City Council: A Problem of Behavior


"Cambridge City Council members get a built-in reward for making the other guy look silly," claims John Brode '52, Democratic City Chairman.

If this is true, the councillors have been well-rewarded during their seven-month odyssey in search of a City Manager, while local residents watched in bemused fascination or--more frequently--tried to look the other way.

Accompanying the quest for a manager has been an assortment of obstructionist tactics, personal attacks and reversals of commitment seldom seen in more sedately traditional city bodies.

Less than a month ago, it appeared the end of the search might be imminent, as Councillor Henry F. Owens III, a black attorney, agreed to abandon his support for James Johnson, the black deputy City Manager of Kansas City, Mo., and join with the other four Cambridge Civic Association (CCA)--endorsed councillors in appointing Howard C. Peterson to the post.

Peterson, former City Administrator of New Brunswick, N.J., had been picked as the CCA candidate following a lengthy selection procedure in which aspirants were screened by a panel of community leaders. But Owens, who expressed anger because no blacks were included among the finalists, was told by the other CCA councillors to find his own qualified candidate for the job. He returned with Johnson.

Johnson elicited a positive response from the citizens' panel and the other CCA councillors--but not as favorable as Peterson. Mayor Barbara Ackermann labeled Johnson a "B-minus" candidate.

At this point Owens joined with the four independent councillors, who are satisfied with incumbent manager John H. Corcoran, and refused to vote to request Corcoran's resignation while Peterson remained heir-apparent.

The issue remained at a stalemate until July 6 when Owens, hinting at racism and political expediency by the CCA councillors, nevertheless agreed to support Peterson in order to remove Corcoran. His decision may have influenced the selection of a black as Superintendent of Schools, although Owens denies any relationship.

It looked as if the CCA at last commanded a workable, if shaky, majority to appoint Peterson after Corcoran's resignation. The possible impediments appeared to be delaying tactics by the four independents and a possible court challenge by independent Councillor Thomas Danehy.

Then the blocks started tumbling.

Corcoran, who said in January he would resign when the Council agreed on a successor, refused to keep his pledge. Instead he refused to state any intentions connected with his job until the Council took "final action" on the manager question. This final action appears now to refer to Corcoran's dismissal, which he will probably contest.

At this juncture, the four independents staged a strategic shift of support from Corcoran to Johnson, bringing Owens on the run to create a new five-member majority. The other four CCA councillors are now faced with the distasteful prospect of finding Johnson as City Manager if they vote to remove Corcoran.

"Why can't the Council just settle the manager issue and get on to other city business, which is talking hopelessly behind?" is the question outsiders ask most often.

The answer does not lie in the nature of the issue itself, but in the shouting, sarcasm and obstructionist tactics that have become the dominant characteristics of Council meetings.

Speaking of legislative bodies, John David Barber, Professor of Political Science at Yale, wrote in his book. The Lawmakers, "Members believe they should be especially careful to keep their commitments, and they stress the importance of holding conflict at the level of issues, not personalities."

Cambridge City Council members, on the other hand, appear to prefer engaging in personal acrimony and reversal of position.

Mayor Ackermann says the Council is composed of "nine prima donnas," each with his own electoral constituency. What has evolved in this situation is a system in which each member acts from a vision of responsibility only to himself, or perhaps his constituency, rather than to the Council as a functioning body.

This attitude manifests itself in "a lot of petty grievances that we refuse to bury," according to councillor Danehy. The typical meeting is certain to contain at least one attack by Danehy on Councillor Robert Moncreiff for "legal trickery," an outburst by Owens on the "unfairness" of the proceedings, and a long, humorously pointed anecdote by former Mayor Alfred E. Vellucci, who is currently running for State Representative.

There are two main reasons such freewheeling exhibitionism has become the Council behavioral norm. The first is a lack of leadership in any form--either substantive or procedural. Mayor Ackermann, who presides at Council sessions, says, "it's not my job to make speeches or shut people up."

Although the Council-Manager form of government vests few formal powers in the Mayor, Ackermann is noteworthy for her stoicism in allowing disorder and personal attacks, even when directed against herself. When the shouting among Danehy, Vellucci and Moncreiff gets out of hand, as it did last week, she simply waits for it to subside rather than trying to restore order.

The Mayor views Council leadership as emanating from the City Manager, who should submit programs and lines of argument for Council debates to follow. Corcoran has obviously fallen short in this area on the subject of his own replacement.

But there is also a lack of moral leadership, that gentle but insistent reminder to the councillors of their public duty. When the Mayor finally acted in this direction last week, it was in the form of a public statement accusing the four independents and Owens of "playing games and holding the city up to ridicule." A public statement of this sort may produce more animosity than responsibility.

Nowhere is this lack of leadership more clear than in dealing with Owens. "The white liberal CCA members don't know how to handle an ego-tripping black," Democratic Chairman Brode said last week. "They don't know what to do when Owens, serving his own ends, comes out and calls them racists."

Owens, the son of a wealthy businessman, has verified the accuracy of this statement by the latitude he successfully demanded to find Johnson, and by his demonstrated ability to play the role of kingmaker between the CCA bloc and the four independents. While he owes few political debts to the CCA, his willingness to reverse his position has made a mockery of that group's endorsement of his election last November.

The other factor producing Council failure is the lack of preparation for debate shown by most councillors. When asked their intentions or positions, most reply they will "play it by ear." This is often a euphemism for waiting until the meeting begins to seize opportunities for making headlines or creating obstructions.

One notable exception is Councillor Saundra Graham, who wins high marks from Mayor Ackermann for her work on the housing committee and from many observers for her silent preparedness on most issues before the Council.

Most committee meetings are poorly attended, largely because the issues under discussion are nuts and bolts questions. Also, the opportunities for publicity are usually nonexistent.

Ackermann attributes these failures in dealing with specific issues to a lack of information and ideas from the City Manager's office. An equally plausible explanation is that councillors no longer have the expectation that they will be required to be informed on the majority of issues they must face. Last week the Mayor accused Danehy of never having met Johnson, the candidate he now supports. Danehy does not refute the charge.

Meanwhile the councillors continue to speak of Corcoran's incompetence, Peterson's lack of qualifications, and Johnson's lack of vision. But such maneuvering in the Manager dispute appears to be no more than symptomatic byplay of a more serious deeper illness in Cambridge city government. As Councillor Danehy said. 'There have been divisions before on the best course for the city to follow, but never to the point where the Council could not act."

Such paralysis is likely to continue as long as the public remains amused by or indifferent to the style of behavior to which the Council has become accustomed