The Kind of City Manager Which is Desirable And Attainable

Map of a street network of Cambridge, largely covered in red and orange dots, with a small area of green and yellow outside.

Like many Cambridge residents, I have long found Cambridge’s model of city government confusing. While growing up, I always expected that the power to enact change where I lived would be in the hands of elected individuals. In Cambridge, much of our government is instead run by an unelected official in the form of the City Manager. Given his position as an appointee who represents much of the day to day operations of the government, I would hope that the City Manager would take that role as one where he balances his responsibilities to the priorities of the Council, and the feedback of residents in the city, and the good management of the City,. Sadly, what I’ve observed in practice over the past several years is that the City Manager has not done well in any of these areas.

The City Council routinely requests information from the City Manager, primarily in the form of policy orders requesting information, responses from city departments, or other elements within the City Manager’s power. Unfortunately, these policy orders often produce results that are insufficient, long-delayed, or in some cases, simply never generate answers at all. At the end of the 2017 Council session, more than 35 items awaiting report from the City Manager — some dating back more than 18 months — were simply “placed on file” after a lack of response from the Manager, and this is by no means atypical. These reports concern a broad range of topics, including high priorities from the Council and residents of the city: one report requested that the manager’s office “update the City Council on what progress has been made on the goal … of creating 1,000 new units of affordable housing”; while another awaiting report dating back to 2014 requests information on “potential of building below market rental housing on City-owned parking lots”.

On specific issues, the Manager has proven even more reticent to respond: throughout 2017, 7 different policy orders were filed seeking information on the current status of the City on moving forward on the recommendations of the Municipal Broadband Task Force — none received a response. That lack of response is something that low-income communities are strongly affected by today: as the Coronavirus pandemic has locked down libraries, schools, and other places where students accessed public internet, students in low-income families have suffered the most under our digital divide: costs that might have been avoided with a timely response to the Municipal Broadband Task Force recommendations.

Of course, the City Manager has to balance the demands of more than just the council. With a city of more than 100,000 residents, it is important that departments can be responsive to the needs of the people as well: That we can ensure that we’re matching the needs of the people, even on items the Council may not be in a position to take as a priority. Unfortunately, the City has not seemed to deliver on this expectation either.

Cambridge Bike Safety has been pushing for increased protected bike lanes throughout the city for years, with petitions signed by more than 1000 Cambridge residents. Sadly, this level of community interest was not sufficient to motivate the city to move more quickly on implementing bike lanes, instead continuing with a slowly rolled out, longer term plan to create safe bike infrastructure. The lack of such infrastructure came to a head in Harvard Square last month, when another cyclist fatality occurred in an area that had been raised by bike safety advocates for years. In response, the City is implementing “quick-build” infrastructure designed to increase safety in the area — infrastructure that sadly was not forthcoming despite resident demands in the wake of a pedestrian death in the same area just under a year before.

Speaking personally, I have found no way to engage with the City Manager: While emails to City Council members routinely lead to meetings, phone calls, and engagement to learn more about my positions. Meanwhile, the City Manager has been completely non-responsive to any attempts to communicate. Through my advocacy with Upgrade Cambridge, we have attempted to reach out to schedule meetings as we have tried to engage on the next steps for municipal broadband — and found the City Manager completely unengaged. A committee meeting dedicated to the topic where the City Manager was invited did not result in him attending the meeting. During budget discussions earlier this year, the City Manager then made extremely misleading claims on the potential cost of municipal broadband to the Council, misrepresenting the cost for such a system by a factor of 5 or more, seemingly with no data to back him up. This lack of engagement is not unique to broadband, but is just one example where I have felt like it is not possible to engage with the City Manager as a resident interested in advocacy.

Of course, responsiveness to Council or public pressure is not the only role the City Manager has to play. As a day to day matter, his responsibility is to ensure the smooth operation of the City. Sadly, in many ways this responsibility seems to have fallen by the wayside as well.

In recent years, the actions of the license commission have come under increasing scrutiny, as “its lack of transparency and the inconsistency of their decisions” became more apparent with their treatment of UpperWest. This particular type of mismanagement is not limited to the License Commission, with the Fire Department also facing criticisms of attempting to enact enforcement of non-existent laws.

Claims of sub-par City performance extend beyond licenses and commissions: infrastructure efforts routinely face problems as well. An MIT study on road surfaces released earlier this year found that “The surface streets in Cambridge have the roughness index of a well-maintained dirt road”. While Cambridge certainly has significant infrastructure demands that might explain some of the reason for rough roads, few efforts have been made to minimize or consolidate roadwork: a “dig-once” policy designed to require road work to create expansion space by laying reusable conduit along with other road work turns out to have never been implemented by the city, and requests for access to any comprehensive mapping of under-road utilities have proven fruitless.

There seems to be substantial evidence that the City Manager could benefit from a more close relationship with the goals of the Council, with the goals of residents, and with work on achieving outcomes that match the notion of a well-run City. On September 14th, the Council will be reviewing the City Manager’s request for a contract extension. I would encourage the Council to consider these factors, and opt for a 1 year renewal with a possibility of an additional 1-year extension, rather than opting for a longer term. I believe the City Manager owes the Council, residents of the City, and the City administration a more effective performance before a longer renewal is contemplated.

To give public comment on the City Manager’s performance, you can give public comment on September 14th by signing up online, or emailing your comments to council@cambridgema.gov (and CC clerk@cambridgema.gov).

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