Veteran ‘Consensus Builder’ Hopes to Retain Council Seat

Maher sets sights on university relations, tax burdens, and education

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Eric A. Reavis

David P. Maher is, in different senses, both one of the longest and one of the shortest serving city councillors. He was first elected to the council in 1999 and has since served four terms—but his most recent stint on the council is only two months old. (Though he placed 11th in the 2005 election, Maher regained his seat this September after Councillor Michael A. Sullivan resigned.)

Now Maher, 49, is running as a candidate with a reputation for public service and a wealth of experience. The longtime social worker is a lifelong Cambridge resident—something that he says makes him particularly sensitive to the community’s needs, even if that means reining in spending. During his time in local government, he has gained a reputation as a consensus builder and a point-person for Cambridge when the city negotiates with Harvard and MIT.

“I have a lot of deep ties to the community,” Maher said in a lengthy telephone interview Wednesday night, occasionally interrupting it to answer the door for trick-or-treaters. “I completely understand the desire of residents to not spend foolishly, to be accountable, to commit to excellence in programming—those are all progressive things.”

‘A VOICE OF REASON’

One of Maher’s top priorities is reinvigorating the public’s faith in the Cambridge Public Schools System. Maher cites recent change at the Tobin Elementary School in West Cambridge—just a few blocks away from Appleton Street, where Maher now lives and the area where he grew up—as an important story for the city’s public school system.

In response to input from parents and administrators, Tobin started a Montessori program this year, emphasizing self-directed activity on the part of students. Maher says that enrollment at the school reversed its downward trend and increased to the point that there is now a waiting list to get in.

“What is it going to take to get people’s confidence back?” Maher asks, referring to the relatively high percentage of poor and minority students that, he says, has given the Cambridge schools an unfairly low reputation among some local residents. “You listen to what parents say, you look at the educational leaders are saying, and you offer programs that people want.”

“I see him a lot of the time mediating things—he brings a voice of reason,” says former City Councillor Sheila T. Russell, who collaborated with Maher when he served on the Cambridge School Committee in the 1990s.

Russell said that when the school committee needed to hire a new superintendent in the mid-1990s, Maher played a critical role in navigating the diverse constituencies that had to be considered.

“David was very good at interacting with the committee,” Russell says. “Cambridge always has about 25 committees when they’re trying to hire a superintendent, and David was very good at mediating between the school system, the parents and the administration, and the teaching staff.”

Former school committee member Marc C. McGovern—Maher’s colleague at the Cambridge Family and Children’s Service—speaks highly of Maher’s “dedication for children and families.”

“I know from working with him that he is open to different opinions, and pretty levelheaded,” McGovern says.

IN SEARCH OF FRESH IDEAS

According to Maher, one of the most important issues facing Cambridge is the city’s rapidly rising housing prices. He says a major concern is growing tax burdens pricing some families out of Cambridge—something he says can be avoided by wooing businesses that can contribute significantly to the city’s budget.

“What we need to have is a budget that stays within control,” Maher says. “We are pleased to have a large commercial tax base because it lightens the load on residential tax payers. We are always looking at new ways to bring new tax revenue.”

He notes that the biotechnology companies in Kendall Square are a significant source of the city’s commerce, and that there is much untapped tax revenue to be had if Cambridge encourages the companies to develop further.

Maher, a homeowner himself, has also sought a range of solutions to head off rising property taxes.

He says he has helped some 200 residents file the complicated paperwork to reduce their property taxes.

Maher has also worked to create a more permanent solution to the problem by reducing the number of tax districts in Cambridge. In the past, he says, property taxes—which are based on the districts—would rise dramatically after one house in a small district was sold for a high price.

“It’s easy to diagnose a problem, but it is much harder to work on the problem,” Maher says.

EDUCATION, HIGH AND LOW

Maher’s emphasis on building bridges and forging technocratic compromises has been on display as he encourages cooperation in the city’s delicate relationship with Harvard and MIT.

Maher, who founded and chaired the City Council’s University Relations committee, says the universities can serve as a resource to help the city address pressing issues.

He points to his work with Harvard in negotiating an agreement that allowed the University to construct student housing in the Riverside neighborhood while helping the city address its shortage of affordable housing. Under the deal, Harvard won permission to develop the area near Memorial Drive in exchange for donating 20 percent of the floor area—38 housing units—as moderate income housing. The University also agreed to build a small new park on the drive.

Still, Maher says that Harvard and MIT could be doing more. The universities are exempt from a law that requires large housing developments to reserve some of the housing for low-income residents. Given “the wealth of the universities,” Maher says, they could be following that rule like private developers do.

The universities are also key to Maher’s emphasis on improving the school system. Maher, a former member of the Cambridge School Committee, argues that boosting public education in the city should be a top concern for Harvard as well as the wider community.

“When we are improving our public schools, we are improving them for the university employees and graduate students,” he says. “If someone is choosing to work at Stanford or Harvard and has three kids who will have to go to a public school, clearly the quality of education is going to be a factor.”

Maher says that boosting the city’s investment in the school system will be key to heading off an “exodus” of students from Cambridge public schools. But he also insisted that the city needed to do a better job in showing the progress already being made.

“I think we could do a better job of telling the story of successes in public schools and get back people’s confidence,” Maher says.