Thursday, July 18, 2024

Protesters seeking a Cambridge City Council cease-fire watch from the back of Sullivan Chamber in City Hall on Jan. 22. (Photo: Aldrich)

Acrimonious public debate over a Gaza cease-fire resolution dominated the first month of Cambridge City Council business, inspiring councillors to explore whether they should be hearing it at all – or if was time to eliminate “foreign policy resolutions” from the scope of council responsibilities or find a better process for handling them.

Councillors voted 9-0 on Monday to begin that conversation Thursday in a Government Operations, Rules & Claims Committee hearing. The committee would make a recommendation to the full council, which would hold a final vote.

There are no recommendations in the order, just “a conversation at this time,” said the maker of the motion, councillor Burhan Azeem. But he said he “struggled” through the months of advocacy, organizing and disruption of meetings as public factions made their case to the council for or against a cease-fire resolution.

Some wanted Cambridge to make its collective voice heard to U.S. politicians with a more direct influence on foreign policy. Others criticized the council as an unqualified and irrelevant actor in the context of global crises.

“During all of January, this was the only thing that was really on my mind in terms of policy,” Azeem said. “This issue is very important – but should people be spending months on organizing to convince me versus to convince other people?”

Other approaches

While the conversation on foreign-policy resolutions was welcomed, not everyone was aboard with taking away an option for looking beyond Cambridge’s borders. There have been many such motions over the years that have passed quickly. “I don’t want to put in a rule that says we can never do this again because we had this experience over the last few months that was somewhat more problematic or somewhat more challenging,” vice mayor Marc McGovern said. “That’s not typically how it goes.”

The council could have a rule to always handle local issues first, said councillor Sumbul Siddiqui, but she opposed eliminating foreign-policy resolutions wholly. An idea supported by Azeem in January was to always have an order be refined in the Civic Unity Committee before coming to a council vote.

“Ninety percent of the people that I heard from were saying that they really elected us to do city business and that our expertise is not in foreign affairs,” councillor Joan Pickett said. “If you’re looking at what the community was saying – at least the community that reached out to me – they were saying that we really should be focusing our efforts on the city and the city business.”

Councillor Patty Nolan wanted to be sure that a resolution represented the city as a whole. “It’s really important to recognize we came to a 9-0 unanimous cease-fire because we did work to try to understand and have something that all of us could support,” she said. “We worked hard for something that wouldn’t have further split the city.”

In all, councillors discussed the idea for around 20 minutes before voting.

Public comment

Two residents gave public comment – and were divided.

“Internationally, you have no power,” Dan Eisner said. “It’s a waste of time and energy to exercise nonexistent power when that time and energy could be directed at something that is within your capacity to influence. Weighing in on foreign policy impedes your ability to do the job you were elected to do: improve the lives of Cambridge residents.”

Robert Bledsoe spoke a few minutes later against ending the council taking a stand on world affairs – a history that goes back to 1936, when it spoke against Nazism.

“In the ’80s, this council stood against apartheid. Did you change the government of South Africa? No,” Bledsoe said. “What you did do was shift the Overton window and our culture.”

The Overton window is a concept about the range of ideas that are politically acceptable at a given time and how the range can be moved.

The Government Operations, Rules & Claims Committee run by councillor Paul Toner will review and discuss possible amendments to how the City Council runs. It meets from 9 to 11 a.m. Thursday at City Hall, 795 Massachusetts Ave., Central Square. Televised and watchable by Zoom videoconferencing.

This post was updated Feb. 14, 2024, to correct a word in Dan Eisner’s public comment.