Four Citizens Clamor for City Council’s Ear

Every week, before Cambridge’s city council gets down to business, it opens the floor for public comment. During this period, any Cantabrigian may address the council for three minutes about any item on that day’s agenda. A core group of persistent citizens stretch this rule to the limit every week to advocate for the environment, defend the rights of the disabled, and expose abuses of power.

Robert LaTrémouille, a two-time candidate for city council and lifetime resident of Cambridge, makes impassioned pleas on behalf of the city’s gaggle of geese that lives on the banks of the Charles River.

Marilyn Wellons, who co-chairs with LaTrémouille Cambridge’s non-profit Friends of the White Geese, brings up either the geese or the trees.

Freelance editorialist Roy Bercaw bashes Cambridge’s city officials and sometimes tries to take control of the meeting.

Imitating the mayor, Bercaw said during the meeting on May 1, “I’d like to suspend the rules. All in favor say aye, opposed say nay, the ayes have it.”

He then proceeded to run through the list of agenda items, adding his criticisms to each.

Kathy Podgers illustrates her complaints about Cambridge’s compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) with personal anecodotes.

These self-appointed champions of the disadvantaged continue to agitate week after week despite feeling that they are routinely ignored or mocked. But they say they continue to campaign out of a feeling of civic obligation.

Wellons says, “once you get involved, it’s like a tarbaby. You have a stake.”

ARE YOU LISTENING?

During public comment, councillors routinely trickle in late to the meeting, talk amongst themselves, prepare their documents, or leave the chamber to eat.

Several of the city council regulars say the councillors have dubbed them the “malcontents,” and show little interest in their comments.

LaTrémouille, a Boston University (BU) Law School graduate, says the council is receptive to organized groups of citizens who speak about a specific issue, such as zoning in their neighborhood. But he says citizens who attend meetings consistently to draw attention to the city’s lapses in enforcement and compliance find themselves ignored.

“I know they don’t pay attention because if they paid attention they would do something,” says Bercaw, who also attended BU Law School.

But these citizens say their role as gadflies is necessary for sustaining democracy in Cambridge. Council meetings are broadcast on Cambridge Community Television, and the entirety of public comment is preserved in official records. This opportunity to bear witness and object to what they see as Cambridge’s violations and misguided decisions is in itself a motivation to come to meetings.

“I have informed them, ‘you are breaking the law, this is the law you’ve broken, this is what you have to do,’” says Podgers.

Councillor E. Denise Simmons says the council frequently changes its plans in response to citizen comments. However, she suggests that public input is sometimes valuable primarily for the process, rather than the substance, of the comments.

“There are a few people, and I’m not going to name them, but they’re pretty outrageous,” she says. “But this is democracy... it is what it is, and you have to take all of it, the part that is real and productive and the part that’s at the edge of what is reasonable.”

SPEAKING FOR THE SILENT

The regular speakers at city council meetings have two common concerns: the city is forsaking its environment and denying the disabled their rights.

LaTrémouille and Wellons, a housewife with a master’s degree in international affairs from Columbia University, routinely appear at council meetings to speak out against development and zoning policies that they say would diminish the city’s open space or harm its wildlife population.

“The city government loudly praises itself for environmental behavior, but it’s stopped telling the truth,” LaTrémouille says in a recent interview.

City Manager Robert W. Healy, for example, “is in the process of destroying thousands of trees and then will brag about planting saplings,” LaTrémouille says. He also accuses the city of destroying the wetlands along the Charles River and putting in “silly plants that have no business on the river.”

Podgers regularly speaks to draw attention to the needs of citizens with disabilities. She says the city is fundamentally misguided because it approaches disabilities as a health care issue rather than a civil rights issue.

Using curb ramps that are noncompliant with the ADA as an example, Podgers compares the situation of disabled individuals to that of African-Americans before the Civil Rights Movement.

“What’s a problem for me is when 6,000 disabled people are walking the street because there’s a pattern of noncompliance. That’s discrimination,” she says. She adds that the Cambridge Commission for Persons with Disabilities is treated “like a junkyard dog.”

She maintains that she continues to press the council about these issues every week because the city neglects to take action. “There’s an attempt of the city to dismiss me and characterize me as some crank who comes in there every week, but I’m interested in them bringing the city into compliance...the city is actively ignoring the federal law,” Podgers insists.

FLAWS IN THE SYSTEM

Several of the advocates say the city refuses to comply with environmental and accessibility guidelines because of fiscal concerns. Under Cambridge’s Plan E form of government, the unelected city manager, Healy, runs the government, with guidance from the elected councillors.

Healy has served as city manager since 1981. Bercaw, who says that Healy has “created his own little bureaucracy,” calls the system corrupt because it has allowed one person to control city operations so extensively for so long.

“The city manager has outlasted and outranked every member of the council...he has been there for so long and his command of the bureaucracy is so absolute,” Wellons says.

She explains that she believes the city places excessive value on its AAA bond rating—the highest possible—which categorizes the city’s bonds as low-risk and allows the city to borrow money at a low interest rate. Since the bond rating requires a budgetary surplus, Wellons says the city cuts back its spending on services for its constituents.

“The trump card in Cambridge government is the city manager’s success with the AAA bond rating,” Wellons says.

But the critics admit that citizens—and not just Healy—are to blame for the gap between local government and its constituents.

Citizens and councillors, who sometimes seem to agree on little else, agree that public involvement in city politics has decreased significantly over the past ten to 20 years, though they offer different explanations for the trend.

Wellons and Bercaw attribute this to changing demographics, as working-class residents have been forced out of Cambridge by rising property values. This has driven down enrollment in Cambridge public schools and alienated people who work in Cambridge but can’t afford to live there.

These changes amount to “decline and demoralization,” says Wellons. “There’s a whole group of people who were politically engaged who are no longer here or who have given up.”

Simmons, on the contrary, attributes the decline in civic participation to Cambridge’s overwhelming successes in recent years.

“I think most people are satisfied with the way the city is run, so you don’t have the masses coming [to council meetings] except for a specific issue,” she says.

But Bercaw defends his Monday night appearances. “I’m not running for office, and I’m not looking for a favor,” he says. “I’m outraged.”

Podgers comes to the same conclusion: “something smells in Denmark here.”

—Staff writer Virginia A. Fisher can be reached at vafisher@fas.harvard.edu.
—Staff writer Anna M. Friedman can be reached at amfriedm@fas.harvard.edu.