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
Marilyn Wellons, who co-chairs with LaTrémouille Cambridge’s
non-profit Friends of the White Geese, brings up either the geese or
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
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
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
“The city government loudly praises itself for environmental
behavior, but it’s stopped telling the truth,” LaTrémouille says in a
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
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
“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
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
Podgers comes to the same conclusion: “something smells in Denmark here.”
—Staff writer Virginia A. Fisher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. —Staff writer Anna M. Friedman can be reached at email@example.com.