John Pitkin

John Pitkin
2003 Candidate for Cambridge City Council

Home address:
18 Fayette Street
Cambridge MA 02139

Contact information:
Tel: 617-864-3030
website: www.johnpitkin.org 
e-mail: john@johnpitkin.org 

Send contributions to:
John Pitkin Committee
18 Fayette Street
Cambridge, MA 02139

Background:
By profession I am a demographer and do research on population change and immigration in the U.S. I work with research groups, mostly at universities, as a consultant based in Harvard Square. My wife Helina and I have lived near Inman Square for 33 years, where we have raised our daughters Mirja and Kaari, who both graduated from Cambridge public schools. I hold a U.S. patent for a method of extracting information from Census databases. I have a bachelor's from Columbia University and also studied economics at Oxford University.

Housing:
Cambridge is not doing enough to make it possible for middle- and moderate-income families to live in the city. We need to respond to the good efforts of the people who have put rent control on the ballot in November and develop a more progressive and effective policy to meet the needs for housing.

I doubt that the current rent control proposal itself provides the answer. Instead, I want to see the next City Council address the current crisis by appointing a Housing Policy Advisory Committee comprised of nine members, with each city councilor nominating one representative. Tenants, landlords and homeowners could all participate.

This committee would be charged with recommending more progressive and effective housing policies for both immediate and long-term implementation. It should help the City Council to ensure that scarce resources of land and affordable-housing funds are being as effectively as possible. It should put forth creative planning and zoning measures to encourage new middle-income housing that will be accepted in all neighborhoods.

We must also greatly increase incentives and subsidies for qualified homebuyers and renters above existing levels.

Quality of Life:
Improving the quality of human life in the broadest sense ought to be the goal of all public policy. That is why city government should take care to promote both the arts and human rights as well as necessary amenities ranging from beautiful parks to decent public toilets.

City government also has the responsibility to control nuisances. In particular, it should limit loud street noise - from amplifiers and construction equipment -, noise in residential areas - from fixed mechanical equipment -, and air-borne particulates and dust - from diesel engines and leaf blowers. Because many of the worst problems are sporadic and occur on the street, clear regulations, enforcement standards, and vigilant police are all needed.

The City also needs to clean itself up. Diesel school buses are some of the worst offenders and threaten the health of the children who ride them.

Municipal Finance & Government:
Thanks to years of conservative fiscal management and a large commercial tax base, Cambridge has reserves of "free cash," the ability to raise more through property taxes under the cap of Proposition 2, and a AAA bond rating.

In view of the critical problems in our public schools and the great, unmet need for affordable housing, it is not clear that the City is using its wealth wisely to solve today's problems. If the City employs its money carefully, avoids extravagances, and reduces administrative costs, it can free up more resources for the classrooms, to help families stay in Cambridge, to maintain public facilities, and to protect the environment.

The City Council has ceded too much influence over policy-making to the City Manager. As the top democratically elected officials in the City, the Council should begin immediately to reclaim this authority by appointing all future advisory and study committees itself, rather than delegating this task to the City Manager. As a next step, the Council should review alternatives to appointment of regulatory boards, such as the Planning Board and Board of Zoning Appeals, by the City Manager.

It is not right that many members of these boards, who donate their time, serve at the pleasure of the City Manager because their terms have expired, yet the highly paid City Manager has a three-year contract approved by the City Council. No volunteer board members should have a term shorter than the City Manager's contract.

Environment and Public Health:
We have a moral responsibility to protect the environment on which the quality and ultimately the possibility of life depend, for ourselves, for our children, and for generations to come. With population growth and development, the pressures on the environment are increasing. All of our city's policies and actions need to be environmentally sound.

If I am elected to the City Council, my environmental priorities will be to ensure that the city efficiently and promptly meets
    1) its legal obligations to improve air and water quality (CSOs), and
    2) its voluntary goals of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Appropriate control and regulation and development is essential to meeting these goals.

I am a regular pedestrian, frequent rider on public transportation, and a fair-weather bicyclist. I am therefore acutely aware of the need to reverse our population's increasing dependence on the private automobile for transportation within Cambridge.

More parks, less pollution of all kinds -- air, river, noise, and light -- and protection of natural areas are essential to the quality of life in our city.

My most recent environmental efforts have been as first signer and advocate for the so-called Pitkin petition, in 1997, to rezone much of the city, which let to greater protection for existing public and private open space and a successful campaign (2000-2001) to save a specimen tulip tree near Inman Square.

I am pleased to have been endorsed by the Sierra Club, the nation's oldest and largest grassroots environmental organization.

A strong public health system and provision of health care to underserved populations are both important to the city. The Cambridge Health Alliance has become a national model for providing care to underserved populations and deserves the support of all residents.

Land Use, Planning, Development, and Transportation:
Because Cambridge is fully developed and land-poor, good urban planning and policies are essential but not easy to devise. Many of our needs, such as housing, open space, neighborhood protection, transportation, and environmental protection, are in seemingly in conflict. With good, proactive planning, we can find creative solutions to resolve many of these conflicts and, where they cannot, we can strike the right balance between competing ends.

I was the first signer of a citizen-initiated petition to comprehensively reform out-dated zoning regulations in 1997 (the Pitkin Petition). The City Council subsequently studied and implemented many of these proposed reforms. Much further effort by the Council as well as citizens and the city administration will be required to keep our zoning and other regulations in line with current conditions and needs.

University Relations:
The city's current relationships with local universities are badly strained because they are neither equitable nor sustainable.

City services that benefit Harvard and M.I.T. cost many millions to provide, yet the universities' voluntary payments to the city in lieu of taxes cover only pennies of each dollar of costs to taxpayers. This fiscal relationship between the city and the universities was forged more than a century ago. It is obsolete and needs to be restructured, and the City Council is the only body that can provide sustained public leadership to bring this about.

Zoning and planning to regulate university expansion need to be addressed proactively and fairly by the City Council.

Civic participation:
Citizens do not have enough of a voice in Cambridge government. Citizens now participate in Cambridge government mainly when appointed to boards by the City Manager and when they speak during limited public comment period at the City Council or School Committee. These are inadequate substitutes for meaningful participation, and a new paradigm for citizen involvement is needed.

The single most effective thing I can do if I am elected City Councilor will be to help make residents more effective as citizens. We face serious and growing challenges and we need to tap the knowledge, energy, and abilities of residents to devise and implement new solutions. That's how democracy works best!

If I am elected to the City Council, my goal will be to involve a new generation of Cambridge citizens in finding solutions to today's problems.

Cambridge Public Schools:
It is not acceptable for Cambridge, of all cities, to have a public high school threatened with the loss of accreditation and elementary schools that suffer from forced consolidations, uneven quality, and plummeting enrollment.

Parents' confidence in the public school system has been shaken to the point where many are taking their children out of the schools. This is a crisis for the entire city, because continued declines in enrollment will only make it more difficult to solve the current problems. Although the School Committee sets policy for the public schools, there is much the City Council can do.

Because the Mayor serves as chair of the School Committee, and the City Council elects the Mayor from among its members, the vote for Mayor may well be the most important one that the next City Council takes. Usually the choice of Mayor is based on whose "turn" it is or political considerations. Next time, ability to lead the School Committee must instead be the main criterion.

Also, the next City Council should ask the new Mayor for a formal report on the School Committee's activities at regular Council meetings. This simple step would keep the public school system at the top of the public agenda, where it needs to be.

Our goal should be steady improvement in the entire school system until it becomes a national model for urban schools, just as the Cambridge Health Alliance has become for public hospitals. We should not settle for anything less.

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