During a four year period between 1937 and 1941 the tax rate in Cambridge rose steadily (17 percent) and the caliber of public administration appeared to be static.
This made local citizenry unhappy and in November 1940 they voted in a new form of government, Plan E with proportional representation. Under this system a non-partisan City Manager assumes the duties of mayor. The revised pattern of city administration went into use in 1941 and at the end of the fiscal year the tax rate tumbled $2.40 in the face of a rising cost of living. Cambridge taxpayers beamed.
Tax rates in Cambridge have continued to slide, though more slowly, so that the tax rate for 1949 will be $39.80 as against the 1941 high of $46.30. Meanwhile the quality of public administration has improved.
On this set of figures rests the issue of the current political campaign for nine places on the Cambridge City Council and six seats on the School Committee.
At the municipal election, November 8, for which there has been an unprecedentedly large registration of 57,017, the Cambridge Civic Association which originally pushed through the city manager type of city administration hopes to turn what remains from the old machine out and get a working majority on the nine-man Council. The CCA equates for igger and better reforms.
Evils May Return
If it doesn't get a majority, the CCA claims, the prophets of waste, patronage, and graft will move into City Hall and government in Cambridge will return to the seedy shape it was in eight years ago.
Opposition against the CCA is not crystallized. It is composed of "independents" running for Council or School Committee on their own records without other endorsement. The independents have held a five to four majority on the council during the period of reform in Cambridge.
Hence, they maintain that they've had as much to do as anyone in the politics cleanup. The CCA, they complain, is trying to claim all credit for the recent improvements and they hint that the CCA is nothing more than an embryo city political machine hiding behind a shield of good deeds. Many independents also want to scrap proportional representation.
Both sides admit, however, that Cambridge has come a long way under Plan E and the City Manager, John B. Atkinson.
Prior to Plan E, Cambridge voted for its Councilmen through 11 wards. Each Councilman looked after the interests of his own district at City Hall and saw to it that the school janitor who had been so helpful in getting out the vote got a promotion and perhaps a bonus at Christmas.
Reaching into the public till and job making came to a head in 1941 when the then District Attorney, Richard F. Bradford, charged the incumbent mayor of Cambridge, John W. Lyons, with accepting a one-third rebate on architect's fees for a city building project.
It was revealed during the trial that Lyons had done nothing inconsistent with the mores of Massachusetts politicians. The defense maintained that the architects gift to Lyons cost the taxpayers nothing since the contract on which Lyons and taken a kickback had gone to the lowest bidder as it should, and the building project was not frivolous.
Public opinion and the jury didn't see it that way. The Boston press began to clamour about money changing in high places. Lyons was convicted and sentenced to jail. The "Boston Post" commented editorially, "The...case in Cambridge was more than a mere conviction by a jury...It indicated city politics as played in the modern age..."how many other cities are as corrupt as Cambridge!"
City Manager government was in use in Cambridge before the Lyons trial was over.
Until 1938 any duly incorporated city could choose its own form of government as it pleased at the time of its incorporation. Over a period of years so many various types of charters were issued that Massachusetts courts were clogged with litigation involving misunderstandings between citizens of municipalities and the citizens themselves.
To help clear up the situation, the legislature limited new municipalities to a choice of five kinds of charters, labeling the types Plans A, B, C, D and E. Under the 1938 law already incorporated cities could change their charter to one of these by ballot, if they wished. Only Boston, which has a government similar to that outlined in Plan B was denied this privilege.
A group of Cambridge residents, aiming for elimination of graft and better administration through change of government formed a Plan E committee. To get a referendum on the change, they secured the required 10,000 signatures on a petition before election in 1939.
The Committee was unsuccessful, however, in the first election; not until 1940, on a second try, was Plan E voted as the new charter. A 7,500 majority, carrying all but three of the city's 11 wards, made Cambridge the first city in Massachusetts to use the new plan. In 1941 the first election employing Plan E was held. The successful candidates moved into office January, 1942.
New Plan In Action
Plan E provides that the city council and school committee be elected by proportional representation. Instead of choosing one candidate in a ward, the voter rates candidates in order of preference with first place votes, of course, counting highest in tabulation.
After the elected Council convenes, it elects a mayor from among its members, who serves mainly as titular head of the council, presiding over meetings, and representing the city at birthdays, weddings, funerals and affairs of state. As real director of the municipality, the Council appoints a city manager, who may be anyone the nine chooses to select.
Responsible only to the entire council, the manager may be removed only by that group. He directs all city affairs and can request that measures be passed by the councilmen. And, from his executive position he is directly responsible for the welfare of the city. Opponents of Plan E can find nothing wrong with this--they base all their arguments on the Proportional Representation article of the charter.
The Council chose as its first City Manager, John B. Atkinson, retired Army colonel, shoe manufacturer, and part-time politician. Atkinson made it his first business to whittle down the oversized City payroll.
Overlapping departments under the old Plan B charter and caused doubling on single jobs and padding employees of the independent staffs. Atkinson, to avoid the unpleasantness of wholesale firing, reduced the size of the city staff by waiting for city employees to retire or leave. The vacated posts were then abolished. Most recent statistics on City employment put the Cambridge staff at about 2000 employers--approximately 1000 fewer than were drawing pay checks in 1941.
CCA cheerfully pointed to the employment reduction as an example of the efficiency of the new regime. The independents, less happy about Atkinson, warned that the City Manager was depleting the ranks of important City services for the sake of economy. For instance the current police roster numbers 214 men while a troop of 235 is recommended by the Cambridge police ordinance.
Better Civil Service
Atkinson next turned his attention towards job appointments. Since he was not in office through votes, he could ignore the usual political necessity of patronage and favoritism. All civil service jobs were filled under Atkinson according to grades received by job applicants on civil service examinations.
At all times, under the current Manager, civil service appointments have gone to the man rated first by the Civil Service Commission. Councilmen have no authority in appointments according to the Plan E Charter. They can of course try to exert pressure on the City Manager.
While the current administration was jacking up the efficiency of the municipal government machine, it was also modernizing and adding to the machine's parts. The fire department received new equipment; parking mercers were installed on Cambridge streets; the capacities of the City Hospital, Infirmary and Sanatorium were increased; and two public swimming pools were built.
Success or Failure
Atkinson has economized by skipping the use of contractors whenever possibly. On the repaying of Massachusetts Avenue, for instances, Cambridge has used its own equipment and personnel--an unheard of practice by pre-1941 standards.
The success or failure of City Manager government depends on the personalities of the Manager and the members of the City Council. A strong Council with shady motives governing with a weak Manager could result in the most corrupt of administrations.
Atkinson has had his Councils in the past well under control. Transactions dealing with job appointments and contracts awards in the past may not have been all pristine in their political purity, but there is no more and probably much less dishonesty in the Cambridge administration than in other municipalities in the United States.
Because of the large number of candidates that filed each year under the new Plan--over 100 in 1941, for example--a number of residents decided to form a good government group, which would endorse certain candidates for each election. Corresponding closely in makeup to the old Plan E Committee, the Cambridge Civic Association was incorporated in 1945.
Donald Spencer '26, elected president that year, has led the organization ever since. According to present methods, candidates request endorsement from the Association, and go before a reviewing board. This panel, composed of members of the Association's board of directors, holds open sessions at which it questions the hopeful and studies their past records in office, education, and experience. It then picks the top men to campaign under its endorsement for positions on School Committee and Council.
All walks of life are represented in the CCA's 2500 non-partisan membership. Campaign literature and weekly bulletins plugging the CCA platform are published. Individual candidates must produce their own propaganda.
A lapse to government by political machine is what the CCA fears would result if they lost a seat on the Council at the coming election. "Their (anti-CCA candidates) objectives is clearly," a CCA campaign bulletin said,"1) to destroy P.R. in 1950; 2) to jam (the 1951 municipal election with stalking horses and restore political rule; 3) to appoint is January, 1952, a manager who will be the tool of the politicians."
This gloomy forecast is effective in getting out votes; but not all independents are as the CCA paints them and even if it wins only three council seats it is unfair to assume that all six or even a majority of the independence would be purse snatchers.
It is doubtful, however, that the CCA need seriously worry at all, about such a remark. Its four incumbents on the council, Pill, Swan Crane, and Deguglielmo are all likely to be reelected. Lawrence F. Feloney, a newcomer is running a strong race. CCA's organization and growing prestige are likely to give it at advantage over the "independents" who depend wholly on votes they can rally in this own districts through personal popularity.
"Town and Gown"
What friction there may have been between Harvard and Cambridge municipal author its has rarely showed on high levels. "We have a lot of respect for the University on the Council," Deguglielmo said, "and we have always done our best to fulfill the requests of the University." Public statements made against Harvard usually stem from the value as vote gutters.
John J. Feley, a strong North Cambridge politician has verbally rapped the University on occasion. His son, however, was recently admitted to the College, indicating that Foley's expressed feelings against Harvard not deep seated.