovern) and city manager. (Photo: Marc Levy)

After 17 months and two extensions, the Cambridge Charter Review Committee voted to submit its final report to the City Council Tuesday. The final report will include changes to the city’s elections and budgeting, though it made no decision on the form of government.

Cambridge residents approved a ballot measure in 2021 that established reviews every 10 years of the city’s “Plan E” charter. The first committee discussion and debate of provisions since its adoption eight decades ago started in August 2022.

In its final report, which staff from the Edward J. Collins Jr. Center for Public Management at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, is finalizing, the committee will propose a few changes to municipal elections. To ensure “that all community members can fully participate in and with their city government,” the latest draft report read, the committee recommended that Cambridge permit noncitizens and 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in city elections. It also suggested that the city move its odd-year elections to even years, which the committee suspects will increase turnout, and that election officials be able to use any tabulation method. The report will preserve proportional representation; a nine-member, at-large city council; and two-year terms for councillors.

The report will also include changes to the city’s budgeting process. Because the committee wanted to “empower Cambridge’s City Council with more substantial input early in the budget process,” it codified in its draft charter a timeline for the budget that includes a new annual budget meeting. It also gives the council the power to add or increase line items in the draft budget, so long as the total budget doesn’t increase. Under the current charter, the council can reduce or eliminate budget lines, but it can’t add or increase them. The report will also introduce a once-per-term goal-setting process whereby the council will establish a “road map” and “frame priorities for the budget.”

Direct democracy

Throughout its tenure, the committee debated a variety of direct democracy provisions, a few of which will end up in the final report. The committee proposed adding to the charter resident initiatives, which would allow residents to collect signatures and potentially put their issue on the ballot. It will also recommend adding group petitions. With such a tool, residents could force the council to hold a hearing on an issue after collecting signatures. For both provisions, the report will ask the council and Election Commission to work out specific numbers for signature requirements.

An important part of the report was its section on resident assemblies. A resident assembly is a group of randomly selected residents that “deliberates, collaborates and makes specific recommendations for the city” on a specific question or issue, the report read. In its draft charter, the committee recommended that the council establish at least one resident assembly per term and that the assembly have no fewer than 30 members. It suggested that the council flesh out the powers and purview of such a body.

“Should Cambridge adopt this Resident Assembly proposal, Cambridge would be the first municipality in the United States to codify such a structure in a city charter,” the report read.

Form of government

The committee’s most controversial decision came in December when it voted on the form of government it would propose in its report. After deciding initially to stick with the city’s current manager-council form, the committee changed tracks in November, choosing to consider a mayor-council form in which a mayor would be directly elected to serve as the city’s chief executive and appoint a chief administrative and finance officer to run much of the city’s day-to-day operations. (The city now has a city manager that is hired by a weak mayor and council to handle day-to-day operations.) The leader of the council, who is now mayor, would take on a new title such as “chair” or “president.” 

In December, after hearing comments from a score of residents, the committee hit an impasse on the form-of-government question – eight members supported a mayor-cafo-council system, while seven supported an updated manager-council system, both falling short of a two-thirds threshold required to recommend a proposal officially. In its report, the committee will include draft text for both options without officially endorsing either. The committee members will also include letters explaining their rationale for supporting one of the forms over the other.

As the council reads the report, dealing with the structure question will likely be contentious. Many Cambridge residents have strong opinions on the matter, as shown in letters published in local media and sent to the committee.

Next steps

Though the committee has finished its work, Cambridge is some distance from seeing any charter changes.

The council will review the committee’s report. Because the committee had no decision-making power, the council could choose to keep all, some or none of its suggestions. 

Once it settles on a final draft charter, the council would send its document to the state government for approval. That process can follow one of two paths. The first, which involves the Office of the Attorney General, would be simpler but is unlikely in this case. Historically, the attorney general approves only minor edits. Because the final draft charter will likely contain substantial changes, the attorney general path is probably not going to happen, charter review project manager Anna Corning said in June.

The second and more likely path goes through the Massachusetts General Court, which would vote on the charter. How long that process would take is unclear. 

After passing through the state government, the charter would go before the voters of Cambridge. If a majority approves, it would become law. Such a vote likely wouldn’t happen until the next municipal election in 2025, though the city could plan a special election if the state Legislature moves quickly enough.