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‘A Real Power Imbalance’: Conflict Within Cambridge City Government

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On May 11, during an otherwise ordinary meeting of the Finance Committee to discuss the 2022 Cambridge budget, a dispute erupted between City Manager Louis A. DePasquale and Councilor Jivan G. Sobrinho-Wheeler, highlighting a common fault of conflict in Cambridge government.

Sobrinho-Wheeler suggested that, for the 2023 budget, the city conduct “transparent” and “more engaging” hearings with a longer timeline. He cited Boston’s public working sessions, which allow the budget to change “according to the wills of the elected body.”

“I have to respond to that,” DePasquale interjected.

“This is a city manager form of government, and as much as the council sometimes feels it isn’t, it is,” DePasquale said. “You either work with the city manager’s position, or you remove it and go to a different function, but you can’t change the government that you have.”

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“This is the government of Cambridge, this is the process that we have. It is something I am proud of,” DePasquale continued, pounding his desk. “[Residents are] proud of it and I think the councilor should be proud of it.”

The City of Cambridge operates on a “council-manager” form of municipal government, also known as Plan E — as DePasquale alluded to — in which executive power is invested in a city manager appointed by a city council which performs legislative and oversight functions.

“I do appreciate the city manager’s comments — I’ve gotta say, I don’t appreciate the tone as much,” Sobrinho-Wheeler said. “The city council, the charter is very clear, has to approve the budget.”

Ultimately, Sobrinho-Wheeler voted present on the budget overview alongside Councilor Quinton Y. Zondervan, while the other seven councilors all voted in favor.

Disputes like this are common between the city manager and the city council, as the balance of power has shifted toward the former in recent decades.

‘Stalled For Years’

In the past few years, city councilors and DePasquale have sparred over everything from police oversight to budgets to the Covid-19 reopening.

Itamar Turner-Trauring, a Cambridge resident and bicycle safety reform advocate, cited a current dispute over municipal broadband as a clear example where the public does not have sufficient influence.

“Every single city council member, the public as a whole either supports it or they’re neutral,” Turner-Trauring said. “Getting an actual expert estimate of how much it costs should not be a big ask given that, and other cities have done it, but because this one person says no, it has stalled for years.”

Municipal broadband has been a long-simmering issue in Cambridge, with the original “Broadband Task Force” appointed by the previous city manager, Richard C. Rossi, in 2014. Recently, city councilors have threatened to vote down the city’s budget over repeated delays on a municipal broadband study.

“I just want the council to understand that if I can’t work this out, that they will be telling city employees that because of the broadband not being able to work out, they will be losing their jobs,” DePasquale said during the same May 11 meeting.

DePasquale went on to describe the council’s actions as “holding the budget hostage.”

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According to Zondervan, the dispute over municipal broadband has taken six years to play out. He added, however, that aside from municipal broadband, most members of the council have not been “actively disagreeing” with the city manager.

One of the highest-profile disputes between the council and DePasquale has been regarding his September 2020 contract extension.

“The process itself was a sham,” Zondervan said.

“They had lined up all these people in public comment to say nice things about [DePasquale],” he added. “I totally agree — but this has nothing to do with whether or not he should be our city manager.”

By the time the council reached the September deadline, Zondervan said it “had yet to see an actual contract.”

“We’re told that we have to vote on this tonight, because that’s the deadline,” Zondervan said. “So if we don’t vote on a contract, [DePasquale] might walk.”

The council ultimately decided to approve a year-and-a-half long contract expiring in July 2022 — eight months after the new city council is elected.

“The problem with that is, and why a year-and-a-half extension didn’t make any sense to me, is that we’re now in an election year,” Zondervan said. “Even if this council somehow magically agreed on what we want the next city manager to do, we could have a very different council elected in November.”

DePasquale’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

‘A City Manager Form of Government’

DePasquale’s remarks at the May 11 meeting reflects the power dynamic in Cambridge’s system of government. Namely, that the city manager holds most of it.

Zondervan, who previously sparred with DePasquale over Covid-19 reopening and the budget, said the council has “almost none of the power.”

“Our form of government, which is called Plan E for the City of Cambridge, delineates the power so that the council hires the city manager, but then the city manager has full autonomy to run the city,” Zondervan said.

“We can say, ‘Dear City Manager, will you please fix the pothole over there?’ but we can’t require the city manager to do anything,” he added.

The current situation sits in stark contrast to the spirit of the charter, according to David E. Sullivan, a former city councilor.

“The theory of the charter is the city council is supreme. The city manager works for the city council, gets hired and fired by the city council at its discretion, and the city council is supposed to set policy,” Sullivan said. “His only job is to carry out the policies of the city council.”

“In practice, what has happened is the city manager has a lot of the same powers that a strong mayor would have, but none of the accountability of a strong mayor who has to run for reelection,” Sullivan added.

The Plan E form of government, established by the state of Massachusetts in 1938, provides for the proportional election of seven to nine councilors, who then elect a ceremonial mayor from among themselves. The council then appoints the city manager, who controls the city’s executive functions, while the council carries out legislative functions.

This is in contrast to the “strong mayor” system referenced by Sullivan, in which the mayor is directly elected by the people rather than the council. In this form of governance, used by cities such as Somerville, Mass., the mayor has control over the city’s executive functions, rather than a city manager.

According to the book “Building Old Cambridge: Architecture and Development” by Susan E. Maycock and Charles M. Sullivan, Plan E was adopted in Cambridge in response to the “ostentatiously inefficient and corrupt” government of Mayor John W. Lyons, culminating in a 17 percent tax increase in 1940 and the subsequent majority vote in favor of Plan E. Following the first Council election in 1941, Lyons was indicted on charges of soliciting bribes.

“People were using political positions to benefit themselves, so they adopted this Plan E form of government to separate them,” Zondervan said. “The city manager was frequently fired — it was not uncommon for a new council to be elected, and then to immediately fire this new manager.”

“That limits the level of entrenched power that the city manager can accumulate because they’re just not around long enough,” Zondervan added.

According to Zondervan, this changed with City Manager Robert W. Healy. Appointed in 1981, Healy served for more than thirty years before retiring in 2013, making him the longest-tenured city manager in city history.

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“He became king,” Councilor Dennis J. Carlone said. “I was a consultant watching this: half the council disliked him, thought he was imperious, acted like a king, but they never fired him because he did a good job.”

“The charter says the council decides all policy,” Carlone added. “He just did what he wanted, and most of the council agreed.”

Even after Healy’s departure, his influence on city governance continued. His successor, Rossi, also served as Healy’s deputy city manager for 32 years. DePasquale was also a long-term member of the Healy administration, serving as the city’s budget director for 20 years.

“I think that all of that history creates a real power imbalance,” Zondervan said. “In theory, we could fire the city manager, but we haven’t done that in 40 years.”

Sullivan said that one disincentive to firing the city manager is the buyout clause that exists on their contract. This buyout clause necessitates that the city pay the city manager his or her entire salary and benefits for the duration of the contract when fired, which according to Sullivan, creates a “strong anti-accountability provision.”

He added that another prevalent problem with the council-manager form of government is that the city council’s reliance on the city manager to enforce policy creates a “dynamic in which the council doesn’t dare cross the city manager.”

“If a member of the city council crosses the city manager, meaning does something he doesn’t like, the business that they want him to take care of for them isn’t going to get done,” Sullivan said.

Carlone spoke to the same problem, comparing the situation to a teacher-student relationship.

“If you bad-mouth the teacher, even if you’re an A-quality student, somehow it comes back at you,” Carlone said. “That’s what’s happening to some degree, and it’s a shame.”

Sullivan noted, however, a benefit of having a hired city manager is that, in theory, they are a “professional” rather than a “politician.”

“The goal is to have somebody whose sole focus is on making the city run right, and not be worried about the politics,” Sullivan said.

Carlone added he would rather have a chief executive who has the suitable qualifications and expertise and be able to “pick the right person” instead of “getting the wrong mayor for two years.” He also said that he fears a strong mayor system because of the limited role that the council would have under that form of government.

“I fear it because it actually reduces what the council does,” Carlone said.

Changing the Charter

Cambridge is one of only two cities in the Commonwealth that has a Plan E form of government. In fact, the state legislature has since made it illegal for any other city to adopt the Plan E form of government, per Zondervan. He said the “outdated” nature of the city charter has prompted a formal review of it that may eventually turn into charter reform.

“It’s literally been 80 years, and nobody’s ever even reviewed it, let alone reformed it,” Zondervan said. “We haven’t even asked the question, ‘Is this really how we want to be governed?’”

According to Zondervan, Councilor Patricia M. “Patty” Nolan ’80 initiated a charter review process which is currently ongoing.

Zondervan also said the city has come to the point where voters are “fed up with it” and want to “move in a different direction.” In particular, he believes they want to have the ability to directly elect the mayor, rather than have the mayor be elected by the council.

A charter project team from the Collins Center for Public Management was hired to examine Cambridge’s current charter and its options for potential change. They found that there is a “wide variety of opinions” among council members on the question of whether to replace the city manager as chief executive with a directly elected mayor, according to a memorandum sent to the council dated April 28.

“On balance, it does not appear that there is a majority on the council to consider a wholesale change in form of government to a mayor at this point in time, let alone the kind of super-majority that would make a change more likely to succeed,” the memorandum reads.

“Put simply, it does not seem like a full debate on converting to a strong mayor form of government is something the council may want to undertake at this time,” the memorandum adds.

The memorandum notes that many councilors are concerned about the “potential damage” that a “simultaneous discussion” about eliminating the city manager position might have on the recruitment of the new city manager, which will culminate in the replacement of DePasquale once his most recent contract expires in July 2022.

Carlone said whomever the city manager is the council still has the responsibility to work together with them to govern.

“I’ll say one thing about all three of the last [city managers], including [DePasquale]: very dedicated, they love Cambridge, they all grew up here. They love Cambridge, to their credit, but it’s a changing world,” Carlone said. “I feel we were elected to work together, and if we don’t, then we’re not living up to what our responsibilities are.”

—Staff writer Brandon L. Kingdollar can be reached at brandon.kingdollar@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter at @newskingdollar.

—Staff writer Justin Lee can be reached at justin.lee@thecrimson.com.

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