Voices of MainStreet: Marc Levy

3 Changes for the Next City Council to Consider

Oct. 31, 2011

BOSTON (MainStreet) — With local elections Nov. 8, everything could change and probably very little will. Cambridge could see three new faces out of nine on the City Council and still find a majority keeping things much as they are, while even the brightest eager-beaver faces on the board will likely soon adapt to a glacial pace of minute changes, all filtered appropriately through the thick bureaucratic ooze of Robert’s Rules of Order.

I’m going to propose some changes for the next council anyway. In no particular order:

 

Create a committee to address national and world issues.
There are already 17 council committees, ranging from the crucial Ordinance Committee to the somewhat under-the-radar Veterans Committee, so the idea of creating an 18th certainly raises logistical questions. And since issues dealt with by committees start and end with the full council anyway, this may not be the ideal way to address the problem: policy orders and resolutions that address national and world issues over which Cambridge has little or no control.

The introduction of such orders — 128 this term, according to the invaluable Cambridge Civic Journal — makes the city vulnerable to ridicule and accusations that it wastes time and energy on issues best dealt with at the national level. One from 2009 opposing nuclear weapons is a good example of that, while others, such as this summer’s Wal-Mart order at least had a Cambridge-specific connection in a resident serving on the corporation’s board of directors.

But as a recent speaker pointed out during public comment, there is value in cities and towns expressing opinions on matters that can be cited in national debate, such as on issues of immigration or the Patriot Act. A resolution against buying World Bank bonds focused on investments made by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and one from 2007 asked the state not to give taxpayer money to an anti-democratic regime in Burma.

The latest of these issues arrives tonight, when councillors will discuss joining an amicus brief for the Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders in lawsuits against the the federal Defense of Marriage Act. It would make sense for Cambridge, one of the most gay-friendly communities in the world and a leader in gay rights, to make a statement against the act, which “defends marriage” by stopping gays and lesbians from marrying — sort of like “defending skiing” by eradicating snowboards or any number of other silly analogies.

There’s appeal in the idea of creating a separate body that could express the will of a local majority in a way that keeps the main council focused on city issues in which they can play a major role. Those who care about specific national and world issues and Cambridge’s role in addressing them can direct their energy (and comment) to a venue other than council meetings, and those who don’t care would be less affected. The ideal leader for a national and world affairs committee, if she remains on the council, would be Marjorie Decker, whom the Civic Journal identifies as promoting 113 of these orders and resolutions so far this year, or 88 percent of them.

Again, a committee isn’t the ideal solution, in that the process still involves the full council, but it would be good to find a way to keep the full council’s debate and public comment focused on local issues — without losing the power to make a statement on cultural issues.

 

Have councillors vote at the same time.
For roll call votes, the city clerk calls each councillor’s name in order. I would prefer to see a system in which each councillor votes at the same time, ignorant of which way others are going, and the results are secret until revealed as a final tally.

I know this sounds like a solution in search of a problem. Are councillors swayed by hearing the votes that precede them? I have no idea. If so, wouldn’t this lead to collusion or at least more caucusing and politicking before a vote takes place? Yeah, maybe. Can’t councillors just change their votes after the fact anyway? Yes, they can, although too much of that would make a councillor look a little silly, eventually. Technically, moving to this system would even require a rewriting of the rules of the council (as I read them), making it seem like a lot of work for negligible results.

And no doubt councillors would dislike having to be at their desks for votes, since they can now rove the area and call out their votes from wherever they happen to be. But if there are councillors who vote based on how they hear others vote, this would be the fairer system for constituents — who vote this way themselves every Election Day and deserve councillors who think independently and pay enough attention to the issues to make up their own minds on them.

 

Stop making deals with developers on affordable housing.
Developers game the system on the rules for affordable housing, and our government officials let them. In Cambridge, 15 percent of a development for apartments or condominiums is supposed to be affordable, but it’s all too common to see numbers slip below (and then to see affordable units go bafflingly empty anyway, as though there’s a shortage of people looking for places to live below the city’s astronomical market rate).

Why screw around? Decide how much affordable housing is wanted and make it mandatory — eliminate the power of the parties to go lower. Tell developers: These are the rules for building in Cambridge. If you don’t want to follow these rules, don’t build here.

Many will be familiar with this approach from a little company called Apple, which charges users a premium and then, far from allowing them to do whatever they want with the product that just cost a mint, actually restricts them from doing much at all. Use an Apple product and you get your media through iTunes, your software through the App store and your phone service through authorized carriers. Apple gets sued over this, too, from private citizens and other companies that want in on the action. The lawsuits go nowhere.

I can already hear the wails of Community Development staff and property owners and developers claiming they need flexibility to ensure the best projects and to simply break even on a property. But industry whines constantly about the hobbling of their profits by regulation — on everything from protections for coal miners to seat belts, auto emissions, the Americans with Disabilities Act and elimination of certain food additives — and are just as constantly proven wrong. Developers being able to charge slightly less could mean a proportionate hit on land values, but Cambridge could use some of its $100.2 million in free cash to satisfy property owners taking a hit on a revised-value sale, which is kinder than what some might suffer when a local currency is revalued after hyperinflation.

When this was pitched to Brian Murphy, assistant city manager for community development, he worried about court challenges from owners and developers who saw this as a land taking. “From a quick review, everything I saw suggested that there needed to be some compensation to a developer for a mandatory inclusionary program to pass muster,” he said.

True. But the resource he suggested might provide some answers fell resoundingly on the side of backing mandatory percentages. Court cases in California have backed a range of so-called inclusionary zoning laws to an astonishing degree, according to the National Housing Conference’s Affordable Housing Policy Review.

“Even local regulations that have diminished property values by as much as 87.5% have been upheld by the courts,” the review said in a piece about Avoiding Constitutional Challenges to Inclusionary Zoning.

— Marc Levy has been working as a journalist in New England for 15 years, and as a Cambridge journalist whenever possible – he even returned to Cambridge on weekends during editing stints in Connecticut. His writing on Cambridge, a 105,162-population city that hosts a thriving cultural scene and three major universities, can be found at cambridgeday.com.