City Council Expresses Concern Over Group’s Funding

A majority of the City Council expressed its disapproval yesterday of the financial backing of the group Save Our Skyline, which was recently revealed to be funded by wealthy long-time Cambridge resident Phillip T. “Terry” Ragon.

Save Our Skyline is currently seeking to repeal an amendment to the Zoning Ordinance passed by the Council in late September. The amendment, according to the group, allows “a proliferation of unwanted corporate signs” along the Charles River, according to the coalition’s spokeswoman Karen Schwartzman.

Save Our Skyline collected 11,461 signatures on a petition certified Oct. 20—more than the 12 percent of registered voters needed to force the City Council to reconsider the amendment. If the Council does not rescind it within a 20-day waiting period, the issue will be put on the ballot for elections in 2011.

Ragon, the funder of the petitioning efforts, is a 30-year resident of Cambridge and the CEO and founder of InterSystems, which is located in Cambridge. Ragon is financially backing the issue “because he cares deeply as a citizen,” Schwartzman said.

But City Councillor Kenneth E. Reeves expressed his alarm at the disclosure of Ragon’s involvement.

“It is an attempt to overrun the government by someone who has a lot of money,” he said. “This is no innocent stuff...The people are not for sale.”

Cambridge’s highest official spoke for the majority when he condemned Save Our Skyline’s methods. City Mayor David P. Maher called the group’s efforts “a deliberate campaign to mislead the people. And it worked.”

Councillor Timothy J. Toomey said Save Our Skyline’s petitioners have been misinforming the public by suggesting that the Council is “out to destroy the river” and voted on the amendment in an environment of secrecy. The coalition’s petition was not conducted in a clear and impartial manner, Toomey said, and the effort seemed “well-orchestrated and well-paid.”

“If people are turning to the Globe and Cambridge Chronicle, then they are not getting the whole truth,” Reeves said.

For her part, Councillor Marjorie C. Decker tried to dispel the distortions surrounding the amendment’s effect on signs along the Charles River: “We did not relax regulations,” she said. “There were no regulations.”

Schwartzman countered by stating that it is “insulting” to the people of Cambridge that some councillors are assuming that the public is misinformed.

“The most important thing that we were able to do was educate the citizens,” she said of the petitioners.

Councillor Craig A. Kelly was the lone voice on the Council to agree with Schwartzman. Defending Save Our Skyline, he pointed out that Ragon’s funding of the petition effort was not fundamentally different from other political campaigns.

“I don’t think the money that was put in it makes the people who signed it either wrong or ill-informed. They are neither,” Kelly said. “We are doing a disservice to many of the people.”

The Council voted to ask City Manager Robert W. Healy to find more information on the issue of the amendment in the coming week.

—Staff writer Rediet T. Abebe can be reached at rtesfaye@college.harvard.edu.

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