2010 City Council Agenda Notes
(transferred from main Council Notes page)

Dec 20, 2010 City Council Agenda Highlights - One Less Chair

This is the last meeting of the year - marking the half-way point for this City Council term. What better way to celebrate this occasion than to stomp and pout and take your bat and ball and go home. To call the legislative tantrum thrown this week by Councillor Toomey adolescent would be generous. Specifically, there was a zoning petition from developer Rich McKinnon and Education First (EF Foundation) that came to a vote at last week's City Council meeting along with a commitment of $914,000 in "mitigation" (gold, frankincense, myrrh?) to be donated by EF Foundation. Councillor Toomey had preferred to extract benefits specific to East Cambridge residents in exchange for a positive City Council vote. Instead, Mayor Maher and other councillors agreed to an arrangement where a rational process would be established by the City Manager to determine how the donated $914,000 would be distributed - a good idea that should have been the rule for other recent petitions that produced "mitigation" funds. The zoning amendment was approved 8-1 with Toomey emphatically voting NO.

The greater issue is the questionable practice of this City Council (or any other legislative body) using zoning relief essentially as currency to "buy" community benefits, but Toomey's specific objection was to having an inclusive process established rather than the usual negotiated payouts (kind words for legislative shakedown) to individual councillors' pet projects. In response, Toomey 1) quit as Co-chair of the Ordinance Committee, 2) filed an Order challenging the legitimacy of the tax-exempt status of Education First, and 3) filed another Order calling for a new Ordinance requiring hiring preferences for Cambridge labor union members on union-built projects within the city (including the EF Foundation project). Certainly one couldn't blame other cities if they responded by making it much more difficult for those same Cambridge labor union members to work outside of Cambridge.

Order #1. That the City Manager confer with the City Assessor and report back with an opinion on the legitimacy of the tax exempt claim of Education First.   Councillor Toomey

Order #3. That the City Manager is requested to confer with the City Solicitor to draft a City ordinance which will give a priority to union Cambridge residents on union projects within the City of Cambridge.   Councillor Toomey

Communications and Reports from City Officers #1. A communication was received from City Councillor Timothy J. Toomey, Jr., transmitting his formal resignation as Co-Chair of the Ordinance Committee. (dated Dec 14, the morning after last week's meeting)

The best course of action may be for Mayor Maher to leave Councillor Seidel as the sole Chair of the Ordinance Committee and not appoint a new Co-chair. The whole practice of having co-chairs of Council committees is relatively recent and not really justified in terms of either workload or complexity. There may have been some justification during the days of citywide or large-scale rezoning efforts, but it makes little sense now.

There's not a whole lot more on this Agenda. Perhaps Councillor Kelley will again bring up Tabled Item #2 involving School Department clerical positions. Councillor Kelley has now moved to take it from the table four times without success - on May 10, 2010 (failed 2-7-0), Sept 13, 2010 (failed 4-4-1), Sept 27, 2010 (failed 3-5-1), and Dec 13, 2010 (failed 3-6-0). I suspect the kerfuffle between Councillors Kelley and Toomey over the legality of Councillors meeting privately with School Administration officials will also find its way into the speechmaking. That discussion has drawn other councillors into the fray as well for the last two Council meetings. [See Marc Levy's write up of the Dec 6 meeting in his Cambridge blog, and Brian Nanos' article on the Dec 13 meeting in the Cambridge Chronicle. You might also want to read this one about last week's zoning vote.]

"Peace on Earth, Good will Toward Men" - right? Maybe, maybe not. - Robert Winters

Comments?

Dec 13, 2010 City Council Agenda Highlights - Myriad Resolutions

Among the myriad items on this week's agenda, the one that stood out was this excerpt from a report from the Government Operations and Rules Committee: "Councillors Toomey and Cheung both voiced concern about making a recommendation assigning specific goals to specific committees without providing an opportunity for committee chairs to be involved in a committee discussion on this issue. All agreed that this matter is an important issue that needed further consideration and should not be overlooked in the face of the myriad time demands faced by members of the City Council."

There are myriad comments that could be made here, though myriad time demands restrict what I might say. Certainly, with myriad personal staff assistance now available to councillors for holding their coats, taking their myriad calls, shining their shoes, etc. one would think that such myriad burdens would be lifted from the aching shoulders of the councillors. Certainly no working Cambridge resident or parent could possibly imagine the myriad responsibilities that a part-time city councillor must bear for a mere $72,000+ per year for their Monday night performances and record few committee meetings rarely attended by a full complement of members. There are also the myriad congratulatory resolutions to be filed each week celebrating restaurant openings and newborns. The myriad burdens of shaking hands and getting myriad face time at myriad community events on the myriad roads to reelection must surely bring myriad stress to our elected representatives. We feel their myriad pain.

There are also these items of note:

Charter Right #1. That the City Manager is requested to consult with relevant department staff and report back on the legal limits of the City Council's involvement in non-budget School Department issues. [Charter Right exercised by Mayor Maher on Order Number Two of Dec 6, 2010.]

This provoked a firestorm at least week's meeting, especially between Councillors Kelley and Toomey. Perhaps they've smoothed things out during the ensuing week. The underlying issue is a significant one. City councillors are not elected to manage or oversee the public schools or to use the City Budget as a vehicle for micromanagement of the School Department. Candidates for public office should be clear about which office they sought in the previous election. Pick one. If you want to influence school policy, run for School Committee or get in line along with every other resident who has something to say. It's noteworthy that city councillors who have previously served on the School Committee rarely, if ever, engage in meddling in school affairs.

Unfinished Business #6. A communication was received from D. Margaret Drury, City Clerk, transmitting a report from Councillor Sam Seidel and Councillor Timothy J. Toomey, Jr., Co-Chairs of the Ordinance Committee, for a meeting held on Sept 14, 2010 to consider a petition filed by Richard McKinnon, et al. to amend the Zoning Ordinance and Map in the North Point PUD-6 District. The question comes on passing to be ordained on or after Nov 1, 2010. Planning Board hearing held Sept 21, 2010. Petition expires Dec 13, 2010.

Order #1. That the City Manager is requested to confer with the City Solicitor and the Assistant City Manager for Community Development to provide a report on the state of the law relating to community benefits as mitigation in zoning amendment petitions.   Vice Mayor Davis, Councillor Toomey, Councillor Seidel and Councillor Cheung

These are related. The McKinnon petition will likely receive the necessary votes to pass at this last meeting before the deadline. The only question has been the "mitigation," i.e. what other community benefits can be leveraged in return for the zoning amendment. Though perhaps not specifically tied to this matter, the Order from Councillors Davis, Toomey, Seidel, and Cheung is both timely and well-targeted. Where exactly do you draw the line between leverage and legislative extortion? Where does long-term planning enter into the picture? Or does it? We've been rapidly descending in recent years toward a system where zoning amendments have become currency to be exchanged for supposed community benefits. The recent amendment in Kendall Square may be the worst such example in which a laundry list of everybody's favorite pet projects to be funded was generated en route to delivering the votes.

Applications & Petitions #1. A zoning petition has been received from Michael R. Hegarty et al., requesting the City Council to amend the Zoning Ordinance by adding after the title of Section 5.28 the sentence: "No use shall be permitted by any provisions of this Section 5.28 except as set forth in Section 4.30 Table of Use Regulations or the sections that define districts not included in Section 4.30."

This sets up a parallel zoning petition to run alongside the Council petition introduced last week that seeks to clarify the section of the Zoning Ordinance. It is clear that Section 5.28 was written to encourage the preservation of institutional and industrial buildings as housing, but it has now become clear that some unintended consequences have resulted - most recently involving the Norris Street proposed development.

Committee Report #2. A communication was received from D. Margaret Drury, City Clerk, transmitting a report from Councillor Sam Seidel and Councillor Timothy J. Toomey, Co-Chairs of the Government Operations and Rules Committee, for a public meeting held on Dec 7, 2010 to finalize the City Council goals for FY11 and FY12 to present a recommendation on the goals to the City Council.

This report has myriad aspects to it, but the bottom line is that it contains the new biennial Goals & Objectives for FY11 and FY12. To paraphrase the lyrics from The Who: "Meet the New Goals, Same as the Old Goals." - Robert Winters

Comments?

Dec 6, 2010 City Council Agenda Highlights

Of interest on this week's relatively light agenda are these items:

City Manager's Agenda #5. Transmitting communication from Robert W. Healy, City Manager, relative to Awaiting Report Item Number 10-169, regarding a report on Cambridge residents being labeled "inactive" during the most recent election and listed with wrong or misspelled addresses.

Election Commission Executive Director Tanya Ford reports that there were 14,931 "inactive" registered voters (as of Nov 2). There are now 63,153 registered voters with 48,270 listed as "active" and 14,883 listed as "inactive" (as of Dec 2). There are always some errors in the names and addresses - primarily due to transcription errors from voter registration forms, poor handwriting, etc. On a related topic, if there are any prospective candidates for the 2011 municipal election who need registered voter and voter history data, we're all up-to-date here at CCJ Central and, as always, all data is provided at no cost to actual candidates.

City Manager's Agenda #10. Transmitting communication from Robert W. Healy, City Manager, relative to Awaiting Report Item Number 10-56, regarding a report on prohibiting hotels from subcontracting housekeeping services.

This is a slippery slope if ever there was one. The City Solicitor correctly points out that because hotels are licensed, the City may impose certain conditions on such licenses and that this proposed prohibition may be legal (though this would likely be challenged). However, where do you draw the line? Should the City mandate that only righteously healthy food may be served at the continental breakfast for hotel guests?

On the Table #3. Transmitting communication from Robert W. Healy, City Manager, relative to Awaiting Report Item Number 10-32, regarding a report on issues with the development of the former St. John's property site. [Charter Right exercised on City Manager Agenda Item Number Eighteen of May 24, 2010. Placed on Table June 7, 2010.]

City Manager's Agenda #9. Transmitting communication from Robert W. Healy, City Manager, relative to Awaiting Report Item Number 10-179, regarding a report on a review of Section 5.28.2 of the Zoning Ordinance to determine whether any changes should be made to the current square footage calculation for the purpose of decreasing the density of converted buildings in already dense neighborhoods.

This item brought out many people at the previous City Council meeting. There do seem to be some unintended consequences in the current zoning law regarding the repurposing of buildings such as this one where the height and density of the building is well in excess of current zoning limits. The intent of past zoning amendments was to encourage that such buildings become housing, but this has sometimes been exploited in a manner that is very detrimental to existing neighborhoods. The Hobson's Choice often given to neighbors is between an empty, derelict building or one that has overwhelming density.

Unfinished Business #5. A communication was received from D. Margaret Drury, City Clerk, transmitting a report from Councillor Sam Seidel and Councillor Timothy J. Toomey, Jr., Co-Chairs of the Ordinance Committee, for a meeting held on Sept 14, 2010 to consider a petition filed by Richard McKinnon, et al. to amend the Zoning Ordinance and Map in the North Point PUD-6 District. The question comes on passing to be ordained on or after Nov 1, 2010. Planning Board hearing held Sept 21, 2010. Petition expires Dec 13, 2010.

It is expected that this will pass either at this meeting or the next meeting. The issue seems not to be whether the zoning amendment is appropriate but what "mitigation" can be extracted from the developer. On this point, I'll simply repeat my comments on a related Order at the Oct 25 meeting that seeks to regularize how mitigation is to be extracted:

"It's interesting that we have now reached the point where the appropriateness of a development proposal is now regularly eclipsed by consideration of what kind of mitigation can be squeezed out of the developer or owner of the property. It makes you wonder if "Long Term Planning" plays any role at all any more or if it's all about using zoning restrictions to determine the price of doing business. This somehow does not seem consistent with the original intent of the legislation (M.G.L. Chapter 40A) that enabled local zoning ordinances."

Unfinished Business #6. Transmitting communication from Robert W. Healy, City Manager, relative to a recommendation for the approval of a loan order in the amount of $14,535,000 as well as a vote relative to Chapter 2.110 ("City-Owned Land and Buildings".) The question comes on adoption on or after Nov 29, 2010. [ 9A Loan order passed to a second reading 9-0-0; 9B order adopted 8-1-0 Councillor Kelley recorded in the negative]

This will finalize the loan authorization and disposition of the property for the re-use of the old Police Station on Western Avenue for the Cambridge Housing Authority and for the City's Community Learning Center.

Order #1. That the Government Operations Committee be and hereby is requested to hold a hearing on department-head level staff changes that are foreseeable in the next five years.   Councillor Kelley

The key statement in Councillor Kelley's Order is the first: "A number of department heads, to include the City Clerk and both the City Manager and the Deputy City Manager, are approaching an age where retirement might be an attractive option..." The expressed concern by this relatively youthful councillor is that there might be some kind of "perfect storm" where much of the City Administration is swept away in a wave of simultaneous retirements. It is unclear what the purpose of such a Government Operations Committee meeting would be, except for the hint that Councillor Kelley would like various City leaders to divulge their future intentions now rather than later. Doing so, as should be obvious, could actually create more of a storm that it claims to want to prevent.

Order #2. That the City Manager is requested to consult with relevant department staff and report back on the legal limits of the City Council's involvement in non-budget School Department issues.   Councillor Kelley

This is a good point. Over the last several years there has been a greater focus among some city councillors on school-related matters. One has to wonder whether these councillors ran for the right office or if they just want to grow their authority using the City Budget as a convenient excuse. It's true that the structure of the schools impacts things like after-school programs run by the Department of Human Services Programs, but when it comes to educational specifics, a city councillor should be no different than you or me when it comes to leaning on School Committee members or School Department officials to take specific actions.

Order #4. That the City Manager is requested to direct the Police Commissioner to create a program of bicycle education and to step up enforcement in order to protect pedestrians.   Vice Mayor Davis, Mayor Maher and Councillor Toomey

Needless to say, such an educational program would also protect cyclists. It's also a whole lot better than the misguided plans to move cyclists onto the sidewalk on Western Avenue, Concord Avenue, and elsewhere. - Robert Winters

Comments?

Nov 22, 2010 City Council Agenda Highlights

Here are the items that jumped out this week to this Council-watcher:

City Manager's Agenda #5. Transmitting communication from Robert W. Healy, City Manager, relative to Awaiting Report Item Number 10-152, regarding a report on language in the Noise Ordinance as it relates to enforcement of loud car radios.

The Order that led to this response was about noise coming from cars with sounds systems so loud that the drivers often choose to wear earplugs as their vehicles pollute the sound environment of others. The report states that "the Cambridge Police Department, if made aware by citizens, will respond and evaluate the noise complaint and enforce any violations" which may lead to a fine of $300. This fundamentally misunderstands the nature of the problem. These are not stationary objects and the police are already well aware of the problem. The only way to address this problem is for Cambridge Police and the License Commission to continuously monitor selected streets and catch the bad guys as the problem occurs.

City Manager's Agenda #6. Transmitting communication from Robert W. Healy, City Manager, relative to Awaiting Report Item Number 10-120, regarding a report on the feasibility and enforceability of implementing the provisions of House Bill 3371 which increases certain motor vehicle fines to improve driving.

According to this report, the fines for a variety of offenses are about to jump substantially. Specifically, the fine for violation of bicycle laws will jump from $20 to $75. The fine for a moving violation of traffic signs, signals, or devices will jump from $150 to $250. The fine for failing to yield to pedestrians in a cross walk wil go from $200 to $250. There is also a new $75 fine for pedestrians (does this include cyclists?) who provide a false name or refuse to provide a name and address to a police officer upon a violation of roadway regulations.

City Manager's Agenda #13. Transmitting communication from Robert W. Healy, City Manager, relative to the Final Landmark Designation Study Report for St. James's Episcopal Church at 1991 Massachusetts Avenue.

This has been the center of some controversy in the Porter Square/North Cambridge area. The adjacent car wash and property around the church are slated for a new housing development (Oaktree) and the garden adjacent to the church is part of the leverage being used by neighbors to affect the size and configuraion of the development. The Landmark designation could be approved at this meeting, but there's a possibility that it could be referred to the Ordinance Committee. The Cambridge Historical Commission voted 7-0 to approve the landmark study report and its findings with a recommendation that the City Council approve the landmark designation. As is always the case, the Historical Commission report is well-researched and filled with interesting facts about this site and the surrounding area.

City Manager's Agenda #14. Transmitting communication from Robert W. Healy, City Manager, relative to Awaiting Report Item Number 10-118, regarding a report on issues related to scooters and any changes to ordinances or regulations on scooter use and parking.

Yet another report relating to roads and vehicles. This report details the distinctions between what is allowed for motorized bikes and mopeds (max. speed 25mph) vs. scooters and other limited use vehicles with speeds up to 40mph. For example, the slower motorized bikes can use bike lanes and legally pass on the right (like a bicycle might do), but they may not use off-street bicycle facilities. The faster scooters must adhere to the same laws as automobiles and other motor vehicles. Parking regulations for all scooters are the responsibility of each municipality. The report notes that Cambridge currently allows mopeds (max. speed 25mph) to park on sidewalks. No changes to the current regulations are recommended.

Charter Right #1. That the City Manager is requested to set up a process to reach out to experts and the public in order to create a balanced panel to participate in the Sign Ordinance Task Force.

What makes this item noteworthy is the usual tension between the City Council (always mindful of how their actions may affect their reelection chances) and the City Manager (the "appointing authority" under state law). Exactly what constitutes a "balanced panel" is, of course, highly subjective and always in the crosshairs of those whose motivations are primarily political. I don't envy the City Manager's position on this one - damned if you do and damned if you don't.

Unfinished Business #7. A communication was received from D. Margaret Drury, City Clerk, transmitting a report from Councillor Sam Seidel and Councillor Timothy J. Toomey, Jr., Co-Chairs of the Ordinance Committee, for a meeting held on Sept 14, 2010 to consider a petition filed by Richard McKinnon, et al. to amend the Zoning Ordinance and Map in the North Point PUD-6 District.

To the best of my knowledge, this zoning petition is not controversial. It was passed to a 2nd Reading on Oct 18, has gone through the whole process and is ready to be ordained.

Applications & Petitions #2. A zoning petition has been received from Marc Levin, Director of Development, Chestnut Hill Realty Company, on behalf of Chauncy Court LLC, Wendell Terrace LLC and John Harvard LLC, requesting the City Council to enact new sections of the Zoning Ordinance to permit the creation of workforce housing.

This promises to be very controversial and it should be. The proponents (Chestnut Hill Realty) have a reputation for lavishing some city councillors with extraordinarily large campaign donations by having all members of their extended families write $500 checks to these councillors. With such "generosity," it is inevitable that some residents will look for evidence of a "quid pro quo" among the recipients of this political generosity. Even more than the apparent effort to buy support, this petition contains language that elevates dishonesty to new all-time highs. Specifically, they propose to modify the Zoning Ordinance to allow basements in large (30+ units) multifamily buildings to be converted to 1-bedroom apartments, and they characterize this as "Workforce Housing." This is reminiscent of the recent Kendall Square zoning petition that would allow the construction of a new high-rise building. It referred to the affected area as the "Smart Growth Underutilized Area."

It seems pretty apparent that Chestnut Hill Realty is simply trying to add value to their existing rental properties (within 1200 feet of Mass. Ave. according to the petition). That they would cast this self-enrichment as altruism leaves me (and I'm sure others) speechless.

Communications #5. A communication was received from Peter Valentine, regarding the printed phrase on his fence.

Just in case you think that Cambridge is getting too boring, Peter's letter to the City Council states simply: "Be it known to this City Council of Cambridge, MA USA that Peter Valentine printed the phrase 'cat's cut loose so it ain't no use' on the center of his fence on the Franklin St. side on November 18, 2010 at 8:45 AM."

Resolution #9. Resolution on the death of Henry Lewis III.   Councillor Reeves, Councillor Simmons

This shockingly premature death (Henry was not yet 48 years old) still resounds among all who knew him. There will be a memorial "Bike Ride Honoring Henry Lewis" on Saturday, Dec 4 starting at 9:00am at a point yet to be determined. A gathering at the Elks Lodge at 55 Bishop Allen Drive will follow. You can call 617-665-3677 for more details which will be posted here as they become known.

Order #1. That the City Manager is requested to confer with the Director of Traffic, Parking and Transportation and report back to the University Relations Committee on all recent changes to parking meters that affect the City's universities.   Councillor Cheung

Order #2. That the City Manager is requested to confer with the Director of Traffic, Parking and Transportation regarding the feasibility of converting the Inman Square parking meters to two hours along Hampshire Street.   Councillor Cheung

No particular comment on the substance of these orders, but I will again remind everyone that according to state law, Cambridge is required to have an appointed Traffic Board with the power to overrule (upon the petition of 50 residents) regulations promulgated by of Traffic & Parking Czarina Susan Clippinger. There is currently no means of redress other than to beg for mercy from the Czarina.

Order #4. That the City Manager is requested to confer with Community Development Department and report back to the Economic Development, Training and Employment Committee on the feasibility of instituting a moratorium on particular industries, such as banks, that are already well represented in the city's squares.   Councillor Simmons and Councillor Cheung

This is a nice sentiment that is guaranteed to be Dead On Arrival. It's quite true that the major squares have an overrepresentation of banks and cell phone stores, but such is the nature of free enterprise. If the City Council could somehow gain moratorium power over banks, does anyone seriously think it would stop there? Anyone remember the Starbucks Wars of a decade ago in Central Square where protesters supported by the 1369 Coffee House argued that there should be no more coffee places?

Order #6. That the City Manager is requested to direct the City Solicitor to inform the Economic Development, Training and Employment Committee on its options with regards to the means and the manner by which it may hold a meeting with the Boston City Council at the Museum of Science.   Councillor Cheung

This is a very interesting thought. In feudal New England where every city and town stands alone (with or without a moat), the concept of a joint meeting of the Cambridge City Council and the Boston City Council on a matter of mutual interest borders on revolutionary. Next thing you know the councilors of Boston will be asking the advice of the councillors of Cambridge on what to do with convicted felon/councilor Chuck Turner.

Order #7. That the City Manager and the Mayor of Cambridge meet directly with the presidents of MIT, Harvard, Leslie and Cambridge College and work out a guarantee proposal that these colleges will pay the tuition and fees of students graduating from Cambridge public high schools.   Councillor Reeves

This is also a nice sentiment. I could see a few more scholarships coming from this, but a guarantee that all tuition and fees would be paid for any Cambridge resident gaining entry to these schools? I know we think we're special in Cambridge, but are we really that special?

Order #8. That the City Manager is requested to report back to the City Council the progress of search for experimental music venues and spaces in Central Square.   Councillor Reeves

The efforts of Councillor Reeves of late to get Central Square moving are appreciated, but the last gathering of his "Red Ribbon Commission" had far too much of the councillor's pontification of his personal vision of what should and shouldn't be. This included a tirade against Forest City (who was hosting the event) because they had not included Cambridge officials in the loop regarding possible plans for the stretch of Mass. Ave. between Blanche St. and Lansdsdowne St. as well as the proposed Novartis expansion across the street from their current facility in the old Necco building. At that same meeting, we also heard a proposal to pack hundreds of new housing units into the block bounded by Mass. Ave., Essex Street, Bishop Allen Drive, and Norfolk Street plus a plaza fronting onto Mass. Ave. on the site owned by the Naggar family. Most of the people at the meeting were polite but unimpressed.

This Red Ribbon Commission may yet produce some good outcomes including, perhaps, some new music venues as suggested in Reeves' Order. There's also the very real possibility that the whole process may be little more than Reeves' own proposals hoisted up the flagpole to see if anyone salutes. Councillor Reeves did help in the revitalization of Central Square about 15 years ago (though most of the effort was done later by others). Now, just as then, what is needed is cooperation of the property owners, business owners, and the residents of the surrounding neighborhoods. It might also be argued that economic forces may solve most of the problems around Central Square without any need of government intervention. -- Robert Winters

Comments?

Nov 8, 2010 City Council Agenda - After capitulation, the post-recission Council moves on to other business

Last week's meeting (sorry, I missed it) featured the recission of two provisions of the thoroughly misrepresented Ordinance No. 1335 amending the Sign Ordinance. The City Council, while expressing its disgust with the manner in which the petition campaign to challenge the Ordinance was conducted, voted 8-1 to rescind the two provisions and called for the establishment of a Task Force to further study the matter and make recommendations. This was a politically safe strategy and, except for Councillor Toomey's NO vote, showed a willingness among councillors to not let any one of them be singled out for political retribution. It's hard to say where things will go from here, but Council Order #4 this week gives a hint of potential volatility. Cambridge conspiracy theorists naturally assume that the new Task Force will be stacked to ensure a pre-determined end.

Meanwhile there's this:

Manager's Agenda #9. Transmitting communication from Robert W. Healy, City Manager, relative to a recommendation for the approval of a loan order in the amount of $14,535,000 as well as a vote relative to Chapter 2.110 ("City-Owned Land and Buildings".)

This is the Big Item on this week's Agenda. Residents and elected officials have been waiting a long time to hear about what would eventually become of the former Police Station as well as a couple of currently surplus school buildings. This answers the Police Station part of the question - a proposed multiple use for the Cambridge Housing Authority, the Community Learning Center, and the City's Multi-Service Center. This is a win-win-win solution if the details can be worked out - a Multi-Multi-Service Center.

Agenda Item No. 9A     Nov 8, 2010
ORDERED: That $14,535,000 is appropriated for remodeling, reconstructing, and making extraordinary repairs to the original police station at Five Western Avenue in Central Square, including HVAC, plumbing, and electrical system improvements as well as other interior and exterior renovations, including any and all incidental costs related thereto; and that to meet this appropriation the Treasurer with the approval of the City Manager is authorized to borrow $14,535,000 under Chapter 44 of the General Laws or any other enabling authority.

Agenda Item No. 9B     Nov 8, 2010
ORDERED: Pursuant to the provisions of G. L. c. 121B, § 23(d) authorizing the City to "establish exceptions to existing ordinances and bylaws regulating the design, construction and use of buildings" in order to work cooperatively with the Cambridge Housing Authority in the planning, construction and operation of a project, the City Council hereby establishes an exception to Chapter 2.110 of the Cambridge Municipal Code, to the extent that said Chapter may be applicable hereto, and orders that said Chapter shall not apply to the leasing and/or redevelopment of City property at the former Cambridge Police Department Headquarters at 5 Western Avenue, and hereby authorizes the City Manager to enter into an agreement with the Cambridge Housing Authority for the leasing and/or redevelopment of this property, as set forth in the City Manager's Nov 8, 2010 letter to the City Council.

We'll still have to wait and see what the future holds for the old Graham & Parks building on Upton Street as well as the old Longfellow School building on Broadway. The Longfellow building seems destined to be "swing space" for a parade of school building renovations around the City just as it is now serving as the temporary home of the CRLS 9th Grade during renovations at the high school. Many Mid-Cambridge residents hope that the old Longfellow building will once again become a permanent school building once all the system-wide renovations and consolidations have occurred. Mid-Cambridge is the most populous neighborhood in Cambridge and currently has no neighborhood elementary school.

Order #1. That the City Manager be and hereby is requested to direct the Election Commissioner to look into the discrepancies of voters being "inactive" or registered under a misspelled or wrong address.   Councillor Cheung

This Order is singled out entirely for the humor contained therein. Councillor Cheung misspelled the word "mispelled" in the first WHEREAS.

Order #2. That the City Manager is requested to advise the City Council on how to facilitate a public yard sale.   Vice Mayor Davis

Craigslist? Posters? Flyers? C'mon, Henrietta, do you really need to seek the advice of City departments for an answer on how to do this? Besides, Cambridge residents seem to be rather expert on organizing community-wide yard sales without the need for nanny government to make it happen. In Mid-Cambridge, they do a great job on Fayette and Antrim Streets (and elsewhere). The same is true all over town. Perhaps the City would be well-advised to just get out of the way.

Order #4. That the City Manager is requested to set up a process to reach out to experts and the public in order to create a balanced panel to participate in the Sign Ordinance Task Force.   Vice Mayor Davis and Councillor Kelley

See remarks above. Balanced is in the eye of the beholder. Furthermore, even the most "balanced" of committees is guaranteed to be accused of bias if it recommends anything other than what the listener wants to hear.

Order #8. That the City Manager is requested to confer with the Human Services Department about the feasibility of hosting a weekly contra dance at the West Cambridge Youth and Social Center and report back to the City Council on this matter.   Councillor Decker

Many of you may recall that the contra dancers were the biggest constituency who came out to protest the proposed arrangement between the Huron Ave. VFW Post and the City to reconstruct the facilty in order to house both a replacement for the VFW Post and the proposed West Cambridge Youth Center. The old VFW Post had been rented by the contra dancers who feared losing the dance hall. They frequently referred to the rare and marvelous "sprung floor" of the facility. Upon inspection, it turned out that there was no sprung floor at all - just greatly deteriorated support under the floor rendering it vulnerable to collapse. In Cambridge, we don't like to allow facts to get in the way of an attractive argument. The City did eventually alter their plans to allow for a wider variety of uses in the new community center. It's strange that the contra dancers are only now considering moving back to Cambridge.

Order #9. That this City Council go on record recommending that Cabot, Cabot and Forbes reconsider naming Plumb House as the general contractor on the project on Fawcett Street.   Councillor Decker, Councillor Toomey and Councillor Reeves

Once again, the Cambridge City Council thrusts its collective nose into places it does not belong. The three sponsors of this Order state, "Plumb House has a history of bringing in its own workers and not utilizing the skill of local workers." So what? The property is being developed by Cabot, Cabot and Forbes who chose a general contractor whose workers are not, to the best of my understanding, indentured servants. They choose to work for this contractor and they receive wages in return - simple. They are not being forced to work. The sponsors state that Plumb House does not meet "community standards regarding wages and benefits," but it sure would be nice to see a sampling of the actual wages and benefits these workers receive rather than referencing "community standards" as though this actually means anything. My guess is that they're OK with their wages and benefits even if the Cambridge City Council thinks otherwise.

Committee Report #1. A communication was received from D. Margaret Drury, City Clerk, transmitting a report from Councillor Marjorie C. Decker, Chair of the Housing Committee, for a public meeting held on Aug 4, 2010 for the purpose of receiving an update from the Affordable Housing Trust.

This Report has lots of quotable quotes in it - mainly statements from the Cambridge Affordable Housing Catechism that states that all affordable housing developments are great and that anyone who raises any questions is evil. For example:

"Councillor Decker said that the City Council and the residents need to have more data about why Cambridge still needs affordable housing, and how many Cambridge residents are struggling to stay in Cambridge. Supporters of affordable housing also need the hard data and facts to counter the false assertion that the 80-10-10 split of CPA funds keeps Cambridge from acquiring and preserving open space. Councillor Decker expressed her grave concern with respect to political fear mongering regarding poor people and 'those people' who live in affordable housing."

There's also this Committee Report on the "digital divide":

Committee Report #3. A communication was received from Donna P. Lopez, Deputy City Clerk, transmitting a report from Vice Mayor Henrietta Davis, Chair of the Cable TV, Telecommunications and Public Utilities Committee for a public meeting held on Oct 14, 2010 to discuss the digital divide and the potential for using teleconferencing in the schools.

Much of this report tells the tale of the City's efforts to bridge the digital divide by arranging for free computers and free Internet and WiFi access in public housing developments. The report seems to suggest that those who planned these installations envisioned a population who could not afford computers and who would be using these resources to look for jobs and to access essential information. CCTV director Susan Fleischmann stated that "massive amounts of data are being downloaded and this could be why the system is slow. CCTV has no resources to do the monitoring." Seems like music and video downloads are what is actually being provided. Also contained in the minutes of this meeting is this delightfully cryptic statement from Councillor Cheung, most certainly garbled in translation:

"Councillor Cheung stated that not all search engines are created equal. Google, he said, is located next to a power plant."

Perhaps that's the "engine" in the "search engine." -- Robert Winters

Comments?

Nov 1, 2010 City Council Agenda - Light agenda - Sign Ordinance reconsideration vote could happen this week or next

This week's meeting has little on the agenda, but Unfinished Business #7 (reconsideration of two provisions of the recently enacted Ordinance No. 1335 relating to the Sign Ordinance) will surely elicit discussion and possibly a vote. If not voted this week, state law requires that the matter must be reconsidered no later than next week (by Nov 9). If the original vote stands, these provisions will remain suspended pending a ballot question to dispose of the matter. The most politically safe thing for the City Council to do would be to approve a Special Election on this single matter (thereby not confounding their own reelection campaigns next November). However, the City Manager has estimated that a Special Election would cost approximately $170,000 (an itemization would have been helpful, as this estimate seems unusually high). The Manager's response (City Manager's Agenda #10) is worth reading and broadcasting to others.

City Manager's Agenda #10. Transmitting communication from Robert W. Healy, City Manager, relative to Awaiting Report Item Number 10-164, regarding a report on outlining the ordinance changes to the Zoning Ordinance as it pertains to signs and the impact of repealing Paragraph D3 and E of Ordinance #1335.

Unfinished Business #7. A communication was received from D. Margaret Drury, City Clerk, transmitting notification of the certification of 11,461 signatures of registered voters by the Election Commission of a referendum petition entitled "SAVE OUR SKYLINE" filed with the Election Commission on Oct 15, 2010. The petition protests Paragraph D.3 of Section 7.16.22, Building Identification Signs, and Paragraph E of Section 7.16.22, General Waiver of Sign Limitations, part of Ordinance No. 1335 amending Section 7 of the Zoning Ordinances of the City of Cambridge (the Sign Ordinance).

The following other items are at least somewhat interesting, though barely noteworthy.

Order #2. The City Council supports the mission of the Massachusetts Product Stewardship Council working with other Massachusetts municipalities and other states to move EPR policy forward, and supports the Framework Principles for Product Stewardship Policy.   Vice Mayor Davis

Order #3. That the City Manager be and hereby is requested to direct City staff to investigate ways in which the City can work with the Metropolitan Area Planning Council on opportunities in Cambridge related to the grant which will support the implementation of MetroFuture.   Councillor Seidel

Order #4. That the City Council go on record acknowledging that the shared planning challenges of the Boston Metro area need to be addressed regionally, and appreciating that the grant from HUD will allow this important work to happen.   Councillor Seidel

Order #5. That the City Manager be and hereby is requested to review the facade improvement program as part of the FY2011/2012 budget programs for reorganization and increase the funding if possible.   Councillor Reeves

In particular, a few additional notes have been appended after the text of Order #5 to clarify some of its shortcomings. Good help can be so hard to find in this down economy. -- Robert Winters

Comments?

Oct 25, 2010 City Council Agenda - Not your typical City Council meeting

This week's meeting was supposed to be a Roundtable meeting complete with flipcharts and a facilitator. Thankfully, an Order from the previous week did away with that annoyance. There's another reason for the switch to a regular business meeting - the referendum petition entitled "SAVE OUR SKYLINE" filed with the Election Commission on Oct 15, 2010. The petition protests Paragraph D.3 of Section 7.16.22, Building Identification Signs, and Paragraph E of Section 7.16.22, General Waiver of Sign Limitations, part of Ordinance No. 1335 amending Section 7 of the Zoning Ordinances of the City of Cambridge. That's the technical name for the "Sign Ordinance" that was recently modified so that a party wishing to have a building identification sign would no longer seek a variance from the Board of Zoning Appeals but would instead seek a Special Permit from the Planning Board subject to certain reasonable standards. If you think this sounds like a relatively minor technical change, you would be correct.

The "Save Our Skyline" group submitted a whopping 15,535 signatures (obtained in large part via paid signature gatherers) to the Cambridge Election Commission of which 11,461 were certified as valid. This represents about 18.2% of the current 62,947 registered Cambridge voters - well in excess of the 12% required under M.G.L ch. 43, sect. 42 for a referendum protesting a local ordinance. Having met the required threshold, the ordinance is now suspended and the City Council is required to reconsider its original 6-3 vote. If one councillor flip-flops on this matter from YES to NO, that ends it - the amendment is defeated (a two-thirds vote is required for a Zoning amendment). If the City Council maintains its 6-3 vote, then the matter will appear on next year's municipal ballot, OR the City Council may vote to authorize a Special Election before then on this single issue.

Except for the seemingly boundless amount of money thrown at this campaign, this is a relatively unimportant matter that has been propagandized beyond belief via inflammatory mailings and robocalls. That said, some councillors are nervous about the potential political fallout. Ideally, we will be treated to a clear and a rational explanation by all of the councillors on what the amendment does and does not do and why they voted the way that they did. It is, however, just as likely that Monday will bring a Royal Flip-Flop with some nonsensical rationale explaining "why I was for it before I was against it."

The matter in question is on the Agenda under "Communications and Reports from City Officers" which normally would come up late in the meeting. However, with a sizable crowd likely, it's quite possible thet the rules may be suspended to take this up earlier.

This isn't the only item of note on this week's Agenda. There are also these notable items:

City Manager's Agenda #2. Transmitting communication from Robert W. Healy, City Manager, relative to Awaiting Report Item Numbers 10-127 and 10-151, regarding a report on plans for the Grand Junction Railroad.

Existing plans developed in recent years called for an Urban Ring bus rapid-transit service and a multi-use path along this corridor. It would seem that if Lieutenant Governor Tim Murray is reelected in another week or so as part of the Patrick/Murray ticket, we may soon see between five and twenty trains per day between Worcester and Boston whizzing across Mass. Ave. and other heavily-trafficked streets at grade level as former Worcester Mayor Tim Murray's dream is realized.

Resolution #11. Congratulations to Councillor Kenneth E. Reeves and Gregg Johnson on their recent marriage.   Councillor Simmons, Councillor Decker, Councillor Cheung, Councillor Toomey, Councillor Seidel, Vice Mayor Davis, Councillor Kelley and Mayor Maher

After 36 years as a couple, I'd say congratulations are in order. That's a pretty good run for any couple.

Order #3. That the City Manager is requested, to the extent allowed by relevant law, to ensure that Cambridge does not approve any permits that the developer of the Belmont Uplands may request or require from the City of Cambridge until all legal proceedings surrounding this project have been resolved.   Councillor Kelley

I have to admit that for some time I have not been entirely convinced of the merits presented by those trying to save the "silver maple forest" that abuts Little Pond just west of the old Arthur D. Little site along Route 2. However, I attended a presentation the other day by Charles Katuska about the important role that a modest-sized forested area (17 acres) can play in terms of habitat and I find myself now favoring preservation of this open space. On the other hand, this is privately owned land. The proper way to have preserved this habitat would have been for the state and/or the Town of Belmont to have purchased the site. Current plans call for building about 300 units of housing on the site, much of which is located in a flood-prone area. The Belmont Conservation Commission opposed the project, but the developer (O'Neill Properties) appealed to the state and prevailed. In addition, the developer has secured other necessary local permits. The permitting is now under appeal. It's not clear how much leverage Cambridge has in this, but the developer does apparently need to tie the project into Cambridge's municipally owned sewers.

Order #4. That the Neighborhood and Long Term Planning Committee is requested to hold a hearing(s) with the intention of developing a more effective method for the City Council and Cambridge residents to discuss mitigation concerns during zoning discussions.   Councillor Kelley

It's interesting that we have now reached the point where the appropriateness of a development proposal is now regularly eclipsed by consideration of what kind of mitigation can be squeezed out of the developer or owner of the property. It makes you wonder if "Long Term Planning" plays any role at all any more or if it's all about using zoning restrictions to determine the price of doing business. This somehow does not seem consistent with the original intent of the legislation (M.G.L. Chapter 40A) that enabled local zoning ordinances.

Order #7. That the City Council go on record encouraging voters to vote no on Ballot Question 3 in the Nov 2 election.   Councillor Simmons

Order #8. That the City Council go on record encouraging voters to vote no on Ballot Question 1 in the Nov 2 election.   Councillor Simmons

It should come as no surprise that the City Council as well as other government officials here and elsewhere are opposed to the ballot questions being put to voters this November, and Questions 1 and 3 in particular. Question 1 would eliminate the sales tax on alcoholic beverages. Question 2 would effectively end the Chapter 40B "snob zoning" law that's been used to promote low-income housing projects in cities and towns with little "affordable" housing. Question 3 would cut the state sales tax from the current 6.25% down to 3%.

The unfortunate thing about ballot questions like these is that voters often have to choose between two extremes. The argument against Question 1 is that it would result in the loss of revenue to support treatment programs for people with alcohol and drug addiction. However, are all revenues raised by this tax actually dedicated toward this purpose or just a portion of the revenue? If one could be assured that worthwhile programs could be preserved and nonspecific revenue curtailed, now that would be a good choice. Ideally, Question 2 would not call for the end of Chapter 40B, but rather the curtailment of its abuse by developers who use it as a bludgeon against local objections. Most significantly, Question 3 might call for a rollback of the state sales tax to the 5% rate that most residents had grown accustomed to rather than down to 3%.

This is the dreadful thing about "direct democracy." The public is often not given a proper choice other than what advocates on one side of the other wants. On the other hand, that's why we supposedly have representative government - to elect representatives who will carefully consider all matters and reach compromises that most residents can live with. Unfortunately, in a state where one party controls virtually everything, there is little in the way of dynamic balance to ensure the kind of middle ground that many of us would prefer. I wouldn't mind seeing some political diversity grow out of the upcoming election.

Specifically on the sales tax question, I will likely vote NO for entirely selfish reasons. If the sales tax is cut in half, it is doubtful that the City of Cambridge will slash all programs in the wake of reduced local aid. Property taxes will therefore rise closer to the levy limit. As a relatively low-level consumer, sales tax does not add up to a whole lot for me in a given year. On the other hand, I would really not like to see my property taxes leap up to cover the costs of the various necessary and unnecessary programs that will doubtless continue to be funded. It will likely cost me more if the sales tax is slashed. -- Robert Winters

Comments?

Oct 18, 2010 City Council Agenda - Meanwhile, back in the Sullivan Chamber....

The items that jump out are as follows:

Unfinished Business #5. Reconsideration filed by Councillor Toomey on the affirmative vote taken on Sept 13, 2010 to refer to the Ordinance Committee and to pass to a second reading a proposed amendment to the Municipal code that would increase the residential parking sticker fee. [Charter Right exercised by Councillor Toomey on City Manager Agenda Item Number Thirty-Six of Aug 2, 2010. On Sept 13, 2010 motion of Vice Mayor Davis to refer to Ordinance Committee and Passage to a second reading on roll call 7-1-1. Sept 27, 2010 no action taken on reconsideration. Affirmative vote taken Sept 13, 2010 to refer to Ordinance Committee and to pass to a second reading on proposed amendment to the Municipal Code that would increase the residential parking sticker fee effective as of Sept 13, 2010.] The question comes on passing to be ordained on or after Oct 11, 2010.

Regardless whether this passes or not or if its implementation is delayed a year, there is little doubt that this has become politicized, and the rumblings of the 2011 municipal election are already being felt. The proposed increase from $8 to $20/year followed by an increase to $25/year two years later isn't much considering that it has not been raised in 18 years. It will, however, ultimately be an increase of over 200% and that's good grist for the political mill. The more significant issue is that the additional revenue is slated to be dedicated toward "other actions addressing climate change," and some have questioned whether this is being done in order to deliver a revenue stream to satisfy the wishes of a particular activist lobby.

Order #3. That the City Manager is requested to communicate with relevant department heads to formulate a policy for the timely dissemination of accurate information during high-profile incidents.   Councillor Kelley, Councillor Seidel and Councillor Simmons

The boring Gates-Crowley garbage continues. Apparently the greatest offense in the whole matter was that elected city councillors had their feelings hurt by not being in the loop. The loss of a good political opportunity is a tragic thing.

Order #4. That the City Manager is requested to report back to the City Council on whether there was an agreement by the Museum of Science to build a walkway behind the museum for pedestrians to use to traverse along the Charles River towards the Craigie Dam and if there was such an agreement, what is the current status of both the agreement and any relevant project.   Councillor Kelley

Yes, councillor, there were plans and even a nice green and silver brochure that described the plans. The Museum was not, however, going to build the walkway. The path was to follow the course that existed before the Museum was built atop the dam. Their parking garage is what blocked the way and plans were made for a connecting boardwalk to be suspended from the garage out over the river. It seemed like a very good plan, but it's been on the shelf for quite a few years now.

Order #8. That the City Manager is requested to confer with the Acting Assistant City Manager for the Community Development Department to identify a well-qualified consultant to assist with determining the desired future course of overall development in Kendall Square.   Councillor Reeves

Just what we need - another "well-qualified consultant" to assist the 44 full-time staff within the Community Development Department in taking a good, hard look at Kendall Square. Surely there must be sufficient expertise among existing staff for this. However, the really interesting part of this order is this: "WHEREAS: Kendall Square has also been discussed by local developers as an area that should be twice as dense as it currently is." Perhaps this is where the campaign contributions are coming from, but I doubt whether there are many residents who feel that a 100% increase in density in what is already one of the most densely developed parts of Cambridge is such a desirable thing.

Order #9. That the Roundtable meeting scheduled for Oct 25, 2010 be canceled and that a regular City Council meeting be held in its place.   Councillor Seidel and Councillor Toomey

Great idea. The previous one was insufferable. -- Robert Winters

Comments?

Oct 4, 2010 City Council Agenda Highlights

Today we'll be having two City Council meetings. At 3:00pm there will be a Special City Council meeting to discuss the costly Cambridge Review Committee Report that grew out of the absurd Gates-Crowley kerfuffle of Summer 2009. There are indications of efforts to pack this meeting with partisans on one side of this dated conflict so, as is usually the case, attendance at this meeting will be indicative of nothing. Frankly, we'd be better served if we all went out for a few beers. I hear Obama's buying.

Far more significant is the Regular City Council meeting that will follow at 5:30pm. There will be a 6:30pm hearing on the City's recommendations to the Department of Revenue that will determine the property tax rates for FY11. According to the City Manager's communication, a 5.69% increase in the property tax levy is anticipated for a total levy of $283,961,699. The residential tax rate is expected to be $8.16 per thousand dollars of assessed value and the commercial tax rate is expected to be $19.90 per thousand.

The median tax bills are expected to rise 8.59% for single-family homes, 5.96% for condominiums, 3.80% for two-family homes, and 3.73% for three-family homes. (These figures include the residential exemption.) The overall valuation of the City's residential property decreased 0.47% during Calendar Year 2009 while commercial property decreased 0.41%. As is always the case, changes in property values were not the same throughout Cambridge. Single family homes saw the greatest increase (+5.5%) along Grove Street at the western edge of Cambridge and the greatest decrease (-9.06%) in the Shady Hill neighborhood. Condominiums saw the greatest increase (+0.96% - barely noticeable) in Area 4 and the greatest decrease (-5.62%) in East Cambridge. Two-families increased in only one district (+2.87%) around Huron Village and saw the greatest decrease (-9.98%) in Neighborhood 10 (Brattle Street area). Three-families saw the greatest increase (+5.23%) in Shady Hill and the greatest decrease (-8.60%) in the vicinity of Fresh Pond.

The required roll call votes are as follows:

A. Authorize the use of Free Cash of $11,400,000 to reduce the FY11 tax rate;

B. Authorize $2,000,000 in overlay surplus/revenues to be used for reducing the FY11 tax levy;

C. Authorize $8,300,000 from the Debt Stabilization Fund to be used as a revenue source to the General Fund Budget;

D. Authorize $1,198,615 from the School Debt Stabilization Fund to be used as a revenue source to the General Fund Budget;

E. Classify property into five classes;

F. Adopt the minimum residential factor of 56.3344%;

G. Approve the maximum residential exemption factor of 30% for owner-occupied homes;

H. Vote to double the normal value of the statutory exemptions;

I. Vote the FY11 exemption of $280.00 allowed under MGL Chapter 59, Section 5, Clause 17D;

J. Vote the FY11 asset limits of $55,775 allowed under MGL Chapter 59, Section 5, Clause 17E;

K. Vote the FY11 income and asset limits allowed under MGL Chapter 59, Section 5, Clause 41D as follows: Income limits of $23,061 for single and $34,592 for married; and asset limits of $46,122 for single and $63,418 for married;

L. Vote the income limit for deferral of real estate taxes by elderly persons as determined by the Commissioner of Revenue for the purposes of MGL Chapter 62, Section 6, subsection (k) for a single person ($51,000) and for married ($77,000);

M. Vote to lower the interest rate by 4% to 14% for overdue water and sewer bills in FY11; and

N. Vote to accept MGL Chapter 200A, Section 9A, which allows for an alternative procedure for disposing of abandoned funds held in custody by the City as provided for in the recently enacted municipal relief legislation.

Otherwise, the meeting agenda is very light with no controversial items. The interesting Orders are as follows:

Order #7. That the City Manager is requested to confer with the Community Development Department on how the transition of the Grand Junction Rail Road to Commuter Rail traffic could impede the implementation of the Grand Junction Rail Trail and report back to the City Council.   Councillor Toomey

This evolving issue promises to be a source of controversy as the Tim Murray Express rolls on through Cambridge. Councillor Toomey's latest Order on this matter focuses on other uses that have been proposed for this rail corridor - most notably the idea of a Grand Junction Rail Trail. It's hard to imagine commuter rail trains whizzing through the eastern part of Cambridge with six at-grade street crossings - some in pedestrian intensive areas.

Order #8. That the City Manager is requested to report back on the language in the noise ordinance as it relates specifically to the noise of car radios and what steps the police can take and what steps residents can take to combat and end this disturbance.   Councillor Decker

O-8     Oct 4, 2010
COUNCILLOR DECKER
WHEREAS: The decibel level of the bass of some car radios is at such a level that it causes an enormous disturbance and distress when said cars are in motion, stopped at traffic lights, and idling; now therefore be it
ORDERED: That the City Manager be and hereby is requested to report back on the language in the noise ordinance as it relates specifically to the noise of car radios and what steps the police can take and what steps residents can take to combat and end this disturbance.

Some of us have been bringing up this matter for years only to have it fall on deaf City Council ears. Maybe Marjorie will be the one to finally convince her colleagues that the scourge of these vehicles is far more annoying and ever-present than signs on commercial buildings or the occasional leaf-blower. As a resident who lives on a street (Broadway) close to a traffic light, I would be happy to have the traffic light removed just to eliminate the annoyance of loud sound systems in cars driven by people with tiny brains. My recollection is that when Councillor Davis tried to bring up this issue of "boom cars" several years ago, she was stonewalled by Councillor Reeves. Let's hope everyone has learned a thing or two since then. Perhaps the biggest difficulty is that most of the city councillors live on relatively quiet streets and don't appreciate just how invasive these idiot cars can be. As a Walden Street resident, my guess is that Councillor Decker is treated to a front row seat just like those of us who live on Broadway, or Cambridge Street, or Mass. Ave., etc. Indeed, I believe Marjorie is the only one of the nine who is regularly treated to this abuse.

Order #9. That the City Manager is requested to confer with the Public Health Department and ask for a report back on the feasibility of Cambridge following suit with banning smoking in public parks, beaches and other public places.   Councillor Decker

I believe the City Council already voted to ban smoking in public parks, but it's doubtful that it was ever enforced. [Section 8.28.090 of the Municipal Code - Prohibition of Smoking in Public Places: A. Smoking Prohibited: No person shall smoke nor shall any person be permitted to smoke in any public place or municipal facility.]

Committee Report #1. A communication was received from D. Margaret Drury, City Clerk, transmitting a report from Councillor Sam Seidel, Co-Chair of the Ordinance Committee, for a hearing held on Sept 23, 2010 to continue to consider a proposed amendment to Chapter 10.17 of the Municipal Code entitled Vehicle Trip Reduction Ordinance to increase the residential permit parking fee from $8 to $20 effective in 2011 and $25 effective in 2013, and to clarify that the fee revenue can be expended on "other actions addressing climate change."

This matter awaits a vote at the next regular City Council meeting (October 18). The fee is not excessive, but the earmarking toward "other actions addressing climate change" deserves some discussion. -- Robert Winters

Comments?

Sept 27, 2010 City Council Agenda Highlights

Perhaps the hottest item on tonight's agenda is one that has received far more attention than it deserves. Earlier this year, staff at the Community Development Department suggested that changes might be in order for the current practice of seeking variances to the part of the Zoning Code relating to signage on buildings. This led to a City Council Petition that would regularize this process and shift things from seeking a zoning variance from the BZA to seeking a special permit from the Planning Board. Part of the logic was that the Planning Board and related staff were more attuned to design issues and that the mechanism might in this way be made more fair and consistent with citywide planning goals and standards. Then the excrement hit the blades.

This proposed zoning amendment should never have been a big deal, but this changed when inflammatory material showing the Charles River's Cambridge shoreline lit up like Las Vegas with major corporate logos was circulated by opponents to the amendment. There were deficiencies in the original draft that could have led to unintended consequences around the city, and these were best illustrated by a spoken "virtual trip" through Cambridge by Kevin Crane (legal counsel for a major opponent of the proposed change) before the Planning Board during one of two summer meetings on this topic. However, the inflammatory rhetoric and graphics were never a realistic depiction of even the worst-case scenario of what could have happened as a result of the proposed changes. A series of amendments were proposed, the matter had its hearings before the Ordinance Committee, and it's now ready for a City Council vote.

Whenever zoning controversies loom over the Cambridge City Council, they will often simply punt. That is, they will either re-file the petition under the hope that a settlement can be reached or that the controversy will die down. Either that or they will seek some kind of Solomonic compromise that averages the interests of both sides not necessarily to find the best solution but to get past the controversy. In the case of zoning petitions strategically filed so to come to a vote immediately before a municipal election, populism will often prevail. In the case of the sign ordinance changes, there is no municipal election in sight and it would seem that recent modifications to the original proposal should help grease its way to ordination. However, anything could happen. The relevant agenda items follow:

Unfinished Business #5. A communication was received from D. Margaret Drury, City Clerk, transmitting a report from Councillor Sam Seidel and Councillor Timothy J. Toomey, Jr., Co-Chairs of the Ordinance Committee, for a meeting held on Sept 7, 2010 to consider a petition filed by the City Council to modify the Zoning Ordinance regulation of signs. the question comes on passing to be ordained on or after Sept 27, 2010. Planning Board hearing held July 6, 2010. Petition expires Oct 5, 2010.

City Manager's Agenda #6. Transmitting communication from Robert W. Healy, City Manager, relative to a Planning Board recommendation on the Zoning Petition to Revise the Sign Ordinance - Article 7.000. [The Planning Board recommends that the original Petition be approved with amendments. The changes recommended by the Board to the original Petition language of the Building ID Signs section are summarized below.]

  • Establishment of a special permit process before the Planning Board.
  • A narrowing of the zoning districts where such signs may be permitted, to areas of concentrated office development at the eastern and western ends of the city.
  • Restriction of the signs to non-residential buildings only that are at least 100,000 square feet in size.
  • Limiting the signs to identifying the whole building or an office tenant occupying a significant portion of the building. The Planning Board recommends that at least 25% of the leasable area of the building be presumed to be significant.
  • Prohibition of such signs in local conservation and historic districts.
  • Enumeration of the criteria for approval of the Building ID Signs, including: how the sign would be viewed from nearby residential districts, open space, historic districts, and the Charles River; light pollution.
  • An articulation of the purpose of the provision.
  • A relaxation of one standard in the current Sign Ordinance to allow the placement of an ID sign on the screening wall of mechanical equipment located above the building's roof where that placement would better integrate the sign into the architecture of the building.

If this were the only item on the agenda, we might be treated to a hefty dose of public comment by those who choose to remain only partially informed, followed by a quick vote and the dismissal of otherwise routine matters. But, alas, there are a couple of other juicy items on tonight's menu - specifically on the Reconsideration portion of the agenda.

Reconsideration #1. Reconsideration filed by Councillor Toomey on the affirmative vote taken on September 13, 2010 to refer to the Ordinance Committee and to pass to a second reading a proposed amendment to the Municipal code that would increase the residential parking sticker fee. [Charter Right exercised by Councillor Toomey on City Manager Agenda Item Number Thirty-Six of August 2, 2010. On September 13, 2010 motion of Vice Mayor Davis to refer to Ordinance Committee and Passage to a second reading on roll call 7-1-1.]

After a summer committee meeting on this topic, I was inclined to believe that this would actually pass with only token opposition. After all, the current fee of $8 has been in place for nearly 20 years and it was stuck at $5 for long before that. There is an obvious logic to some kind of fee increase. However, besides the argument that these fees were never meant to be anything more than nominal fees, the matter is complicated by the fact that these fees are now embedded into an ordinance (the Vehicle Trip Reduction Ordinance) which restricts the uses for this revenue. Perhaps more significantly, the collection of fees for resident permit parking was established in a 1965 Special Act of the Legislature that specifies that this revenue may only be used for traffic & parking related matters.

Normally this would be fine, but it has been publicly stated now by the City Manager and others that one use of this proposed fee increase would be to "get the message out" about climate change in conjunction with the agenda of the recent "Climate Congress" of activists that took place in a series of City Hall meetings this past year. It is clear that some members of the public and some city councillors take issue with this earmarking of revenues for the benefit of one interest group. Some have argued that, despite the virtue of the proposed purpose, use of this revenue should be subject to the same budget processes as all other matters while remaining consistent with the uses specified under state law. Of course, the real bottom line is that there are political advantages to saying that you stood in opposition to a fee increase, and that inclination could prevail if the rhetoric starts to thicken. This could come to a vote as late as October 18 and still be viable for the 2011 calendar year.

Reconsideration #2. Reconsideration filed by Vice Mayor Davis on the vote taken failing to refer to the Ordinance Committee a response relative to Awaiting Report Item #10-116, regarding a report on the impact of decriminalization of marijuana possession. [Motion of Councillor Cheung to refer to Public Safety Committee failed 4-4-1. Motion of Vice Mayor Davis to refer to Ordinance Committee failed 4-4-1.]

Regrettably, I was gone by the time this vote was taken on Sept 13 (as was Councillor Decker - hence the tie vote). I believe the sole purpose of the Ordinance suggested by Police Commissioner Robert Haas in this report was to give Cambridge Police more tools for controlling public consumption of pot, including the ability of police to confiscate the dope. I would be curious to know who stood on either side of this issue as well as their reasons, but for that I may have to watch the video.

Order #2. That the City Manager is requested to report back to the City Council on the planning process for the Concord Avenue redesign, the outreach efforts to inform the public of the project and how the planned changes in bike facilities in the project area were advertised in the outreach efforts.   Councillor Kelley

Committee Report #2. A communication was received from D. Margaret Drury, City Clerk, transmitting a report from Councillor Craig Kelley, Chair of the Transportation, Traffic and Parking Committee, for a meeting held on Aug 10, 2010 to discuss bike facilities including bike lanes, bike tracks and bike parking.

I was not a bystander in this matter. There does seem to be a growing trend within some City departments to treat cyclists as children and to move them onto the sidewalk along Concord Avenue and in some other locations. While it's good to create this sidepath option for children along some roads with higher speeds and for most cyclists along highway-like throughfares such as Memorial Drive, it is a dreadful precedent to require most cyclists not to use the road along with all other vehicles. Besides the multiple inconveniences of these sidepaths, they often provide only a perception of enhanced safety when, in truth, they may actually be less safe. [Related article]

At issue in Councillor Kelley's Order #2 is the especially annoying and very un-Cambridge recent practice of whisking some of these projects through with little opportunity for the public to respond until after the project is either under construction or out to bid.

Order #6. That the City Manager is requested to investigate the feasibility of adding historical sub-signs to street signs and replacing those sub-signs that were installed for the Bicentennial and commemorating the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812 in 2012 with street sub-signs or some other method.   Vice Mayor Davis

Though an excellent idea, one has to wonder how it can be that we are still permitted to have celebrations of any war in this ultra-politically-correct enclave. I'm sure there are those in Cambridge who would rename Hamilton Street as Karl Marx Avenue, Erie Street as Lenin Street, Perry Street as Fidel Castro Boulevard, Lawrence Street as Sisterhood Avenue, and Decatur Street as Obama Way. - Robert Winters

Comments?

Sept 20 - What's the difference between the Cambridge City Council and a 4th grade classroom? Well, tonight it was hard to tell the difference. This was the first of two Roundtable meetings supposedly to get the City's biennial goal-setting process going. At the August 16 meeting of the City Council's Government Operations Committee, I was genuinely hopeful that this would be an interesting and productive process that might, in conjunction with the various City Council committees, lead to substantive initiatives for the next two years.

The first of these two meetings was to focus specifically on the (1) Human Services; (2) Neighborhood & Long Term Planning; (3) Health; (4) University Relations; and (5) Housing Committees. The next meeting (in mid-October) was to focus on the (1) Environment; (2) Public Safety; (3) Cable TV, Telecommunications, & Public Utilities; (4) Traffic, Transportation, and Parking; and (5) Economic Development, Training, & Employment Committees. This seemed like a real get-down-to-business approach. Now I'm not so hopeful. Indeed, upon re-reading the committee report, I see that all the specificity that was laid out at the meeting has been purged. Instead, the report states that these Roundtable meetings will consist of "reflection on the past year, consideration of which goals were met or not, what new issues and circumstances should the City Council consider in setting its goals for the upcoming budget year."

Tonight's Roundtable opened up with a facilitator explaining in the vaguest possible terms what she had planned for the evening. Speaking as though everyone in the room was no older than about 9 years of age, she asked the city councillors "what the meaning of a goal" was. I cringed. The flipchart (yes, this was one of those flipchart and marker meetings) indicated that tonight they would be discussing the strengths of the city, how great we are, and other folderol. Pardon my severe cynicism, but talk like this makes me want to upchuck.

When I vote every two years, I want very much to believe that we are electing adults - people who are not always starting on page one. When I go to a Roundtable meeting where elected officials and City administration are addressed like children (and some willingly respond like children), it makes me wonder about who we have elected. I would dearly love to see at least one of them speak up and throw a monkeywrench into the whole insipid process and demand that they act like adults and get down to business without the need to sing Kumbaya or get in touch with their feelings.

The entire goal-setting process will consist of the two Roundtable meetings plus a "world café" where councillors and other City officials invite various participants, and end with a "retreat" where the assembled councillors will presumably settle on their goals for the next two years. Perhaps I'll partake of the "world café" when it comes around (tentatively in early November), but tonight I was only able to stomach about ten minutes of the process.

 Robert Winters, Council watcher and eternal cynic

Harvard Crimson story on the Roundtable (Sept 21, by Rediet Abede)

Sept 13, 2010 City Council Agenda Highlights

The summer is over for the Monday Night Nine. The City Council returns to 31 items on the City Manager's Agenda (including the perfunctory vote on the Community Preservation Act entitlements for Just-A-Start and Homeowner's Rehab) plus 119 Resolutions, 15 City Council Orders, and 5 Committee Reports. There will also likely be some discussion of the proposed changes to the Sign Ordinance that have been distorted by both sides of that controversy. As if that isn't enough, the Council will also likely take up the two items "charter righted" from the previous meeting - backyard chickens and a proposed increase in the resident parking permit fee. So, let's get started with the items that stand out.

Mgr #19. Transmitting communication from Robert W. Healy, City Manager, requesting that the City Council formally appropriate/allocate the Community Preservation Act (CPA) funds as follows:

1A. 80% of FY2011 CPA Local Fund revenues ($5,200,000) allocated to Affordable Housing and appropriated to the Cambridge Affordable Housing Trust;

1B. 10% of FY2011 CPA Local Fund revenues ($650,000) allocated to Historic Preservation;

1C. 10% of FY2011 CPA Local Fund revenues ($650,000) allocated to Open Space;

2A. 10% of FY2010 State Match revenues ($1,640,000) allocated to Affordable Housing and appropriated to the Cambridge Affordable Housing Trust;

2B. 10% of FY2010 State Match revenues ($205,000) allocated to Historic Preservation;

2C. 10% of FY2010 State Match revenues ($205,000) allocated to Open Space;

3A. 80% of the Fund Balance ($800,000) allocated to Affordable Housing and appropriated to the Affordable Housing Trust;

3B. 10% of the Fund Balance ($100,000) allocated to Historic Preservation;

3C. 10% of the Fund Balance ($100,000) allocated to Open Space; and

4A. Appropriate ($7,500) from the Fund Balance the cost for the Community Preservation Coalition Membership Dues.

Having spoken at the hearings leading up to this vote, there is little left for me to say. The nine-member CPA committee was appointed after the 2001 election with the understanding that the maximum (80%) would always be given to subsidized housing and the minimum (10% each) would always be given to Open Space Acquisition and Historic Preservation. The City Council never reviews this prioritization, and they will never deviate from it regardless of any vacuous "debate" that might take place this Monday. If you have anything to say on this topic, you are advised to stay home and watch football.

Mgr #21-25: Five appropriations totaling $2,565,802 to the School Department from American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funds.

There's not much to say other than to note that this is a considerable amount of money. A March 31, 2010 report noted that: "The City of Cambridge has been awarded (up to that time) approximately $6.5 million in ARRA funding through both entitlement and competitive grants. Some of the departments receiving ARRA funding include the School Department, Community Development, Police Department and Public Works." These new appropriations are in addition to the previous sum and there may have been other ARRA funds awarded in the interim.

Mgr #31. Transmitting communication from Robert W. Healy, City Manager, relative to Awaiting Report Item Number 10-116, regarding a report on the impact of decriminalization of marijuana possession.

Police Commissioner Robert Haas proposes in this report that an ordinance be passed prohibiting the smoking of marijuana or hashish in public places, on City property, and while riding the bus. The penalty would be a $300 fine for each offense and confiscation of the drugs.

Charter Right #1. Transmitting communication from Robert W. Healy, City Manager, relative to Awaiting Report Item Number 09-147, report on what barriers would prevent residents from raising chickens and what could be done to remove these barriers. [Charter Right exercised by Vice Mayor Davis on City Manager Agenda Item Number Twenty-Seven of Aug 2, 2010.]

It was interesting to read a Sept 8 Boston Globe article about people raising chickens in Brookline, Belmont, Lexington, and Newton. It's anyone's guess whether City officials will take steps to draft regulations that might permit this in Cambridge. It is, however, apparently perfectly OK to keep and feed non-native geese down at the river's edge, so why not chickens and ducks?

Charter Right #2. Transmitting communication from Robert W. Healy, City Manager, relative to a recommendation to increase the residential parking sticker fee. [Charter Right exercised by Councillor Toomey on City Manager Agenda Item Number Thirty-Six of Aug 2, 2010.]

Committee Report #3. A communication was received from Donna P. Lopez, Deputy City Clerk, transmitting a report from Councillor Craig Kelley, Chair of the Transportation, Traffic and Parking Committee, for a meeting held on July 13, 2010 to discuss the parking fee structure.

It's not clear what will happen with this, but Councillor Decker promised to schedule a Finance Committee hearing on this in addition to the expected Ordinance Committee hearing. Neither has been scheduled and the change would have to be made by the end of September in order to be implemented for 2011.

Committee Report #1. A communication was received from D. Margaret Drury, City Clerk, transmitting a report from Councillor Sam Seidel and Councillor Timothy J. Toomey, Jr., Co-Chairs of the Ordinance Committee, for a meeting held on July 8, 2010 to consider a petition filed by the City Council to modify the Zoning Ordinance regulation of signs.

Committee Report #5. A communication was received from D. Margaret Drury, City Clerk, transmitting a report from Councillor Sam Seidel and Councillor Timothy J. Toomey, Jr., Co-Chairs of the Ordinance Committee, for a meeting held on Sept 7, 2010 to consider a petition filed by the City Council to modify the Zoning Ordinance regulation of signs.

My understanding is that this whole controversy grew out of concerns by the Board of Zoning Appeals about frequent requests for variances to this part of the Zoning Ordinance (which were often granted). There was some feeling that this should be handled not by the variance process but instead via a review process by the Planning Board. Significant proponents are backing the proposed changes (as amended), and opponents have lined up on their side of the issue with inflamatory photoshopped images suggesting worst-case scenarios. I suspect the City Council will pass some kind of amendment eventually, and I'll leave it to others to speculate on the effect of all those $500 checks directed to political campaign accounts.

Committee Report #2. A communication was received from D. Margaret Drury, City Clerk, transmitting a report from Councillor Sam Seidel and Councillor Timothy J. Toomey, Jr., Co-Chairs of the Government Operations and Rules Committee, for a meeting held on Aug 16, 2010 to discuss the process for the City Council to use in setting the City Council goals FY11and FY12.

This is the biennial goal-setting process and what is proposed is a pretty good process. The finished product always looks terribly generic to this observer - lots of rosy language about diversity and fostering community and the usual stuff, but the process does have the potential to motivate some of the councillors to take on some initiatives. [current FY2010-FY2011 goals]

Resolution #26. Congratulations to Colleen Johnston on her appointment as Acting Executive Director of the Human Rights Commission.   Mayor Maher

Resolution #27. Congratulations to Brian Corr on his appointment as Acting Executive Secretary of the Police Review & Advisory Board.   Mayor Maher

Something is going on here, but I don't know what. Marlissa Briggett was appointed on Jan 19, 2010 to be the Executive Director of the Cambridge Human Rights Commission and Executive Secretary of the Police Review & Advisory Board. It appears that she is no longer serving in that role. Colleen Johnston has been on the staff of the Human Rights Commission, and Brian Corr is the Director of the Peace Commission.

Order #5. That the City Manager be and hereby is requested to report back to the City Council on the nature of MBTA improvements to the Grand Junction Railroad.   Councillor Toomey

It appears that Worcester Mayor Tim Murray (oh yeah, now he's Lt. Governor) is on the verge of getting his Worcester-North Station commuter line in spite of the absurd amount of grade crossings this will produce in a well-traveled part of Cambridge. The diesel fumes should also delight the Cambridge Climate Congress and all those who were so concerned about a few buses that might have followed this route as part of the now apparently defunct Urban Ring proposal.

Order #6. That the City Manager is requested to confer with the appropriate departments and report back to the City Council with the explanation of how the project on Broadway near the Marriott Hotel which reduces traffic to one lane came about and what it hopes to accomplish.   Councillor Toomey

This is noteworthy primarily because of the way changes like this happen seemingly without any input from the public or from elected officials. If Councillor Toomey gets to argue this out at a subsequent meeting with Traffic Czar Susan Clippinger, I'll bring popcorn to the meeting.

Order #8. That the City Council go on record in opposition of the Mass Department of Transportation traffic management plan which will disproportionately affect the East Cambridge neighborhood comparative to other abutting communities.   Councillor Toomey

Apparently the Craigie Bridge (the one you may know as the Museum of Science Bridge) will be restricted during reconstruction work from Nov 2010 to April 2011 to two lanes from Boston to Cambridge and zero lanes from Cambridge to Boston. When are they supposed to start restricting the Longfellow? This could get interesting!

Order #13. That the City Manager is requested to report back to the City Council on the recent developments and sale of the Northpoint Project.   Councillor Toomey

The ever-evolving NorthPoint development takes yet another twist. Apparently Magic Johnson is part of the new team. It's unclear what previous agreements about the development of this area and the Green Line extension through it will remain intact. Zoning amendments were made for this area, but any related understandings could get washed away. The state has apparently agreed to fund the construction of the relocated Lechmere/NorthPoint Green Line station, but everything else is in flux.

Order #15. That the City Manager is requested to consult with the Director of Information Technology Department to address issues of energy consumption and emissions used by the City of Cambridge to include distribution of and dissemination of information to city employees and residents about ways to reduce energy consumption by way of deleting and/or limiting email storage.   Councillor Decker

My favorite quote in this Order is that "Sending large picture or video attachments can use the energy equivalent of boiling seventeen kettles of water". Sure, maybe if you're spamming them across the globe. In any case, people who send excessively large e-mail attachments are nitwits - even if their carbon footprints are the size of hamster feet.

Maybe we should come up with an estimate of how many boiling kettles of water are associated with robocalls and mass mailings in a typical political campaign. It warms my heart just thinking about it. - Robert Winters

Comments?

Aug 2, 2010 (Midsummer) City Council Agenda Highlights

   The one and only City Council meeting of the summer takes place this Monday (Aug 2). As is often the case at the annual Midsummer meeting, the agenda features plenty of death resolutions (21) and congratulations (44) for a total of 82 Resolutions and 32 Orders plus 7 Committee Reports and 38 items on the City Manager's Agenda. There are plenty of noteworthy items on this Agenda, so let's get started.

   One potentially controversial (and politically juicy) item is a proposal from the City Manager (Manager's Agenda #36) to raise the annual resident parking permit fee from $8 to $20 for 2011-12 and $25 for 2013 and beyond. As the Manager notes, the annual fee has been fixed by ordinance at $8 since 1992 (18 years) and was $4 per year from the mid-1970s until then. The proposed increase is quite modest when considered in terms of inflation and should be able to garner the necessary 5 votes to pass. By having the Manager propose the increase, the councillors can simply acquiesce with few, if any, political consequences.Robert's 1979 Bus

   It's worth noting that there's also a communication from a group called the "Livable Streets Alliance" that loosely uses the term "sustainability" to propose that the permit fee should instead be increased to "$50 for the first vehicle, $150 for the 2nd vehicle, and so on." They would also have additional surcharges in some areas. This same group adamantly supports installing a "cycle track" on Western Avenue and reducing the number of lanes on the Longfellow Bridge to one lane in each direction. Thankfully, the City Manager has a better grasp of common sense and political feasibility. Needless to say, a parked car produces no greenhouse gases and does not contribute to global warming. A motor vehicle is not inherently an evil thing. They're great for getting to the Blue Hills on weekends to enjoy the great outdoors.

   The City Manager was also quite busy in responding to City Council requests for information. The agenda features 20 responses out of 36 pending requests, including a report on "what barriers would prevent residents from raising chickens and what could be done to remove these barriers." That's Manager's Agenda #27.

   Perhaps the most significant business items on the Council agenda are three pending zoning petitions all of which are due to expire in early August. These are items #5, #6, and #7 in Unfinished Business. The Green Building/Zoning Task Force proposal (#6) will likely pass without objection, and the Boston Properties petition (#7) relating to the Kendall Square MXD District and the Broad Institute will also likely pass now that the necessary "mitigation" commitments have been extracted from the proponents. [Details in Committee Report #6 and Committee Report #7.]

   The City Council Orders should provide for plenty of speechmaking, controversy, and comedy. Here's a sampler:

The Rain Orders:

Order #1. That the City Manager is requested to report to the City Council on what safety plans exist to contain a city-wide disaster or to mitigate the impact on Cambridge of natural or man-made disasters occurring elsewhere in the United States or abroad.   Councillor Simmons

Order #5. That the City Manager is requested to direct the appropriate departments to investigate the problems that the heavy rains have caused the city and report to the City Council appropriate remedies.   Councillor Simmons, Councillor Toomey and Councillor Cheung

Order #13. That the City Manager report back to the City Council on summer rains and flooding, neighborhood stormwater systems and the proposed Wetlands Protection Ordinance.   Councillor Kelley

   It was, of course, inevitable that there would be a flood of City Council Orders in the wake of the recent rains. The damages sustained by some are a reminder that with homeownership comes certain risks and responsibilities, including the risk of water flowing into a basement or up through basement walls and floors. This is why people buy insurance, keep rainy day funds in the bank, and undertake preventive maintenance. Nobody wishes storm damage on anyone, but it is ridiculous when some people blame the City or demand restitution from the City for damage suffered from a freak storm. Perhaps we would all be well-advised to keep a few sandbags handy for any ground-level or below-grade entries to our property.

The City Website Orders:

Order #3. That the City Manager is requested to direct the IT Department to present a plan within 2 months time for addressing an alternative Common Ground Web Content Management System to all departments currently approved to manage their own web pages.   Councillor Simmons

Order #22. That the City Manager is requested to confer with the Director of Information Technology to arrange for a portion of the website to be dedicated to information for college students and development of a flyer that advertises the website.   Councillor Cheung

   Though pretty good compared to a lot of other cities (some neighboring cities actually contract out their web design and maintenance with out-of-state vendors), there is definitely room for improvement on Cambridge's website. Perhaps the greatest problem is that many departments don't have the internal talent to maintain their local sites. For example, I recently spent a good deal of time trying to get a more current listing of all the City boards and commissions. Some departments were completely up to date and some even sent me the information without having to ask. On the other hand, there are entities such as the "Kids Council" which hasn't updated anything in ages, and when I requested the information from Executive Director Mary Wong, all she did was blame others for her inactivity. In an ideal world, every division in every City department should have the in-house expertise to maintain and make the best use of their web page(s). Alternatively, the City should install a simple-to-use content management system so that existing staff can take care of their page(s) without having to go running to the City webmaster for every little task. In the case of the Kids Council, the system should be simple enough for a 4-year-old to manage.

The "Story That Will Not Die" Order:

Order #12. That the Mayor is requested to convene a special meeting of the City Council in September 2010 to review the findings of the Cambridge Review Commission.   Councillor Kelley and Councillor Reeves

   This is the anticlimactic and overly expensive report that grew out of "The World-Shaking and Unforgettable Gates-Crowley Event" from last summer. Old news, but very handy for political campaigning or for selling books if your last name is Ogletree.

The Leland Cheung "Get Out the Vote" Orders:

Order #18. That the City Manager is requested to work with the Election Commission to develop a bi-annual program (once during fall semester, once in spring) that would allow Election Commissioners and staff to visit every student dorm in Cambridge to educate students on their voting rights and encourage them to participate in local government and state elections.   Councillor Cheung

Order #19. That the City Manager is requested to confer with the Executive Director of the Election Commission to produce a one page flyer that will be distributed to the universities via PDF that will provide voter information, summary of how we elect our local government officials and a fact sheet answering common questions about what reregistering in Massachusetts entails.   Councillor Cheung

   These Orders are all great and wonderful, but you certainly shouldn't fault any of the other 8 city councillors for raising an eyebrow or two at Leland Cheung's initiative to increase voter turnout in the demographic group that has and will again most likely benefit him in future elections. Perhaps Tim Toomey should advocate for a similar initiative among East Cambridge residents.

The "If the State Won't Do It, We Will" Order:

Order #20. That the City Manager is requested to confer with the appropriate department heads to draft our own station plan for the relocated Lechmere Station and to work with the East Cambridge community and neighborhood groups to advocate for the inclusion of Cambridge needs in the final MassDOT green line extension plan.   Councillor Cheung

   The Order is self-explanatory, but the basic notion here is that if a good all-around plan for Lechmere is put under the noses of state transportation planners, they might actually like it and act on it. That may be a better option than waiting for transportation planners to spend years on an inadequate plan that may not be favored by residents or other interested parties.

The "We Don't Trust the Cambridge Health Alliance" Orders:

Order #27. That the City Manager be and hereby is requested to provide this City Council with appropriate notice of considerations, conversations and discussions he and his senior staff have regarding the City's primary health institution.   Councillor Decker, Councillor Cheung and Councillor Reeves

Order #28. That the City Manager is requested to report no less than quarterly to the City Council about the conversations that have taken place about the Cambridge Health Alliance relative to service charges and other matters that impact our community.   Councillor Decker and Councillor Cheung

   I'll let the councillors hash this one out, but it should be obvious to anyone who has been following the news that the Cambridge Health Alliance and other health care providers that were previously dependent on federal reimbursements and the state's Free Care Pool have been struggling in the new world of mandatory health insurance and greater freedom in the choice of health care providers. Some councillors have railed against Cambridge Health Alliance officials for necessary cutbacks, but economic survival is a serious matter and elected officials should not be so quick to brush these concerns aside.

The "40B or not 40B, That is the Question" Order:

Order #29. That this City Council go on record urging its residents to vote no on 2 to preserve the affordable housing law.   Councillor Decker and Councillor Cheung

   This Order will likely pass 9-0, but it's worth noting that Chapter 40B has often been abused by developers who threaten to build a 40B project as a means of ramming through other projects. Ideally, there should be a compromise that maintains the good aspects of this law but which limits the ability of developers to use it as a blunt instrument to leverage other large projects.

The "I Saw It On YouTube" Order:

Order #32. That the City Manager is requested to investigate with the MBTA the possibility of installing a long flat tube slide (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W4o0ZVeixYU) at a Cambridge MBTA station to add a bit of personality to a subway stop.   Vice Mayor Davis

   Have fun, boys and girls, and watch the video. - RW

Comments?

June 21, 2010 City Council Agenda Highlights

This will be the last City Council meeting before the summer recess. Monday Night Live will return on Aug 2 (and then again on Sept 13) unless some dire emergency occurs. The agenda is brief but does have one contentious Order from Council Kelley (who seems to like stirring controversy of late) challenging the preference given to current residents applying for subsidized housing.

The zoning amendment relating to the Broad Institute's proposed expansion in Kendall Square will also have to be passed to a 2nd Reading in order to be voted at the Aug 2 (Midsummer) meeting, five days prior to its expiration. In fact, this will make three zoning petitions to be voted (or allowed to expire) at the Aug 2 meeting (including two passed to a 2nd Reading on June 14). Here are some of the more noteworthy items on the June 21 agenda:

City Manager's Agenda #7. Transmitting communication from Robert W. Healy, City Manager, relative to Awaiting Report Number 10-46, requesting a report detailing issues of greatest importance that are before the Police Review and Advisory Board (PRAB).

There's nothing particularly revealing in this report, but in the context of a former PRAB director's effort to milk the City in court plus the Great Gatescapade last summer, anything even remotely related is potentially a hot topic. Expect one or more councillors to use this opportunity to branch out to several barely related matters before they head off for their summer vacation.

City Manager's Agenda #14. Transmitting communication from Robert W. Healy, City Manager, relative to Awaiting Report Number 10-76, regarding current tree related ordinances, state statutes and informal policies.

This is referenced not because it's such an earth-shattering topic, but rather to point out that trees and dogs are topics guaranteed to bring out the passions in Cantabrigians. Parking is #3 on the list. I suppose one could conclude from this prioritization that Cambridge is a rather sleepy little village these days. Elsewhere they worry about unemployment, violence, and substance abuse. In Cambridge we lose our minds over dog parks, leaf blowers, tree removal, and finding a parking space. Count your blessings, I suppose.

Resolution #7. Congratulations to Susan Glazer on being appointed Acting Assistant City Manager for Community Development.   Mayor Maher

This past Wednesday was Beth Rubenstein's last day on the job as head of CDD. It will be interesting to see how the focus of the department evolves over the next few years - regardless who gets the job permanently. The City rarely makes wholesale changes in any department, and the Community Development Department is well-staffed in such areas as housing (10 people), community planning (13 people), economic development (5 people), environmental and transportation planning (9 people), plus several others - 44 full-time positions in the FY1022 Budget. Regardless what kinds of policy Orders are passed by this or any previous City Council, there is great inertia/momentum associated with such a significant professional staff - many of whom have been there for some time - and changes rarely happen overnight.

Order #1. That the City Manager is requested to work with relevant departments to change Cambridge's housing lottery system to eliminate the residence preference.   Councillor Kelley

This Order will die on an 8-1 vote. It's not even clear that Craig Kelley will ultimately vote for his own Order. This does, however, bring attention to some of the paradoxes inherent in several City initiatives. For example, if you locate a wet shelter for active alcoholics in Central Square, this will likely lead to an INCREASE in the number of active alcoholics in the area (unless, of course, every town were to build a wet shelter - which will not happen). If you build it, they will come. Similarly, when Cambridge takes the initiative to build "affordable housing," the number of people seeking this housing in Cambridge will inevitably go up, not down. One can speculate that the residential preference might cause an increase in demand for this City-sponsored housing among existing residents in excess of the rate at which new housing units can be added to the supply.

If Councillor Kelley is bothered by the preference given to current residents in subsidized housing, perhaps he should also file an Order regarding the numerous well-educated and able-bodied activists who somehow manage to get subsidized housing in Cambridge. Why get a job when it might jeopardize your cheap housing?

Order #3. That the City Manager is requested to organize a forum forecasting future housing needs for older Cantabrigians that incorporates a panel of housing experts.   Vice Mayor Davis, Mayor Maher and Councillor Simmons

This is a worthwhile goal, but would this be additional subsidized housing on top of existing programs, or should there be a shift in existing resources toward elderly people who might really need the housing in resource-rich Cambridge?

Order #2. Cancellation of the June 28, 2010 City Council meeting.   Vice Mayor Davis

Rarely does a City Council Order get unanimous sponsorship prior to the meeting. This one did! Early summer vacation! Please note that of the 17 City Council committees, 8 of them have yet to meet and only 1 of these 8 has any meetings scheduled.

Order #11. That the City Manager be and is hereby requested to identify areas in need of additional bike racks and the feasibility of installing long term "bike sheds" or "bike lockers" for storage of commuter bikes near metro stations.   Councillor Cheung

The City can start by clearing out the many bicycles that have been locked and not touched for months in Central Square. That would free up quite a few locations for locking up a bike. Let's hope the City doesn't start cracking down on the harmless practice of locking bikes to parking meters. Rarely does this cause any obstruction or inconvenience and it greatly increases the available lockups in business districts. -- Robert Winters

Comments?

June 14, 2010 City Council Agenda Highlights

Tonight's agenda is dominated by the disposition of several zoning-related matters. There's also a potential time-sink in Councillor Cheung's Order regarding the legislation recently passed by the Massachusetts House regarding illegal immigration. The Order does not just "disapprove" of the legislation, it "condemns" it. Here's what we have, starting with the proposed amendment regarding conversion of buildings from Institutional to Residential use (which was initiated by the advertised sale of buildings by the Jesuits and the questionable suggestion by Councillor Toomey that these should be purchased in order to densely pack subsidized housing units onto the sites - Mar 22 Order #1, Apr 5 Mgr #11):

City Manager's Agenda #6. Transmitting communication from Robert W. Healy, City Manager, relative to a Planning Board recommendation on the City Council Rezoning Petition to Modify Section 5.28.2 Related to Buildings Occupied by Institutional Uses. [The Planning Board does not recommend adoption of the Petition as filed.]

Committee Report #1. A communication was received from D. Margaret Drury, City Clerk, transmitting a report from Councillor Sam Seidel and Councillor Timothy J. Toomey, Jr., Co-Chairs of the Ordinance Committee, for a meeting held on May 6, 2010 to consider a proposed amendment to Section 5.28.2 of the Zoning Ordinance to expand the applicability of Section 5.28 to structures that may have been built for residential use but have been in Institutional (religious, educational, governmental) use for at least ten years.

Committee Report #2. A communication was received from D. Margaret Drury, City Clerk, transmitting a report from Councillor Timothy J. Toomey, Jr., Co-Chair of the Ordinance Committee, for a meeting held on June 9, 2010 to continue discussion of a proposed amendment to Section 5.28.2 of the Zoning Ordinance to expand the applicability of section 5.28 Conversation of Non Residential Structures to Residential Use to include structures that may have been built for residential use but have been in Institutional Use for at least ten years.

There were significant issues raised at the committee hearings about this proposal and the Planning Board gave the idea a "thumbs down." This proposal was primarily a reaction to the apparent sale of these buildings to Harvard University. The spirit of the proposal was similar to the rhetoric that accompanied the allocation of CPA funds toward historic preservation at Shady Hill Square, i.e. the insincere statement that subsidized housing should be built in the tonier parts of town as an act of class warfare against a perceived elite. There are also elements of resentment growing from the frequent siting of such projects in places like North and East Cambridge. In any case, zoning amendments should ideally not be proposed just because you're pissed off.

Committee Report #3. A communication was received from D. Margaret Drury, City Clerk, transmitting a report from Councillor Timothy J. Toomey, Co-Chair of the Ordinance Committee, for a hearing held on June 9, 2010 to continue discussion of a petition by the City Council to amend the Zoning Ordinance in accord with the recommendations of the Green Building Task Force to encourage energy efficient buildings.

With a positive Planning Report and now an Ordinance Committee Report, this will presumably be passed to a 2nd Reading and ordained later this month. The zoning change would only affect new construction and large scale renovations.

Charter Right #2. Charter Right exercised by Mayor Maher on Order Number Six of June 7, 2010 requesting the City Manager to confer with the Community Development Department and Boston Properties to report back to the Ordinance Committee of the City Council on June 9th, 2010, on whether the ground floor retail proposed by Boston Properties would be of the size and nature suitable for a grocery store, convenience store, or small foodstuffs boutique.

This matter was hotly debated at the previous meeting. There are numerous issues at play such as whether the proposal would effectively kill the possibility of new housing in the Kendall Square MXD district. Councillor Cheung's Order #6 from last week was actually far more comprehensive than I had originally noticed and included a provision for what was arguably commercial rent control for "upstart local entrepreneurs". Another significant issue was whether there was any guarantee of the long-term tenancy of the Broad Institute at this site, a new local institution with "favored nation" status. As is often the case, allegations of quid-pro-quo political contributions by the developer/owner have been made but not substantiated.

Order #1. That the City Manager is requested to confer with the appropriate department heads and report back to the University Relations Committee the feasibility of the City creating a "Welcoming Packet" for new students, distributed by the universities with information on public services, Cambridge history and culture, and a calendar of civic events.   Councillor Cheung

This brings back recollections of a similar Order in 2000 from former Councillor Jim Braude calling for a "welcome wagon" for new residents. (Order #6, April 24, 2000). Here's an summary of the ensuing conversation a decade ago.

Order #2. That the City Manager is requested to confer with the appropriate department heads on the feasibility of instituting a five cent per disposable bag fee, collected by the City that would in turn be put aside into a fund which purpose is to buy canvas bags wholesale and distribute them to Cambridge residents.   Councillor Cheung

Nanny government. Reusable canvas (or any other material) shopping bags are what everyone should use, but they're plentiful and cheap and already distributed at all sorts of events. Cambridge residents don't need to be taxed or subsidized for such trivialities, especially when they are already so freely available.

Order #3. Opposition to the amendment that was passed to the budget bill regarding immigrants.   Councillor Cheung

It's interesting that the primary point made in opposition to this state legislation is that it is unnecessary because it adds little more than what is already required of those seeking to take advantage of taxpayer-funded services. Is so, why the strong condemnation? It's worth noting that Councillor Cheung's Order focuses on all the contributions of immigrants to this country, but the proposed legislation is not about immigrants. It's about illegal immigrants, i.e. those who are residing in Massachusetts but have not adhered to existing laws. Councillor Cheung's Order also correctly challenges the practice of creating policy through budget amendments, but the federal government does this routinely. The Order correctly points out that there may be substantial costs associated with enforcing the proposed legislation. In any case, be it Arizona or Cambridge, it's ridiculous that the inability of the U.S. Congress to address these matters causes individual states to take such actions. Regardless of party affiliation, spines appear not to be part of anatomy of U.S. Congressmen and Senators. - Robert Winters

Comments?

June 7, 2010 City Council Agenda Highlights

It's primarily routine stuff this week, though I suppose we could be treated to another "International Night" as part of Councillor Decker's El Salvador Order #8. Meanwhile, back in Cambridge, we have the following, starting with two Planning Board reports on pending zoning amendments:

City Manager's Agenda #2. Transmitting communication from Robert W. Healy, City Manager, relative to a Planning Board recommendation on the green building zoning petition. [The Planning Board recommends adoption of the petition as proposed.]

This matter will presumably be passed to a 2nd Reading with expected ordination later this month. Not quite ready for ordination (and still in committee) is the zoning petition affecting a portion of Kendall Square. An interesting aspect of this is the never-ending effort to reinvent Kendall Square in the wake of unenlightened urban planning/renewal that depopulated the area. The petition primarily sets out to permit the Broad Institute to build another life science building instead of the housing previously permitted by the Planning Board. The height limit of the district is 230 feet - the highest in Cambridge.

The Committee Report indicates the City Council's desire to repopulate the area, i.e. build housing in addition to tax-generating commercial buildings, yet no direction is provided. A proposed Order in the report asks the Community Development Department to identify housing sites in the MXD district, yet it seems likely that housing may never be built in this district. If it were to be built, Councillor Kelley wants to ban future residents from owning cars. Why stop there? Why not go for broke and dictate their diets as well? Sometimes it seems as though Cambridge elected officials will never be satisfied until they can control everything right down to the jokes you're permitted to laugh at.


City Manager's Agenda #20. Transmitting communication from Robert W. Healy, City Manager, relative to a Planning Board recommendation on the Boston Properties Petition to amend the MXD District. [The Planning Board "enthusiastically" supports this zoning change which would facilitate the Broad Institute’s interest in expanding near its headquarters in Cambridge.]

Committee Report #2. A communication was received from D. Margaret Drury, City Clerk, transmitting a report from Councillor Sam Seidel and Councillor Timothy J. Toomey, Jr., Co-Chairs of the Ordinance Committee, for a meeting held on May 11, 2010 to consider proposed amendments to the Zoning Map and Zoning Ordinance in Article 14 Mixed Use Development Cambridge Center to create a "Smart Growth Underutilized Area" in the vicinity of Broadway, Main and Ames Streets and the site of the West parking garage on Ames Street.

Order #6. That the City Manager is requested to confer with the Community Development Department and Boston Properties to report back to the Ordinance Committee of the City Council on June 9th, 2010, on whether the ground floor retail proposed by Boston Properties would be of the size and nature suitable for a grocery store, convenience store, or small foodstuffs boutique.   Councillor Cheung

Councillor Cheung's Order is well-intentioned, but it seems like the most that will come out of it would be a convenience store for the IPad crowd. Let's not forget that there used to be an actual neighborhood in Kendall Square, including a school (and I don't mean MIT).

City Manager's Agenda #16. Transmitting communication from Robert W. Healy, City Manager, relative to the acceptance and approval of the layout of portions of certain street in the North Point area of Cambridge.

It will be interesting to see how North Point actually develops after the recession passes and the Green Line is relocated and extended. In spite of the seemingly nice landscaping, most plans I've seen suggest a sterile, isolated environment. The best thing, in my opinion, would be to create direct roadway connections through North Point to East Somerville, the Inner Basin area, and Charlestown, but the isolationist planners would never permit such a thing. It might cause people to actually cut through this new North Point neighborhood en route to other places - like almost all other non-gated neighborhoods.

Resolution #14. Best wishes to the Cambridge Consumers’ Council on their upcoming event to recognize Shredding Day and declare July 31, 2010 as "Shredding Day in the City of Cambridge."   Mayor Maher

The full text of City Council Orders is provided, but not so for resolutions. It makes you wonder what exactly Shredding Day is. Then again, we just celebrated Laser Day on May 16 as a result of a recent resolution from Councillor Cheung.

Resolution #24. Congratulations to Beth Rubenstein on her new position as Director of Campus Planning and Development at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell and thank her for her thirteen years to the City of Cambridge.   Mayor Maher, Councillor Decker

This came as a bit of a surprise. Best wishes to Beth as she heads off to her next challenge. This is reminiscent of when Kathy Spiegelman made a similar move from the Community Development Department to Harvard University. Between these two heads of CDD, there was Michael Rosenberg (with whom I biked the route of the old Middlesex Canal last fall) and Susan Schlesinger (who still serves on the City's Affordable Housing Trust Board and the Community Preservation Act Committee). It will be interesting to see who succeeds Beth Rubenstein as head of the the Community Development Department - a position of considerable influence in determining the City's prioritization of commercial development, housing, open space, transportation, and more.

Order #1. That the City Manager is requested to investigate establishing a Cambridge Carbon Offset Fund to receive contributions that may be used for the purpose of reducing Cambridge greenhouse gas emissions, including the possibility of using these funds for building retrofits, planting trees, or other relevant activities.   Vice Mayor Davis

I'm only barely beginning to understand things like "cap and trade" and a possible "carbon tax" on businesses/industries, but if it's appropriate to view such things as a kind of currency, then maybe it's not such a good idea to create local currency. Things could get complicated enough if and when the U.S. Congress gets around to enacting something. As a side note, I recently attended a meeting organized by GreenPort of a panel of experts discussing various aspects of some proposed regulations growing out of concerns about climate change. It was interesting to see what are essentially capitalist solutions being presented to an audience that included some Marxist-leaning Cambridge activists who might well prefer to just nationalize every industry or regulate them into oblivion.

Order #7. That the City Manager is requested to provide an update on the City’s tree inventory and establishment of a "volunteer corps" of citizens interested in helping maintain and update the City’s tree inventory.   Councillor Seidel

It's a great idea to try to marshal volunteer labor to help the City in a number of areas. However, it is easy to imagine a situation where activists of one sort or another would use the opportunity to create conflict rather than cooperation. If that potential problem can be ironed out, there would be great benefit in having an unpaid army of residents acting cooperatively with City workers for the benefit of all.

Order #12. That the City Manager is requested to provide an update as to the status of the tents currently set up in Flagstaff Park, including the number of such structures allowed on the site, who is residing in them, and the length of time these structures are allowed to remain on the site.   Councillor Seidel

The phrasing of this Order is curious. It asks about the number of structures allowed on the site and related matters, but one would surmise that the answer to that question is zero. The real issue is whether the City will ever take action to clear out the site - not the identity of its squatters or their residential tenure at that location. -- Robert Winters

Comments?

May 24, 2010 City Council Agenda Highlights

Tonight is Budget Adoption Night at City Hall. The related Finance Committee reports are these:

Committee Report #1. A communication was received from Donna P. Lopez, Deputy City Clerk, transmitting a report from Councillor Marjorie C. Decker, Chair of the Finance Committee, for public hearings held on May 5, 2010, May 13, 2010 and May 19, 2010 relative to the General Fund Budget for the City of Cambridge for Fiscal Year 2011 and recommending adoption of the budget in the amount of $426,629,125.

Committee Report #2. A communication was received from Donna P. Lopez, Deputy City Clerk, transmitting a report from Councillor Marjorie C. Decker, Chair of the Finance Committee, for a public hearing held on May 13, 2010 relative to the Water Fund Budget for the City of Cambridge for Fiscal Year 2011 and recommending adoption of the budget in the amount of $16,416,120.

Committee Report #3. A communication was received from Donna P. Lopez, Deputy City Clerk, transmitting a report from Councillor Marjorie C. Decker, Chair of the Finance Committee, for a public hearing held on May 13, 2010 relative to the Public Investment Fund for the City of Cambridge for Fiscal Year 2011 and recommending adoption of the budget in the amount of $9,935,015.

Committee Report #4. A communication was received from Donna P. Lopez, Deputy City Clerk, transmitting a report from Councillor Marjorie C. Decker, Chair of the Finance Committee, for a meeting held on May 12, 2010 for the purpose of providing a summary to community leaders of the city’s current and proposed budget and an explanation of how state and federal budget cuts have impacted the city’s budget.

This year's budget hearings were not controversial except perhaps for the School Department budget which eliminates several clerical positions. That matter still lies "On the Table" though apparently some resolution must be in the works as indicated by the lack of rancor reported at the May 19 School Department budget hearing. Perhaps some contractual guarantees prevailed or maybe positions elsewhere in Cambridge government were found in response to lobbying by city councillors and school committee members.

City Manager's Agenda #3. Transmitting communication from Robert W. Healy, City Manager, relative to Awaiting Report Item Number 10-64, regarding the sale of the Sullivan Courthouse. ["In light of the courthouse’s great size (460,000 square feet), lack of parking associated with the building, and its out-of-date architectural style, I do not see any public reuse for the structure." ... "Should the property be sold to and redeveloped by a private entity local zoning would apply. We have expressed our willingness to work closely with any owner to develop a project of more moderate height and scale; with active ground floor uses; including some portion of residential use, in keeping with the neighborhood context; and with appropriate parking supply based on building uses."]

The referenced courthouse building really is out of place and out of time - the product of a misplaced sense of progress decades ago. A modest-scale private mixed residential/commercial/office redevelopment is probably the best reuse for the site. Any proposals that have been floated for a public marketplace in the Lechmere area should happen in and around the existing commercial corridors along Cambridge Street and the O'Brien Highway (the former Bridge Street). There must surely also be a way to integrate the court functions that were previously in the Sullivan Courthouse into existing and new buildings adjacent to the historic court buildings in the Lechmere area.

City Manager's Agenda #19. Transmitting communication from Robert W. Healy, City Manager, relative to Awaiting Report Item Number 10-77, regarding a report on a review of investments and business practices engaged in by the City to determine what activities are conducted with the State of Arizona. ["Following a review of the City’s current listing of CD’s purchased through Morgan Stanley, it was determined that a $100,000 CD was purchased on Apr 9, 2009 from the Asian Bank located in Phoenix, Arizona. The CD has a maturity date of July 9, 2010, and will not be renewed after reaching maturity. Our representative at Morgan Stanley has been instructed to refrain from purchasing any further investments in the State of Arizona."]

Not unexpectedly, the City's Arizona investments amounted to pocket change. The City Council has (thankfully) not yet voted on a meaningless policy position on the recent Arizona law regarding suspected illegal immigrants.

Resolution #22. Happy Birthday wishes to a special Cantabrigian.   Councillor Simmons, Councillor Cheung, Councillor Decker, Councillor Kelley, Mayor Maher, Councillor Reeves, Councillor Seidel and Councillor Toomey

Hmmm..... Henrietta Davis had a birthday on May 18 and she's the only city councillor not listed as a sponsor. Could she be that "special Cantabrigian?" Had this been Councillor Reeves' birthday, he would have been the lead sponsor.

Resolution #36. Congratulations to Littane Bien-Aime on being selected a 2010 Charles B. Rangel International Affairs Fellow following a nationwide contest.   Councillor Cheung

We hope that the Rangel award is not in recognition of ethical violations such as using political connections to evade New York City housing laws or accepting corporate-sponsored trips to the Caribbean.

Order #7. That the City Council Committee on Transportation, Traffic and Parking schedule a public meeting on the City’s traffic calming and bike facility programs.   Councillor Kelley

It's likely nothing will come of this, but Councillor Kelley is to be commended for directing some attention toward the generally unquestioned and arbitrary decisions of City transportation planners.

Order #9. That the City Manager is requested to report back to the City Council on the property known as the Norton Woods that has been reopened after being closed due to flooding with a newly instituted no dogs policy.   Councillor Decker

The bottom line is that this area is not public property and the owners (American Academy of Arts and Sciences) can institute any rules they wish. They've been great in allowing public access to the property and though it may be worth politely asking a question or two about their policy on dogs, ultimately it's their call.

Order #10. That the City Manager is requested to inform the City Council on how the Cambridge Historical Commission, the Cambridge Room of the Cambridge Public Library, the Cambridge Historical Society, and Cambridge Community Television might work together to digitize the various Cambridge historical collections and determine how these various entities will work together to preserve Cambridge history of the past, current happenings, social history, architectural history and preservation, and other matters of historical significance to Cambridge.   Councillor Reeves

This is a timely and useful Order from Councillor Reeves. Though it's unclear why CCTV is included in the mix, the fact is that we now have a proper Cambridge Room at the new Main Library and there's a clear need to preserve and archive material and to make much of it digitally available. A professional archivist was reportedly to be hired, but it's not clear from the FY2011 budget whether this has actually taken place or what the job responsibilities would be for this person and for others already working in the Historical Commission who might play a role in such a project. This is an area where volunteer assistance and a cooperative arrangement with the Cambridge Historical Society (which is already engaged in digital archiving) may be worth considering.

Order #11. That the City Manager is requested to report back to the City Council with a delineation of the boundaries of Joan Lorentz Park.   Councillor Seidel

Normally this might be just a formality, but with the new Library, reconstruction at the high school, and pedestrian connections being reconfigured around these tightly integrated uses, it's worth clarifying who's responsible for maintaining which pieces of this jigsaw puzzle. In some respects, everything outside of the buildings has the feel of a single contiguous park, but clarity today may be helpful 20 or 30 years from now should there be future plans to reconfigure the space.

Committee Report #6. A communication was received from D. Margaret Drury, City Clerk, transmitting a report from Councillor Sam Seidel and Councillor Timothy J. Toomey, Co-Chairs of the Ordinance Committee, for a hearing held on May 6, 2010 to consider a petition filed by the City Council on behalf of the Green Building/Zoning Task Force to amend the zoning ordinance to encourage green building practices in Cambridge.

Normally, a committee report like this doesn't really stand out, but there is one notable record of public testimony in the report worth highlighting:

Guy Asaph, 29 Oakdale Street, said there is no reason for anyone to invest $30,000 in a solar system. A $25,000 investment would produce $25 in electricity. There is no incentive. He said that if we want to make energy issues seriously, there have to be real incentives. The proposals are nice, but they do not go far enough. The greenest buildings are big buildings, so up-zoning and providing incentives are the best ways to make Cambridge buildings more energy efficient.

Though the units of measurement are clearly misstated here (an investment of $25,000 is a one-time cost, but it's unclear whether the $25 in electricity is per month, per year, or over the useful life of the investment), it is useful to be clear about whether there is much bang for the buck in some proposed energy projects like solar panels and wind turbines. I have heard credible testimony suggesting that the payback for energy generation projects like these are very minimal in a Cambridge context, while energy conservation measures (such as insulation and higher efficiency) usually have clear economic and environmental benefits. Where should the investment money be concentrated? Insulation and efficiency seem to be the smart choices much more than on-site power generation. Cambridge is not the same as Hull or Oklahoma ("where the wind comes sweeping down the plain").

Mr. Aseph doesn't stop at questioning the economics of solar installations. He also makes the case for packing more and more higher density buildings into the City. Considering the fact that he develops real estate for a living, this is a rather self-serving vision (to say the least) even if there may be a grain of truth in his wish to upzone the city ever higher. -- Robert Winters

Comments?

May 10, 2010 City Council Agenda Highlights

The City Manager's Agenda tonight features significant public investment items - primarily authorizations to borrow for infrastructure projects. Here's the list:

Mgr #8. Appropriation and authorization to borrow $5,250,000 to continue sewer projects in the Harvard Square, Cambridgeport, and Alewife Watershed areas of the City.

Mgr #9. Appropriation and authorization to borrow $700,000 to provide funds to replace the existing artificial turf on the soccer field at Danehy Park as well as resurfacing the 400 meter running track.

Mgr #10. Appropriation and authorization to borrow $2,000,000 to provide funds to fund the reconstruction of JFK Street between Eliot and Brattle Streets.

Mgr #11. Appropriation and authorization to borrow $2,500,000 to provide funds to fund the first phase of the reconstruction of the Harvard Square Tunnel (Cambridge Street Underpass).

Mgr #12. Appropriation and authorization to borrow $500,000 to provide funds to fund the design of the restoration of the Kendall Square area on Main Street between Broadway and Ames Street.

Mgr #13. Appropriation and authorization to borrow $1,500,000 to provide funds for improvements to several City buildings including the East Cambridge and Inman Square Fire Stations, Ryan Garage at Public Works, Central Square Library, and several elementary schools.

There should be "suitably engrossed" awards in gilded folders given to city councillors who generate excessive numbers of suitably engrossed resolutions at (I believe) around $5 a pop. This week's runner-up award goes to Mayor Maher for his 11 identical resolutions to various people for "passing the Massachusetts Department of Public Health written and performance test for the position of Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA)." The top prize this week goes to Councillor Simmons for her 51 (I'm not kidding) nearly identical resolutions to people for their "work on the Prince Hall Memorial Committee." Good thing she has that aide to help with such important "research" matters like this. By the way, did I mention that the single biggest jump in department budget over a five year span was for the City Council. So many resolutions, so little time.

Councillor Decker has another Vanity Order this week:

Order #4. That the City Manager is requested to determine with due consideration for, among other things, return on investment, to what extent it is reasonable to not participate in any business activities substantially connected with the State of Arizona, municipalities in Arizona, and other business entities in Arizona or conducting substantial business in Arizona.   Councillor Decker

Regardless of the merits of the Arizona law, it's arrogant for an elected official in the northeast to weigh in on matters in a border state whose issues she can't even begin to appreciate. Besides, it's hard to imagine the City of Cambridge having any investments in Arizona, so this really is just a Vanity Order.

Order #7. That the City Manager is requested to confer with the appropriate department heads and commission heads to develop a standard set of resources, facility privileges, tools, and barebones operating budget the unfunded commissions may use in their work of enacting Council policy.   Councillor Cheung

Essentially all Cambridge citizen boards and commissions work closely with one or more City departments which provide support for these boards. Councillor Cheung's Order focuses primarily on "the capability for all commissions to post and maintain an email distribution list" and seems to suggest that the capacity for this should be made available on City servers rather than via such services as YahooGroups and GoogleGroups. This does raise the inevitable issue of public records. Clearly, if City servers are involved then any and all communications are potentially available as public records. It's not clear if this is the case for communications among members on outside servers. Another consideration is that with an outside service the group "owner" can freely moderate the group and even delete some communications. This probably would not be permitted if hosted on City servers as it may constitute "destroying a public record." Perhaps things are better left as they are.

Order #13. That the City Manager is requested to update the City Council on the impact of the MWRA water pipe rupture on the Charles River in Cambridge.   Councillor Seidel

Actually, Councillor Seidel's Order asks about two incidents: the recent MWRA break in Weston and a February 2010 diesel spill in the Lower Charles River Basin. While I cannot speak to the latter, I can say with some confidence that the Weston break had no impact whatsoever on Cambridge other than to highlight the great advantage of having our own independent water supply. As it turns out, I was leading a group of 40 hikers that day (May 1) along a section of the Sudbury Aqueduct in Wellesley and telling the history of Boston Water and about how this aqueduct was last used about 35 years ago and was still maintained for use in a "catastrophic emergency". Little did I know that such an emergency was unfolding even as I spoke and that by day's end the Sudbury Aqueduct would be back in service during the emergency. -- Robert Winters

Comments?

May 3, 2010 City Council Agenda Highlights

The City Manager will give an overview of the FY2011 City Budget early in tonight's meeting followed by the usual platitudes from councillors. The Budget Hearings start this Wednesday (see schedule below). Word is going around that hordes of townies will be at tonight's meeting for Councillor Toomey's tabled Order from the previous meeting. [That the City Manager is requested to restore funding for School Department clerical positions until a proper and negotiated process can be achieved with the Cambridge School Department and Unions representing the employees, and to report back to the City Council on the progress.] School Committee members have commented that these changes occurred only after appropriate process and that these staff reductions are consistent with a long-held commitment to cut back on excesses in central administration within the School Department. It would seem that some of these jobs may have their roots in political friendship. More significant is the question of whether it is appropriate for the Cambridge City Council to intervene in personnel issues within the School Department and under the supervision of that other elected body - the Cambridge School Committee.

There are also these other items of minor interest:

Order #2. That the City Manager is requested to confer with the appropriate department heads on the feasibility of offering closed captioning for streaming video on the City's website.   Councillor Cheung and Councillor Decker

Order #5. That the City Manager is requested to confer with the appropriate department heads on the feasibility of updating the City of Cambridge's website with automatic translation software.   Councillor Cheung

Very well to make this information accessible to all, but it does raise the issue of diminishing returns. How much additional investment and staff support will it take to provide these marginal benefits?

Order #3. That the City Manager is requested to investigate the possibility of making the property at 93 Kirkland Street part of Cambridge's affordable housing stock through purchase and renovation by the City or by a qualified non-profit.   Councillor Seidel

Once again, the knee-jerk response is that taxpayer money should be spent without question on "affordable housing" projects. Maybe it's a good idea, but taxpayers should really question where their money is going.

Communications and Reports from City Officers #1. A communication was received from Mayor David P. Maher, transmitting changes in the membership of the Neighborhood and Long Term Planning Committee. [Councillor Decker has been removed from this committee, per her request. Councillor Simmons has been appointed to this committee. The committee now consists of Councillors Seidel (Chair), Cheung, and Simmons.]

The entertaining thing about this communication is that Councillor Decker wishes to cut down on her committees because of "the breadth of work I expect to be engaged in as Chair of the Housing, Health, and Finance Committee." Suffice to say that Councillor Decker's record of attendance at Council committees has been at or near the bottom for as long as she's been on the City Council. It will be interesting to see the "breadth of work" of which she speaks. She will now serve on just 6 committees while all of her Council colleagues will serve on 8, 9 or 10 committees. -- Robert Winters

Comments?

April 26, 2010 City Council Agenda Highlights

Tonight's the night when the voluminous annual Budget Book arrives on the desks of each city councillor. This marks the official start of "Budget Season" at City Hall where councillors often use the opportunity of the Budget Hearings to grill City department heads on operational details of their departments whether or not they are related to their budgets. The bottom line (literally) is that this year's total recommended FY2011 operating budget is $443,288,905 plus $16,416,120 for the Water Fund plus the capital budget of $9,935,015. The previous FY2010 recommended operating budget was $426,226,960 plus $17,985,890 for the Water Fund plus the capital budget of $29,360,780.

The comparison by general categories from last year to this year is as follows:

Category FY2010 Budget FY2011 Budget 1 yr % Change 5 yr % change
General Government $45,627,180 $47,778,775 4.7 23.4
Public Safety $97,169,260 $101,163,395 4.1 24.1
Community Maintenance & Development $79,033,800 $82,475,075 4.4 40.3
Human Resource/Development $28,232,600 $261,519,545 4.6 30.2
Education $133,563,880 $137,492,275 2.9 10.8
Intergovernmental $42,600,240 $44,277,085 3.9 15.9
Grand Total $426,226,960 $443,288,905 4.0 22.1
Water Fund $17,985,890 $16,416,120 -8.7 -4.0
Capital Budget $29,360,780 $9,935,015 -66.2 10.2

There are some notable differences in specific departments and assessments as well.

Department FY2010 Budget FY2011 Budget 1 yr % Change 5 yr % change
Executive $1,841,390 $1,980,195 7.5 34.7
City Council $1,461,370 $1,518,725 3.9 49.2
Election $799,490 $897,050 12.2 22.4
License $830,755 $830,755 8.7 22.0
Emergency Management $156,230 $0 -100.0 -100.0
Peace Commission $111,745 $116,580 4.3 46.7
Library $7,450,945 $8,135,070 9.2 43.7
Human Rights Commission $210,355 $190,005 -9.7 14.3
MWRA Assessment $21,333,055 $21,617,305 1.3 35.2
Cherry Sheet Assessments $15,267,185 $16,659,780 9.1 4.4

Note, in particular, that the single biggest jump in department budget over a five year span was for the City Council itself. You can download the 5-year summary spreadsheet here: http://rwinters.com/docs/bottomlineFY2011.xls.

Elsewhere on the Agenda, there are these items worthy of comment:

Resolution #28. Congratulations to a special person.   Councillor Toomey, Councillor Decker, Vice Mayor Davis, Mayor Maher, Councillor Seidel

Resolution #50. Resolution honoring a great supporter of the Portuguese community.   Councillor Toomey

The whole idea of a public meeting seems to suggest that the identity of this "special person" and this "great supporter" should be made known. The City Council is a publicly elected body, not a private social club.

Order #11. That the City Manager is requested to confer with appropriate departments to determine whether the city can submit a proposal for use on the Sullivan Courthouse and to report back to the City Council.   Councillor Toomey

It's a long stretch to imagine the City making use of a building of this size, especially in light of the considerable abatement costs that would likely be associated with any renovation and reuse of the building. It also seems doubtful that Councillor Toomey would be advocating packing another major "affordable housing" development into East Cambridge in light of his recent Order.

Order #14. That the City Manager is requested to restore funding for School Department clerical positions until a proper and negotiated process can be achieved with the Cambridge School Department and Unions representing the employees, and to report back to the City Council on the progress.   Councillor Toomey

There was a day when the School Committee concerned itself with matters such as this. Is it really proper for the Cambridge City Council to direct the City Manager to restore funding for positions under the jurisdiction of the Superintendent of Schools who is hired by the duly-elected Cambridge School Committee? Question this matter during the School Department Budget hearing if you must, but doesn't this just stink of micromanagement - and not even by the proper elected body? -- Robert Winters

Comments?

April 12, 2010 City Council Agenda Highlights

The agenda is relatively light but the tension should be palpable on the eve of the Special State Senate Primary. As a courtesy, if there is still such a thing in the Cambridge political world, this meeting should open and shut in a half hour so that candidate Denise Simmons can attend to her campaign. Therefore I expect we'll see Councillor Reeves, Craig Kelley, and former and future Senate candidate Marjorie Decker engage in extensive questions and comments just to extend the meeting for hours. Councillor Simmons should just check in and check out or exercise her Charter Right liberally at the first hint of nonsense.
[Postscript (8:25pm) - The predictions turned out all wrong - it was Simmons supporter Councillor Davis who spoke and lengthened the meeting the most. Marjorie Decker was concise and to the point. So much for fanciful predictions.]

On the agenda, we have the following items of interest:

City Manager's Agenda #4. Transmitting communication from Robert W. Healy, City Manager, relative to Awaiting Report Item Number 10-52, regarding a report on the possibility of structuring the parking ticket system in a way that would increase parking tickets as people stay longer at expired meters or general no-parking spots.

Short answer - this is prohibited under state law: "all such fines shall be uniform for the same offense committed in the same zone or district". One wonders how this applies to Somerville's posted practice of permitting residents to park for free for several hours at parking meters in some areas at the edge of commercial zones. It's a good idea, but is it legal under state law?

Order #1. That the City Manager is requested to make City staff available to the Economic Development Committee to look at current real and personal property taxation issues which affect entrepreneurial businesses within the city.   Councillor Cheung

Councillor Cheung is diving right in as the new Chair of the Council's Economic Development Committee. The key phrase in the Order is: "That staff review and report back to the Economic Development Committee of the City Council on state taxation guidelines and statutes that could potentially be adopted or changed to impact new business development, including but not limited to the taxation of R&D related personal property, economic distress regulations, and real estate related tax increment financing, for the purpose of encourage new business growth and job creation." Councillor Cheung may soon discover how restricted City officials are in matters such as real estate taxation. Good ideas surfaced several years ago when multi-family residential property taxes were escalating with condominium real estate taxes relatively flat, but it went nowhere without changes in state law.

Order #2. That the City Council reappoint D. Margaret Drury as City Clerk for a term beginning June 1, 2010 and ending May 31, 2013.   Mayor Maher

Order #3. That the City Council reappoint James Monagle as City Auditor for a term beginning June 1, 2010 and ending May 31, 2013.   Mayor Maher

The City Council has authority under the Plan E Charter to appoint only the City Manager, the City Clerk, and the City Auditor. Tonight they'll extend the appointments of two of these. Though not specified in the Charter, the City Council also formally appoints the Deputy City Clerk and, whether official or not, they now get to "appoint" their own patronage personal assistants, almost all of whom are City-funded campaign workers. On a brighter note, both City Clerk Margaret Drury and Auditor Jim Monagle are well deserving of reappointment.

Order #4. That the City Council place a temporary moratorium on designating any location under its control as "in memoriam" until such time as naming criteria are developed by the Government Operations Committee and adopted by the City Council.   Mayor Maher

If passed, this represents a victory of sorts for Councillor Kelley who has played like a broken record on this issue. Annoyance aside, the substance of his argument is correct. This practice has been too long abused.

Order #5. That the City Council go on record urging Cambridge's Delegation to the Great and General Court to support Section 25, the Municipal Early Retirement Incentive Program, contained in the HB4526.   Mayor Maher

The key phrase in the Order is: "This program would allow a limited number of long term employees to receive early retirement benefits, while restricting the City's ability to refill those same positions to no more than 30%, 45% and 60% of the former total salaries over the next three years, respectively." Seems like a good option in tight financial times. - Robert Winters

Comments?

April 5, 2010 City Council Agenda Highlights

The City Council returns tonight with a very full agenda. For starters, the City Manager provides 15 responses out of 25 pending City Council requests for information - a nice spring cleaning. These reports cover such topics as traffic, Google, the census, airplane noise, Lechmere, a proposed zoning amendment, Central Square, affordable housing, web video on the City website, bedbugs, telephone books as free speech, and weatherization. The Manager also reports that the new Election Commission Executive Director will be Tanya Ford who comes to us from Bethpage, Long Island. There's still no word on the pending appointment for one of the Democrat seats on the Election Commission, but Alexandra Detjens has been appointed to the Police Review & Advisory Board. Recommendations from the Green Building/Zoning Task Force round out a very full agenda from the Manager.

Regarding the Council's Agenda, there are these two related items:

Reconsideration #1. Councillor Kelley filed reconsideration on the adoption of Order Number Eight of Mar 22, 2010 as amended to place on the table and refer to the Government Operations and Rules Committee the proposal to amend the City Council rules to replace the Health and Environment Committee with two committees, the Community Health Committee and the Sustainable Environment Committee.

Committee Report #1. A communication was received from D. Margaret Drury, City Clerk, transmitting a report from Councillor Sam Seidel and Councillor Timothy J. Toomey, Co-Chairs of the Government Operations and Rules Committee, for a meeting held on Mar 25, 2010 for the purpose of discussing dividing the Health and Environment Committee into two committees, one to focus on health issues and the other on environmental and sustainability issues.

Though really just a formality, the discussion of this modification to the City Council committees degenerated into accusations of political shenanigans at the previous meeting. The apparent cause of this kerfuffle seems to be that Mr. Reeves is peeved at not being appointed Chair of the Economic Development Committee (Councillor Cheung got that honor) and this led to some "acting out" over this apparently unrelated modification. In truth, the split into the Community Health Committee and the Environment Committee makes sense and all of the councillors seem to acknowledge this. Councillor Kelley still seems to think that all the committee need to be "rejiggered", but this point of view does not extend beyond him.

The previous City Council meeting on March 22 ended with 8 Orders made subject to the Charter Right and carried over to the April 5 meeting. These include:

Charter Right #1. Charter Right exercised by Councillor Toomey on Order Number Twelve of Mar 22, 2010 requesting the City Manager to direct the new Executive Director of the Police Review Advisory Board to submit a report to the City Council detailing what are perceived to be the issues of greatest importance that the Police Review Advisory Board must focus on, and that this report should be submitted to the City Council no later than 90 days from the adoption of this order.

This was an Order from Councillor Simmons that seems directed at the relevance and purpose of the PRAB in the wake of its relative irrelevance in last summer's "Great Gatescapade". Together with this week's Order #6 calling for an Executive Session on the still-unresolved Monteiro case, the appointment of a 5th member to the PRAB, and some dissatisfaction with the Gatescapade-inspired  Review Committee, there seems to be more than enough kindling to start a political fire.

Charter Right #5. Charter Right exercised by Councillor Toomey on Order Number Seventeen of Mar 22, 2010 requesting the City Manager to report back to the City Council on the feasibility of adopting a Pay-As-You-Throw program in Cambridge.

See comments from the last meeting. Basically, this is a good idea for promoting recycling and waste reduction in many communities, but any additional benefits may be limited in a city like Cambridge which is already doing reasonably well in these areas compared to many other cities and which may do better if the next contract includes single-stream collection and processing of recyclable materials.

Charter Right #6. Charter Right exercised by Councillor Toomey on Order Number Eighteen of Mar 22, 2010 requesting the City Manager to direct the City Solicitor to report back to the City Council with options for amending the city ordinance to allow for the Manager to permit civic organizations to use public space after hours.

This was introduced in advance of a planned sleep-out on the Cambridge Common a week ago. They came, they slept, and they marched the following day without incident. It seems unnecessary to change an ordinance when a little discretion in enforcement seems more than adequate.

Applications & Petitions #7. A zoning petition has been received from Boston Properties, requesting that City Council amend the Zoning Ordinance and Map relating to the Mixed Use Development District Section 14.32.1 and 14.32.2 located between Main Street and Broadway.

It's unclear what this zoning amendment is really about except that it emphasizes the definition of a "Smart Growth/Underutilized Area" in the heart of Kendall Square. One can't help but think this means that Boston Properties wants to more intensely develop within this area. Let's hope the councillors do their homework and ask the appropriate questions when this goes to the Ordinance Committee.

The City Council Orders include a few potentially controversial or otherwise interesting items. For example:

Order #5. That this City Council go on record requesting that Harvard and MIT cease further layoffs and any cuts in hours, salary or benefits and engage in an open and transparent dialogue with all stakeholders including staff and the community.   Councillor Decker and Councillor Cheung

The impact of such an City Council Order is likely zero. It would be nice if the sponsors would provide tangible evidence that these personnel decisions of the universities are being made for any reason other than economic necessity.

Order #6. That the Mayor be and hereby is requested to convene the City Council in Executive Session with relevant City and support staff at the earliest opportunity to discuss ongoing litigation, to include the Monteiro and Idenix cases.   Councillor Kelley

It's certainly good for the City Council to get periodic updates regarding ongoing litigation, but it's never clear whether Councillor Kelley's motivation is illumination or just acting out. In any case, I'm always interested in whether Ms. Monteiro will ultimately prevail in "milking Mother Cambridge" or whether the taxpayers will be relieved of this burden. Too bad the Executive Session is closed to the public.

Order #8. That the City Manager is requested to report back to the City Council on the possibility of structuring the City's parking ticket system in a way that would increase parking tickets as people stayed longer at expired meters or general no-parking spots.   Councillor Kelley

Order #10. That the City Council's committee on Transportation, Traffic and Parking be and hereby is requested to hold the appropriate hearings to determine if the price for a residential sticker in Cambridge is appropriately set and if visitor passes are appropriately priced and available.   Councillor Kelley

Order #11. That the City Council's committee on Transportation, Traffic and Parking be and hereby is requested to hold the appropriate hearings to determine if the amount of parking required for multi-unit residential units is appropriate.   Councillor Kelley

It's hard to say whether Councillor Kelley is morphing into chief fundraiser for the Traffic Department or just committing political suicide by leading the charge toward higher prices for residential parking permits. Few would argue that the $8 annual charge is excessive and most would be happy to pay somewhat more, yet it seems unwise for an elected official to agitate for an increase rather than merely accede to such a proposal from the City Manager. That said, if the Cambridge Climate Congress had its way, I suppose we'd all be in ZipCars or paying $1000 per year for resident stickers for an vanishing-by-design supply of on-street parking spaces.

Order #13. That the City Manager is requested to report back to the City Council on the City's policy towards on-street public spaces being used by workers of large construction projects and what impact the workers' "feeding" relevant meters has on the City's ticketing efforts.   Councillor Kelley

Here's another radical proposal that I hope a councillor considers for introduction: Let's have the Traffic Department review areas with metered parking in mixed residential/commercial zones to determine when it would be appropriate to – a) allow resident parking without a fee at metered spots during morning hours; and b) eliminating the fee during hours when there is little or no demand. For example, on Broadway (near my house), the greatest demand for metered spots is by people going to the City Hall Annex. That building is closed after noon on Fridays and on Saturdays, so why are all the meters in effect when there is essentially no demand other than among area residents?

Order #14. That the City Council is requested to discuss additional use of the Sullivan Chamber by the School Committee in the immediate future and come to a formal decision on whether to support this additional use or not at the next City Council meeting.   Councillor Kelley

This is apparently related to an effort by School Committee member Patty Nolan and others to ensure continued School Committee access to the Sullivan Chamber during construction at the high school. The issue seems to be potential conflict with City Council committee meetings, yet the evidence shows there to be little or no conflict.

Order #15. That the City Manager is requested to provide an update to the City Council on the status of Vail Court and any activities related to the property.   Councillor Seidel

This is noteworthy only as evidence of an era now passed. It was not so long ago that hordes of Eviction Free Zone protesters would descend on City Hall over real or perceived violations against tenants at Vail Court on Bishop Allen Drive. That parcel now consists primarily of boarded-up buildings and may as well have sagebrush blowing through it. Where have all the activists gone - long time passing?

Order #16. That the Council supports adoption of a regulation by the License Commission to prohibit licensed hotels from subcontracting housekeeping services such as guestroom service.   Councillor Decker, Councillor Cheung, Mayor Maher, Councillor Toomey and Councillor Reeves

There are more than a few questions of obstruction of commerce in this Order. The fact that a license is required to run a hotel does not give license to elected officials or City administration to micromanage these businesses. What's next? Should the fact that a driver's license is required to operate a motor vehicle allow the government to dictate where someone can drive for shopping or recreation?

Order #19. That the City Manager is requested to confer with appropriate departments and community agencies and report back to the City Council detailing the processes and procedures by which the City plans for, selects, and enacts its affordable housing commitment.   Councillor Cheung and Councillor Toomey

This Order is potentially the most controversial item on the entire evening's agenda in that it questions the "logic and process of site selection for affordable housing." The Order requests a report on how these projects are distributed throughout the city, suggests that there be more balance in how and where projects are sited, and asks what future plans the City and its related agencies may have for "affordable housing" in Cambridge. Good questions all. -- Robert Winters

Comments

March 22, 2010 City Council Agenda Highlights

Mayor David Maher has now appointed the City Council committees for this term. The appointments include a proposal to split the Health & Environment Committee into the Community Health Committee and the Environment & Sustainability Committee  - also referred to as the Sustainable Environment Committee, though this seems overly specific. The previous committee has flipped back and forth between Councillors Davis and Decker, so the split seems as much an accommodation of these two individuals as anything else. Regardless, it's a proposed rules change and the matter will have to "Lie on the Table" until the next regular meeting of the City Council in two weeks before it can be made official. It's curious, to say the least, that with so much rhetoric about the importance of these committees during the delayed mayoral vote, a number of councillors didn't even express their preferences until well after David Maher was elected mayor - now nearly a month ago - and there hadn't been a single committee meeting scheduled until today when the required Budget Hearings of the Finance Committee appeared (May 5, May 12, May 13, and May 19).

There are several matters of interest on tonight's agenda. Here are a few:

City Manager's Agenda #2. Transmitting communication from Robert W. Healy, City Manager, relative to the block rates for water consumption and sewer use for the period beginning Apr 1, 2010 and ending Mar 31, 2011.

The bottom line is that the water rate is increasing by 1.5%, primarily due to decreased consumption and relatively fixed costs. The sewer rate will increase by 7.9%, primarily to cover the increased MWRA assessment. The average combined increase for water/sewer will be 5.8%. It's worth reading the whole document.

Communications #2. A communication was received from the Cambridge Climate Emergency Action Group, transmitting the recommendations of 2009-2010 Climate Congress for an all-city awareness and response campaign, and for city responses to the Climate Emergency.

This is really a topic for another day. The Cambridge Climate Congress is submitting its recommendations together with a very long list of ideas suggested at various brainstorming sessions. Some of them make a lot of sense. Some are easy to implement and some are difficult. Some are completely ridiculous, but this submission does make clear (for those who actually read it) that this list of ideas were neither voted nor approved and are provided simply to add to future conversations. The central theme is a stepped-up campaign of public awareness of available resources and the economic and environmental benefits of greater energy conservation.

Resolution #14. Resolution on the death of Clifford A. Truesdell, IV.   Councillor Cheung, Councillor Toomey, Councillor Decker, Vice Mayor Davis

Order #7. Dedication of an appropriate site in the vicinity of Essex Street and Norfolk Street in honor of Clifford Truesdell IV.   Councillor Decker

Clifford was a friend and a valuable, unique, and irreplaceable civic and political player in Cambridge. His memorial gathering on March 21 was memorable.>

Order #1. That the City Manager is requested to instruct the Assistant City Manager of Community Development to investigate the opportunity to partner with local non-profits in order to obtain and develop the properties currently held by the Jesuit Order that are being placed on the market into affordable housing opportunities for the City of Cambridge.   Councillor Toomey

Order #6. That the City Manager is requested to confer with the Assistant City Manager of Community Development in order to report back with draft language for an amendment to Section 5.28.2 of the Zoning Ordinance to include a provision to facilitate the conversion of Institutional Property to Affordable Housing.   Councillor Toomey

I suspect that both of these orders are related to a recent news story about the proposed sale of 7 very desirable properties in the vicinity of Harvard Square. It's possible that there's a connection here to the tendency of "affordable housing" projects to end up only in certain neighborhoods (East Cambridge, North Cambridge to name a couple). These Orders could be interpreted as an effort to drive home a point about this unwritten policy, albeit one that is primarily driven by the economics.

Order #2. That the City Manager is requested to take the necessary steps to prepare Cambridge to participate in Earth Hour again this year.   Councillor Cheung

Knock yourself out, Cambridge. However, if you're not aware of your own energy consumption every day, there's really little to be gained by a one hour show. Personally, I never participate in these little statements.

Order #5. Public notification process and plans relating to the Blair Pond and the Alewife Reservation.   Councillor Simmons

Word has it that the "Silver Maple Forest people" will be making their presence known at Public Comment on this matter. I'm still waiting to see the elves.

Order #8. That the City Council place on the table the attached proposal to amend the City Council rules to replace the Health and Environment Committee with two committees, the Community Health Committee and the Sustainable Environment Committee.   Mayor Maher

Communications and Reports from City Officers #2. A communication was received from Mayor David P. Maher, transmitting the 2010-2011 City Council Committee Assignments.

See comments above. Otherwise, I'd say that David Maher did a commendable job with his committee assignments.

Order #12. That the City Manager is requested to direct the new Executive Director of the Police Review Advisory Board to submit a report to the City Council detailing what are perceived to be the issues of greatest importance that the Police Review Advisory Board must focus on, and that this report should be submitted to the City Council no later than 90 days from the adoption of this order.   Councillor Simmons

Though this Order refers to a report of the Police Review Advisory Board (as opposed to the Cambridge Review Committee formed in response to the Great Gates Affair), it seems probable that there is a connection here. Regarding the Review Commission, anyone expressing a contrarian point on this whole matter shall hereby be exiled from the ranks of the politically correct, but here goes: This was a ridiculous committee to form in the first place - driven by a trivial episode last summer on Ware Street. However, since the money's been spent we should at least get a few recommendations out of this. Then move on. Let the Police Review Advisory Board return to its ordinary business.

Order #17. That the City Manager is requested to report back to the City Council on the feasibility of adopting a Pay-As-You-Throw program in Cambridge.   Councillor Reeves

A Pay-As-You-Throw program for rubbish collection in Cambridge (recycling would remain without any fees) is an intriguing idea and could translate into higher recycling rates and some potential economic benefits. However, Cambridge is already doing relatively well in their recycling rates and would not likely see nearly the benefits that some laggard cities and towns (like Boston) would see if they got serious about their rubbish and recycling. There are some potential downsides to such a program in a relatively dense city like Cambridge - including the fact that it's very difficult to know exactly which apartment or condo is responsible for which rubbish and recycling. This could become a bureaucratic and enforcement nightmare. Compared to other cities, Cambridge might choose to stay with their current system (with the possible switch to a simpler single-stream recycling collection) and maintain domestic tranquility while still increasing their recycling rates. A little more education would go a long way.

Order #18. That the City Manager is requested to direct the City Solicitor to report back to the City Council with options for amending the city ordinance to allow for the Manager to permit civic organizations to use public space after hours.   Councillor Cheung

At first I thought this Order was asking about access to public buildings in which case I would have taken the opportunity to remind everyone about the original intent of the community schools concept. However, this is specifically about allowing one group to sleep out on the Cambridge Common as part of a planned march to Beacon Hill. If ever there was a situation that was best handled by "selective enforcement", this is it. It's best to look the other way on certain municipal ordinances in a case like this rather than amending the ordinances and opening the door to unintended consequences. If you say it's legal for a "civic group" to camp out on the common, why wouldn't a few ne-er-do-wells just claim civic group status and camp out out every night while calling it a protest against capitalism or some other silliness? Give the "Leadership Campaign" a one-night permit and leave the ordinances alone. -- Robert Winters

Mark Levy's take on the meeting (Mar 24, 2010)

March 8, 2010 City Council Agenda Highlights

It is expected that Mayor David Maher will announce the City Council committee appointments either tonight or tomorrow. Let's hope the persons most suitable to the tasks at hand find their way into leadership positions on these various committees (see March 1 notes below for elaboration). The City Manager's Agenda is relatively routine this week, but there are a few notable Resolutions and Orders:

Resolution #5. Retirement of Marsha Weinerman from the Election Commission.   Mayor Maher

Though I have not always enjoyed the friendliest relations with Marsha during her time at the Election Commission, in the end it's fair to say that she always tried to make the operation as professional as possible and was open to constructive suggestions even from the likes of me. In addition, when controversies arose over errors in the voter lists or what activities were permitted at the polls, she was always quick to defend her staff and take the heat - even when the national press chose to make a federal case out of relatively small and understandable missteps. I'm glad that as she leaves the job, she and I have managed to attain some level of mutual respect.

Order #5. Availability of public meeting space at the Cambridge Main Library and other library related issues.   Councillor Kelley

Though Councillor Kelley is well known for his frequent requests for information, often of questionable value and requiring substantial staff time, this particular request is of some interest. The new Main Library has become a very popular place and with this success has come some perhaps unintended consequences. Kelley's Order notes that some staff from the various branch libraries have been needed at the Main Library with resulting decreased service at the branches (at least according to the Order). Councillor Kelley also asks about the availability of public meeting rooms and the new café space. Access to Library space is of some interest to me as a teacher who occasionally needs to arrange for makeup exams for a few students, and the Library is a great location for miscellaneous tasks such as this. Though not in Kelley's Order, I would like to know if the room that houses the Cambridge history collection is open yet or when it will become open to the public.

I'm especially intrigued by this line in Kelley's Order: "WHEREAS: Coping with the influx of high school students at various parts of the day has proven to be somewhat problematic." High school students using the Library is a good thing to be sure, but perhaps there can be too much of a good thing.

Order #9. That the City Manager is requested to convene a meeting of various stakeholders in the Central Square community for the purpose of discussing and reviewing current action plans for Central Square.   Councillor Reeves

This Order is both necessary and timely. Anyone passing through Central Square today is struck by the number of commercial vacancies. This includes a number of properties that have remained vacant for several years now - perhaps most notably the MIT-owned space next to the new theater and the recently vacated space previously occupied by Pearl Art. A recent Council Order (with a response this week) inquired about making some of these vacant spaces temporarily available to various nonprofit groups. Though a nice sentiment, this is a distraction from the more serious challenge of attracting good, economically sustainable businesses to Central Square with a spectrum of spaces and rents that will ensure an economically diverse mix of businesses that match the needs and interests of residents in the greater Central Square area. This should not be about temporary solutions.

Councillor Reeves' Order also makes note of the never-ending presence of people in the Square engaged in substance abuse and other problematic behavior. However, as long as the City directly or indirectly concentrates most of its shelters and social service agencies in the Central Square area, this problem will remain insoluble.

Once upon a time during its relatively brief existence, the Central Square Neighborhood Coalition was very successful in convening various stakeholders (residents, business owners, landlords, and City officials) to collaborate for their mutual interests in Central Square. Now is the time for more of that collaboration and it's appropriate that Councillor Reeves should file the Order as he was, once upon a time, a major advocate for the betterment of Central Square before it was fashionable.

Order #10. City Council support for Massachusetts House Bill 4526 "A Bill Relative to Municipal Relief."   Councillor Seidel

This Order is specifically about making loans available to private property owners for energy efficiency projects. It's appropriate that with the conclusion of the "Cambridge Climate Congress" this past weekend the City Council should be advocating for initiatives such as this. Though the activity and outcome of this Cambridge Climate Congress is perhaps a topic for a much more involved discussion, at the very least we should expect to see some specific and sensible energy efficiency goals and City initiatives in the coming days and years. -- Robert Winters

March 1, 2010 City Council Agenda Highlights

The City Council now has a mayor - Mayor Maher - and hopefully we'll have City Council committee appointments today or very soon. David Maher has often portrayed himself as the "common sense" candidate and councillor, so let's hope that rings true in his committee appointments. Several years ago, I posted the Grimm's Fairy Tale "The Mouse, the Bird, and the Sausage" in connection with these appointments to emphasize what can go wrong when responsibilities are assigned for the wrong reasons (see below). Some of the choices for the members and chairs of these committees should be obvious to anyone who follows City Council business. Here are some random thoughts on the possibilities:

Ordinance: Unless the Mayor wants to break from tradition and appoint himself, I suppose this leaves Councillors Seidel, Davis, and Toomey as the pool of most logical choices for Chair or Co-Chairs of this committee.

Finance: Though it would be a significant responsibility for the new guy, Councillor Cheung has the background most suitable for the job.

Health and Environment: Councillor Davis is the obvious choice, but the task of this committee is quite flexible and could lean more toward public health. In that case, Councillor Toomey's work in the state legislature would make him an excellent choice as Chair of this committee.

Human Services: It would seem logical that Councillor Reeves' not-yet-implemented initiatives from the previous Council might warrant his continuation as Chair.

Civic Unity: This is, as always, anybody's guess since this committee's function has often been at the whim of its Chair except when responding to some hot issue of the day. Mayor Maher should flip a coin on this one.

Transportation, Traffic, and Parking: This was Councillor Davis' bailiwick, though Councillor Kelley remains a logical choice to continue as Chair.

Government Operations and Rules: This may turn out to be the most important of the committees and perhaps the most politicized. Toward the end of this City Council term, there will almost certainly be discussion of the future possibilities for the position of City Manager. This committee also occasionally initiates discussions about possible Charter reform, though this is usually just a short-term reaction to dissatisfaction with the mayoral selection process. In recent years, the most logical choices were Councillor Maher and former Councillors Sullivan and Murphy. Though there may be no ideal choice this year, Councillors Toomey, Davis, and Seidel seem best-matched to the task.

Housing: Councillors Simmons or Seidel or Decker come to mind.>

Neighborhood and Long Term Planning: Councillor Seidel, of course, though Councillor Cheung would be a welcome member of this committee.

Claims: Councillor Toomey always asks for it.

Public Facilities, Art, and Celebrations: Perhaps Councillor Reeves or Councillor Davis.

Veterans: The clear choice is Councilor Kelley, a veteran who really cares about the purpose of this committee.

Cable TV, Telecommunications, and Public Utilities: Since energy and climate-related issues are advancing into the spotlight, perhaps this should again be chaired by Councillor Davis. However, it would also be a good choice for Councillor Cheung who has already proposed initiatives relevant to this committee. It would be great if at least some attention was given this term to future Cable TV and related options - an area that is quickly changing and for which structures laid out 25 years ago are trending toward obsolescence.

Public Safety: Councillor Toomey, Councillor Kelley, or Councillor Simmons come to mind.

Economic Development, Training, and  Employment: Councillors Simmons, Seidel, or Cheung are probably best-suited for this committee. Other reasonable choices could be Councillors Davis or Decker. In contrast, the previous Chair (Reeves) met this committee only once in two years and only then in response to complaints from some taxi drivers about being required to accept credit card payments.

University Relations: Councillor Cheung is the sensible (and obvious) choice.

Let's see what we get, and don't forget what became of the mouse, the bird and the sausage.

At the last Council meeting, two items were tabled via the Charter Right and will presumably be voted tonight.

Charter Right #1. Charter Right exercised by Councillor Seidel on City Manager Agenda Number Fourteen of Feb 22, 2010 on a communication from Robert W. Healy, City Manager, relative to the transfer within the Community Policing Grant of $31,360 from Grant Fund Police Extraordinary Expenditures account to the Grant Fund Police Travel and Training account to cover costs associated with the Cambridge Review Committee.

According to Marc Levy's account of this in his blog, Councillors Seidel, Reeves, and Decker all had things to say about this item, though their reasons for objection varied from lack of transparency and inclusiveness (Seidel) to outright disagreement with the entire purpose of this committee (Reeves). It seems likely that additional debate/speeches will be heard on this matter.

Charter Right #2. Charter Right exercised by Vice Mayor Davis on Policy Order Number Eight of Feb 22, 2010 that the City Manager is requested to communicate to Oak Tree Development that the City Council requested that the CPA funds used for the preservation of St. James Church be returned to the City.

This one should be filed along with the author's previous order a few years ago to downzone a stretch of Memorial Drive essentially to pastureland in response to concerns over hotel workers being fired. A City Council Order should be both serious and legally legitimate. In this case, regardless how one may feel about this proposed development, Community Preservation Act funds were used by St. James Church for the restoration of its belfry. It is simply not logical to demand that because this church (or any entity for that matter) received public funds for part of its property that this should allow the City to make demands on other property owned by the church or which may soon be sold by the church. The belfry was preserved and remains preserved regardless what happens nearby.

Order #1. That the City Manager is requested to direct the Assistant City Manager of Community Development to work with community groups and to conduct a feasibility study of a public market at Lechmere Square.   Councillor Toomey and Councillor Cheung

This idea was floated by the East Cambridge Planning Team last year and deserves a good look even if something very different comes out of the discussion. This is an important parcel which will be vacated when the T station moves across the McGrath Highway which hopefully will one day be restored to something less like a highway and more like an urban boulevard.

Order #3. That the City Manager is requested to confer with the Chief Information Officer of Information Technology to to evaluate available options and report back to the City Council with the results of that evaluation and a timeframe for transitioning to a modern web video platform.   Councillor Cheung

Once again, our new Councillor injects his ever-so-modern perspective into the workings of the City Council and spares no details.

Order #5. That the City Manager is requested to report back on the infrastructure of Central Square, its planned improvements, and whether these improvements are on track to be completed in time for the BIO 2012 conference.   Councillor Reeves

The only point I would make on this one is that any infrastructure and improvements in Central Square should be done first for the betterment of its residents and existing businesses and should not be driven by the needs of a conference, no matter how large, that will last a few days and be gone. A little more detail on exactly what infrastructure is being referenced in this Order would also be appreciated. -- Robert Winters

The Mouse, the Bird, and The Sausage - by Brothers Grimm

Once upon a time, a mouse, a bird, and a sausage, entered into partnership and set up house together. For a long time all went well; they lived in great comfort, and prospered so far as to be able to add considerably to their stores. The bird's duty was to fly daily into the wood and bring in fuel; the mouse fetched the water, and the sausage saw to the cooking.

When people are too well off they always begin to long for something new. And so it came to pass, that the bird, while out one day, met a fellow bird, to whom he boastfully expatiated on the excellence of his household arrangements. But the other bird sneered at him for being a poor simpleton, who did all the hard work, while the other two stayed at home and had a good time of it. For, when the mouse had made the fire and fetched in the water, she could retire into her little room and rest until it was time to set the table. The sausage had only to watch the pot to see that the food was properly cooked, and when it was near dinner-time, he just threw himself into the broth, or rolled in and out among the vegetables three or four times, and there they were, buttered, and salted, and ready to be served. Then, when the bird came home and had laid aside his burden, they sat down to table, and when they had finished their meal, they could sleep their fill till the following morning: and that was really a very delightful life.

Influenced by those remarks, the bird next morning refused to bring in the wood, telling the others that he had been their servant long enough, and had been a fool into the bargain, and that it was now time to make a change, and to try some other way of arranging the work. Beg and pray as the mouse and the sausage might, it was of no use; the bird remained master of the situation, and the venture had to be made. They therefore drew lots, and it fell to the sausage to bring in the wood, to the mouse to cook, and to the bird to fetch the water.

And now what happened? The sausage started in search of wood, the bird made the fire, and the mouse put on the pot, and then these two waited till the sausage returned with the fuel for the following day. But the sausage remained so long away, that they became uneasy, and the bird flew out to meet him. He had not flown far, however, when he came across a dog who, having met the sausage, had regarded him as his legitimate booty, and so seized and swallowed him. The bird complained to the dog of this bare-faced robbery, but nothing he said was of any avail, for the dog answered that he found false credentials on the sausage, and that was the reason his life had been forfeited.

He picked up the wood, and flew sadly home, and told the mouse all he had seen and heard. They were both very unhappy, but agreed to make the best of things and to remain with one another.

So now the bird set the table, and the mouse looked after the food and, wishing to prepare it in the same way as the sausage, by rolling in and out among the vegetables to salt and butter them, she jumped into the pot; but she stopped short long before she reached the bottom, having already parted not only with her skin and hair, but also with life.

Presently the bird came in and wanted to serve up the dinner, but he could nowhere see the cook. In his alarm and flurry, he threw the wood here and there about the floor, called and searched, but no cook was to be found. Then some of the wood that had been carelessly thrown down, caught fire and began to blaze. The bird hastened to fetch some water, but his pail fell into the well, and he after it, and as he was unable to recover himself, he was drowned.

Feb 22, 2010 City Council Agenda Highlights

The City Council returns tonight and perhaps again this Wednesday (and future Mondays and Wednesdays) until they are able to produce five votes to select their Chair, i.e. the mayor. During a time when two city councillors (Decker, Simmons) are vying for the State Senate seat vacated by Anthony Galluccio, there is no way that these candidates will want to give up two nights per week to City Council business even if the sole agenda item is a series of unproductive votes for mayor. The likelihood is that this thing will be resolved tonight, though I'll withhold my bets on this thing being immediately resolved or on who will get to wear the crown and get the fatter paycheck. [Scorecard here on mayoral ballots to date.]

Here are some agenda items that jump out:

City Manager's Agenda #4. Transmitting communication from Robert W. Healy, City Manager, relative to Awaiting Report Item Number 10-10, regarding a report on the status of the Urban Ring Phase 2 project.

The upshot of this is that the Urban Ring project has been shelved for the time being, but efforts will be made to protect the rights-of-way for the day when economic conditions are more favorable to built this new transit route - be it a rail or bus service partially in a dedicated right-of-way.

City Manager's Agenda #8. Transmitting communication from Robert W. Healy, City Manager, relative to the appropriation of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant (EECBG) for $1,139,400 to the Public Investment Fund Public Works Extraordinary Expenditures account ($759,600) and the Public Investment Fund Community Development Extraordinary Expenditures account ($379,800) and will be used as follows: $759,600-Municipal Building Energy Efficiency Program; $250,000-Community Energy Efficiency Campaign; $100,000-Community Energy Efficiency Incentives Program; $29,800-Public Bicycle Parking Program.

This is one of two items involving the use of federal stimulus money. It will be interesting to see how much of this money ultimately flows to Cambridge and if it is used as an advance for projects already planned (as opposed to just wasteful "make work" projects).

City Manager's Agenda #14. Transmitting communication from Robert W. Healy, City Manager, relative to the transfer within the Community Policing Grant of $31,360 from Grant Fund Police Extraordinary Expenditures account to the Grant Fund Police Travel and Training account to cover costs associated with the Cambridge Review Committee.

This is noteworthy primarily because of its roots in the Great Gates Caper of Summer 2009 when a clueless president chose to take sides in a local Cambridge matter and was able to extricate himself politically with some airline tickets and a few beers. Meanwhile, the principals in the initial episode, Professor Gates and Sergeant Crowley, seem to have resolved their altercation without the need of a multi-hundred thousand dollar study committee. Jim Crowley even gave Skip Gates the handcuffs used in his arrest for donation to the Smithsonian. Nonetheless, we see an additional $31,360 allocation for this study committee. Maybe we should just buy them a few beers.

City Manager's Agenda #18. Transmitting communication from Robert W. Healy, City Manager, relative to the transfer of $78,980 from the General Fund Employee Benefits Salary and Wages account (salary adjustment) to the General Fund Election Commission Other Ordinary Maintenance account to support two special elections scheduled for Apr 13, 2010 (primary election) and on May 11, 2010 (general election) for the vacant Senate seat for Middlesex, Suffolk and Essex.

This interim election to fill the Galluccio vacancy should not even be happening. Whoever wins the April primary will face no opposition in the May election and will be seated in time for summer recess and the fall reelection campaign season. This same seat will again be contested in the September primary (most likely featuring many of the same candidates) followed by an uncontested November election. This is a total waste of money with no benefit.

Even more insane is the election method itself. There are 7 Democratic candidates who will be splitting the vote so completely that it will be virtually impossible for any candidate to get anywhere near a majority of the vote in a low-turnout April primary. The election promises to be a textbook example of how elections should not be conducted, but does anyone believe the Massachusetts State Legislature will ever change the method?

Here's the change they should make: Change the law for the filling of vacancies in State Senate and State Representative seats so that the first election is an open (nonpartisan) preliminary election followed by a top-two runoff. No election system is perfect, but this would at the very least produce a majority winner in a meaningful final election. Until Massachusetts seriously addresses the topic of electoral reform, state government has no business referring to itself as "progressive."

City Manager's Agenda #20. Transmitting communication from Robert W. Healy, City Manager, relative to Awaiting Report Item Numbers 09-125 and 10-17, regarding an update on the Blue Ribbon Commission on Middle School Youth.

This item is noted only because the middle school proposal has the potential to be one of the top political hot potatoes this year. Nothing at the City Council has yet emerged as either controversial or especially pivotal, but the year is young. In the meantime, everyone obsesses over the mayoral election which is peripherally related to the middle school proposal.

Order #1. That the City Manager be and hereby is requested to prepare a response to Google's RFI which would nominate the City of Cambridge to be a candidate for Google's plan for the installation of a fiber optic network.   Councillor Cheung and Councillor Toomey

Once again, Councillor Cheung steps forward along with Councillor Toomey with a good initiative. It's hard to say what a Google fiber network in Cambridge could yield, but it does seem like a natural place to do this. Telecommunications, the Internet, and access to television programming is evolving rapidly, and this at least has the potential to change the landscape in which Comcast now operates in a nearly monopolistic manner.

Order #6. That the City Manager is requested to determine whether or not the flights to and from Logan Airport have any zone, time, or other restrictions and if the Cambridge community is notified in the event of changes in flight patterns.   Councillor Decker

File this one under wimpiness and entitlement. Cambridge people want to use cell phones, go grocery shopping, and fly out of Logan to destinations of their choosing, yet they protest loudly when trucks have to drive the local streets to deliver groceries, when cell phone transmitters are affixed to buildings, and when planes fly over someplace other than Winthrop, Chelsea, or East Boston.

Order #7. That the City Manager is requested to direct the Information Technology Department and the Community Development Department to work with interested councillors to explore organizing a competition among local technologists, programmers, and CRLS students to develop an iPhone application for the City of Cambridge.   Councillor Davis and Councillor Cheung

Once again, Councillor Cheung (with Councillor Davis) attempts to drag the City Council kicking and screaming into the 21st Century. Whoever ends up being elected Mayor should appoint Leland to chair the Cable TV, Telecommunications, and Public Utilities Committee (as well as the University Relations Committee and perhaps Co-Chair of the Finance Committee). This fellow could really make things interesting. By the way, the author of the Cambridge Civic Journal, though he maintains quite a few websites and has been known to kick around databases and software and plenty of other technical stuff, drives a 30+ year old vehicle, has neither a cell phone nor an iPhone, and has no intention of upgrading any time soon from his current Luddite existence. -- Robert Winters

Feb 22 update — The Cambridge City Council tonight unanimously elected David Maher as Mayor and Henrietta Davis as Vice-Chair of the City Council.


David Maher taking the oath of office

Councillor Ballot #1
(Jan 4)
Ballot #2
(Jan 11)
Ballot #3
(Jan 25)
Ballot #4
(Feb 1)
Ballot #5
(Feb 1)
Mayor Ballot #6
(Feb 22)
Vice-Mayor Ballot #1
(Feb 22)
Cheung Decker (2) Maher (4) Maher (4) Maher (4) Maher (4) Maher Cheung --> Davis
Davis Davis (1) Davis (2) Davis (2) Davis (3) Davis (3) Davis --> Maher Davis
Decker Decker Reeves (3) Reeves (3) Reeves (2) Reeves (2) Maher Cheung --> Davis
Kelley Reeves (2) Reeves Reeves Davis Davis Davis --> Maher Davis
Maher Maher (3) Maher Maher Maher Maher Maher Cheung --> Davis
Reeves Reeves Reeves Reeves Reeves Reeves Maher Davis
Seidel Maher Maher Maher Maher Maher Maher Davis
Simmons Simmons (1) Davis Davis Davis Davis Davis --> Maher Davis
Toomey Maher Maher Maher Maher Maher Maher Cheung --> Davis

Note: After votes were changed at the request of councillors and prior to the close
of the Feb 22 vote, both Mayor Maher and Vice-Mayor Davis were elected unanimously.

Feb 8, 2010 City Council Agenda Highlights

Cambridge is still without a mayor, i.e. Chair of the City Council, and the consequences are minimal. [Scorecard below or here.] That said, it would be nice if the boys and girls would settle their grudges and pick someone who can appoint members and Chairs of the Council subcommittees and be the 7th voting member of the School Committee. Someone suggested that the councillors should begin getting their salaries only after this matter has been settled. That would bring this impasse to a rapid end. It is unlikely that there will be a mayoral vote tonight since Councillor Toomey is expected to be absent, and next Monday is a holiday, so the next opportunity would be Feb 22 unless a Special Meeting is called for this purpose. There was a Late Order introduced last week by Councillor Cheung calling for such a Special Meeting on Feb 10 (and possibly Feb 17 if necessary), but Councillor Davis exercised her charter right to delay discussion of this proposal until tonight (Charter Right #3).

The Feb 1 meeting also featured another Late Order from Councillor Cheung calling for the members of the City Council to select their Chair using Instant Runoff Voting. Councillor Decker exercised her charter right to end debate on that proposal, though it will come up again tonight (Charter Right #1). Though it's relatively clear that this idea is inconsistent with the Charter and City Council rules, a more significant problem is that in a small election (only 9 people voting), there could be the unintended consequences of strategic voting in this or any similar alternative. For example, it is very possible that voting councillors could "bury" their 2nd choices in order to increase the possibility that their 1st choice would prevail. This might result in the most favored candidates becoming unelectable with 3rd or 4th preference candidates gaining an advantage. Instant Runoff Voting can work well in a large population, but a top-two runoff may be preferred in this kind of election. In any case, it's a moot point.

Councillor Cheung (with the support of Councillor Decker) also introduced a Late Order calling for the Council subcommittees and Chairs from last term to be temporarily reappointed with Councillor Cheung assuming positions then held by former Councillor Ward until a new mayor is chosen. One councillor suggested that this might only further delay the vote (possible), and Mr. Reeves objected on procedural grounds. However, with the current configuration of councillors, this might be a very good idea. Councillor Kelley exercised his charter right to delay the proposal until tonight (Charter Right #2).

I suspect that none of these proposals will go anywhere, but you have to like newly-elected Councillor Cheung's willingness to dive right in with creative proposals for getting things moving. We need more councillors like him.

Other than the mayoral soap opera, there are a few other items of note on this week's agenda:

Councillor Decker introduced 32 identical resolutions for each student graduating from the YouthBuild Just-A-Start Program. This should have been a single resolution - ample evidence for why councillors should never be judged simply by the number of resolutions they (or their political patronage assistants) introduce.

Councillor Maher's Order #1 inquires about the circumstances leading to the recent exit of Pearl Art from Central Square. It's worth noting that there are now many vacant storefronts in Central Square. It would seem that commercial property owners are somewhat unaware of the current economy and are determined to accept high rent or no rent for their properties. Go figure.

Councillor Seidel's Order #7 asks for publication on the City website of funds received by the City of Cambridge from the federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). Far be it from this writer to comment on national politics, but "stimulus" money should only be expended on projects that would soon have been undertaken anyway, i.e. an advance payment rather than just throwing money around on anything in the hope that jobs and economic activity will follow. This should be only about spending sooner and not about spending significantly more.

That's enough for now. It will be interesting to see how Council business proceeds over the next two months with two members (Decker, Simmons) competing along with five others for the State Senate seat vacated by Anthony Galluccio. When City Council "research assistants" were first introduced several years ago, it was in the context of several councillors planning to seek other elected offices and wanting taxpayer-funded stand-ins to handle their business while out on the campaign trail. This looks to be more of the same this year. -- Robert Winters

Feb 1, 2010 City Council Agenda Highlights (updated)

Now that the City Council is entering its second month without choosing its Chair or forming subcommittees, it should surprise no one that the agenda is light. The fact that at least one councillor and possibly as many as three are exploring or actually running for the vacant State Senate seat also means that not a hell of a lot of attention is being paid to City Council matters. For those keeping score, here's the record on the mayoral votes so far:

Councillor Ballot #1 (Jan 4) Ballot #2 (Jan 11) Ballot #3 (Jan 25) Ballot #4 (Feb 1) Ballot #5 (Feb 1)
Cheung Decker (2) Maher (4) Maher (4) Maher (4) Maher (4)
Davis Davis (1) Davis (2) Davis (2) Davis (3) Davis (3)
Decker Decker Reeves (3) Reeves (3) Reeves (2) Reeves (2)
Kelley Reeves (2) Reeves Reeves Davis Davis
Maher Maher (3) Maher Maher Maher Maher
Reeves Reeves Reeves Reeves Reeves Reeves
Seidel Maher Maher Maher Maher Maher
Simmons Simmons (1) Davis Davis Davis Davis
Toomey Maher Maher Maher Maher Maher

As is often the case, those who argue about who should get to wear the golden tiara of Mayor mention the role of Chair and 7th voting member of the Cambridge School Committee. Here's a suggestion that requires no charter change and might just earn the undying respect of the other 6 members of the School Committee: Once elected, the Mayor voluntarily takes a seat as an ordinary member of the School Committee and allows the School Committee through its elected Vice-Chair to lead the School Committee and chair all of the meetings unless unusual circumstances dictate otherwise. This would be a nice tradition that could start now. It would also permit the Mayor to exercise greater leadership in the more appropriate setting of the City Council.

City Manager's Agenda #4. Transmitting communication from Robert W. Healy, City Manager, relative to the appointment of Marlissa Brigget as the Executive Director of the Cambridge Human Rights Commission and Executive Secretary of the Police Review & Advisory Board effective Jan 19, 2010.

It's good to see that this appointment has been made and that there will continue to be a joint responsibility of this person to manage both of these City Boards. A City Council Order encouraging the City Manager to further consolidate City Boards, departments, and divisions with overlapping responsibilities would be welcome, but don't anyone hold your breath waiting for that kind of leadership.

There are a few other minor items on the agenda, but nothing to write home about. -- Robert Winters

Jan 25, 2010 City Council Agenda Highlights

The main item of interest for tonight's meeting is the still-unresolved election of a mayor. Amazingly, the City of Cambridge has been getting along just fine without a mayor for these last three weeks, but it would be nice if the City Council could choose its Chair so that Council committee appointments can be made. Most of the scuttlebutt suggests that David Maher should pick up the necessary 5th vote to get the nod as gavel-bearer, but there are still a few poker moves being played in this relatively inconsequential game. See below for a scorecard.

Mayor or no mayor, there is a bit of an agenda for tonight's meeting. Here are a few notable items:

City Manager's Agenda #5. Transmitting communication from Robert W. Healy, City Manager, relative to a Planning Board recommendation not to adopt the Fanning, et al zoning petition as filed.

The affected area is bounded by Cardinal Medeiros Avenue, Binney Street, the Grand Junction railway, and the edge of the Residence C-1 District. The Planning Board acknowledges some of the residents' concerns that led to this petition, but nonetheless recommends that the petition not be adopted as written. In particular, the Planning Board highlights that the provision to include the floor area of the existing above-ground parking garage in the calculation of the FAR for the One Kendall Square site would result in the disallowance of any additional development and that it would be unreasonable to effect a change of such magnitude on a single site. They also note that the Eastern Cambridge Planning Study (ECPS), which was the basis for zoning in this area, established a goal of encouraging the development of housing on the affected sites and this existing zoning provides incentives to favor the future development of residential uses over commercial or industrial uses. The proposed zoning change would remove such incentives.

Resolution #13. Resolution on the death of Reverend Douglas Whitlow.   Councillor Simmons

I didn't know Doug Whitlow very well, but it's worth noting that he was a City Council candidate in 1997 around the time of the big controversy surrounding the Holmes property in Central Square that pitted the anarchists vs. the capitulators (as some would characterize the conflict). Doug and I were cordial but on opposite sides of the issue. It's interesting how many of the people who were so concerned at the time about "the indigenous population of Central Square" vanished soon afterwards. The whole tempest seems trivial in retrospect.

Order #1. That the City Manager is requested to address the complaints of the abutters of 220 Putnam Avenue regarding the illegal housing and raising of chickens and ducks at that address.   Councillor Simmons

It would seem that a conflict is arising between pro-poultry Councillor Davis and anti-poultry Councillor Simmons. Perhaps their differences can be ironed out over a nice chicken dinner. Goose would be a tasty and controversial alternative. - RW

Mayoral update (Jan 25): The City Council failed to elect a Mayor on January 11. Here's a scorecard of the poker game to date:

Councillor Ballot #1 (Jan 4) Ballot #2 (Jan 11) Ballot #3 (Jan 25?)
Cheung Decker (2) Maher (4)  
Davis Davis (1) Davis (2)  
Decker Decker Reeves (3)  
Kelley Reeves (2) Reeves  
Maher Maher (3) Maher  
Reeves Reeves Reeves  
Seidel Maher Maher  
Simmons Simmons (1) Davis  
Toomey Maher Maher  

For those who have asked, here's a quote from Glenn Koocher's Political History of Cambridge in the 20th Century: "Battles over the mayoralty went back and forth with partisans occasionally changing sides. One race, in 1948, required four months and 1368 ballots to complete. Other mayoralty votes traded back and forth over issues." We've only had two ballots so far, folks, so stop your wailing. If they're still at it a month from now, that's another story. The next opportunity for a vote will be Monday, January 25. There are no big partisan issues at play now, so it really comes down to personalities and, to some degree, payback.

The most ridiculous aspect to the current mayoral impasse is how some councillors are claiming how much consideration they are giving to the School Committee's preferences in their decision, yet what I hear from the School Committee members contradicts much of this claim. - RW

Jan 11, 2010 City Council Agenda Highlights

This is the first regular meeting of the 2010-11 City Council term, and the new Council begins with a relatively clean slate as the much of the detritus of Councils past has been allowed to expire. The first order of (unfinished) business is the election of a mayor. The first attempt on January 4 resulted in a highly fractured vote, but it is expected that votes will shift on the second ballot and any subsequent ballots. Multiple factors are at play including (a) the news from the grapevine that Marjorie Decker will be having a State Senate campaign event in Saugus on January 31 - an apparent sign that she intends to pursue the Galluccio seat; (b) the commitments for the first mayoral ballot have now been expended; (c) feedback from political supporters in the wake of the January 4 ballot may cause a councillor or two to think twice about the political fallout; and (d) nobody really wants this to go on very long with the resultant delay in Council business caused by the lack of any appointments to City Council subcommittees by the new mayor. Most of the speculation centers on either Henrietta Davis or David Maher being best positioned to pick up the necessary 5th vote, but the continued meetings and wheeling and dealing and political hardball yields no certainty in the outcome.

As far as the rest of the meeting agenda goes, here are a few items of interest:

RECONSIDERATION. Councillor Kelley filed Reconsideration on the vote taken on Dec 21, 2009 confirming the appointments transmitted on a communication from Robert W. Healy, City Manager, relative to the appointment of the following persons as Commissioners of the Cambridge Housing Authority: Anthony Pini (term expires 4/1/2014) and Gerald Clark (term expires 1/11/2015) [Dec 21, 2009 motion of Councillor Kelley to Table failed 4-5-0. Appointments confirmed 8-1-0. Councillor Kelley filed Reconsideration.]

Though I don't pretend to understand all the intense passion expressed about these appointments and the behind-the-scenes push to change the vote late in the December 21 meeting to approve these appointments, it is worth noting that this is precisely the reason why state law and Robert's Rules of Order allow for reconsideration of votes. Many outspoken public housing advocates had gone home on December 21 after this matter had been tabled and were shocked to learn that this changed late in the meeting. Expect some spirited public comment on this matter regardless how the final vote goes.

Order # 1. That the City Manager is requested to confer with the appropriate City department heads and personnel in order to determine alternatives to laying off the five employees from the Lead Safe Cambridge program.   Councillor Simmons

This Order is noteworthy primarily in that it seems to direct the City Manager what to do in a personnel matter. It would be one thing if the Order focused on the importance of preserving the Lead-Safe program, but this Order instead is all about retaining five employees. Presumably, all of these employees have the opportunity to respond to any internal or public postings for City jobs. The City Council Order seems to say that the Manager should retain these employees in their current jobs regardless of need or budgetary concerns. Does this not seem like micromanagement from a city councillor?

Order #4. City Council concerns regarding House Bill 4410 which would give new powers to state and local school officials to turn around under-performing schools and increase the number of charter schools.   Councillor Davis and Councillor Maher

The sponsors of the Order seem to agree with the Legislature on (1) reducing the financial impact of charter schools on regular public schools; (2) better processes for evaluating and approving charter schools; and (3) amendments that would help turn around underperforming schools. However, the sponsors express opposition to amendments that would (1) weaken proposed management powers or enhance the ability of unions to block action by school districts; (b) require municipalities and school districts to sell or lease surplus school facilities to charter schools; (3) new spending mandates on cities, towns and school districts; and (4) lifting the cap on charter schools. Councillor and State Representative Toomey may have something to say in response to this Order. H4410 passed by a 119-35 vote. The Senate approved a different version and a 6-member House-Senate conference committee is now working on a compromise of the two versions.

According to my reading of the City Council materials, the only holdover items from the previous Council are these:

(1) Council Kelley's Reconsideration of the Cambridge Housing Authority appointments.

(2) The Fanning Petition to rezone an area in East Cambridge.

(3) A December Order regarding increasing the amount of public information about elections while the municipal election is in progress.

(4) A December Order and a committee report regarding the City Council's policy on naming street corners.

(5) A request to the City Manager for information regarding what barriers would prevent residents from raising chickens and what could be done to remove these barriers.

Also in the pipeline - a scattered set of recommendations from December's "Climate Congress" which will have a follow-up City Hall meeting on January 23. Unlike an actual legislative process where most proposals require majority support, the current draft of these citizen recommendations reads like a laundry list of every imaginable idea in environmental regulation and social engineering. Many of the ideas presented will be dead on arrival such as the proposal to increase the cost of a residential parking sticker every year for the next 20 years - even though most participants seemed to agree that the local impact of automobiles on climate was far less than things like poorly insulated and inefficient commercial, residential, and institutional buildings. A strong theme at this gathering was the need to better quantify the primary contributors to climate change before setting priorities or determining policies and initiatives. Nonetheless, the draft recommendations are dominated by proposals made without any such prioritization. It's worth looking at for a few good ideas, but this document leaves a lot to be desired as either a legislative agenda or a blueprint for change. - Robert Winters