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."