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!"