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Opinions Differ of Success of New Leadership

The New City Council

By Julian E. Barnes

When the Cambridge Civic Association (CCA) captured its first City Council majority in 17 years this November, backers of the liberal coalition were quick to predict the beginning of a new era in city politics.

Anti-development activists saw their first real chance to put serious limitations on the amount of new commercial construction being built in the city. Tenant advocates lauded a seven member majority of strong rent control advocates. All in all, the city seemed poised for major political changes.

But five months after assuming the mantle of power, members of the new majority are a little more guarded about the shape of the city's future. While CCA-backers say they have made definite progress, they caution that the type of change they are bringing about is not always apparent at weekly council meetings.

"The council has switched gears--we've had a very active council," says Mayor Alice K. Wolf, a longtime CCA adherent who swept this fall's elections with more than 3500 first-place votes.

Wolf and other CCA-backed councilors point to a set or tough environmental ordinances, a citywide recycling program planned for next year and efforts to limit two major highway projects as the council's major accomplishments of the past year. Wolf notes, however, that the rapidly worsening fiscal climate in Massachusetts has placed severe limitations on the city's ability to implement new programs.

"Significant actions don't happen overnight," Wolf says. "Many cities and towns are laying people off. Financially we have worked hard and we are moving forward."

"I think there is a good deal to be done, but more has been done by this council in the first five months than by any other council in the first five months than by any other council in that amount of time," says CCA executive director Noah M. Berger '89. "The first couple of months was the council beginning to get comfortable--after that we've seen one major initiative after another."

Political opponents of the CCA, however, have taken issue with that assessment of the council's actions, arguing that the body has spent its first months doing little at great length.

"We've done a lot of talking, but aside from the environmental ordinances nothing has changed except that the meetings are longer and there are more of them," says Independent Councillor William H. Walsh. "This council has set a record for the most meetings, not the most productivity."

Much of the council's first months have been spent grappling with two problems left over by its predecessor-both dealing with the city's 20-year old system of rent control. While both were finally put to rest after long procedural battles, the council has had little time to discuss new rent control initiatives.

And members of the anti-rent control Small Property Owners Association (SPOA) maintain that the council still has not made good on its promise to ease the burdens rent control places on them.

"They've done a number of things to us but nothing for us," said John Natale, co-chair of SPOA. "We are waiting, but they've been in office five months."

However, CCA supporters say they have made clear progress in their relationship with city administrators. Shortly after the CCA victory in November, many city politicoes predicted that the new council would be hamstrung by an inability to work with City Manager Robert W. Healy, who wields almost all executive power under Cambridge's 'Plan E' form of government.

A strong proponent of new commercial development for the city, Healy has often been criticized by CCA-backers for neglecting the negative impact such projects can have on city residents.

Nonetheless CCA-backed councillors point to their agreement with Healy on one key move--the decision to hire a city police commissioner--as a sign of increasing cooperation.

"The tenor of the council is improving--discussion is becoming more substantative and there is a growing ability to work with Bob Healy," says Edward N. Cyr, a first-term councillor from North Cambridge who proved one of the fall's most popular candidates.

And while the council has taken almost no action to curb development in the city, CCA backers say that one of the key problems they face lies in the composition of city boards and commissions--an area of government over which the council has no direct control.

"You just don't say fire this person and hire this person." says Councillor Jonathan S. Myers "These changes have to be done on a policy basis."

But while change has been slow to come, CCA backers still maintain that the new majority has vastly improved on its predecessor.

"It has been very responsive on all sides," says Gladys P. Gifford, president of the anti-development Harvard Square Defense Fund.

"A majority of the new City Council is taking on the tough issues, which hasn't been the case in the past," Gifford says. "Alice is proving to be a superb leader, and they are working together, which hasn't always been the case."

And Howard P. Ramseur, co-chair of the grass-roots Working Committee for a Cambridge Rainbow, says it is too early for an accurate analysis. But like Gifford, he says he sees positive signs.

"It doesn't feel like a slow start," says Ramseur.

And while some CCA-backed councillors acknowledge that their first five months have not seen the type of drama that was the hallmark of their predecessors, they say that their accomplishments have more substance and less flash.

"All of those things have an emphasis that wasn't really there before," says Francis H. Duehay '55.

"It is all incremental," says Cyr. "The nitty-gritty stuff does not make for great headlines. Point-by-point you see the direction of government change and I think that is what you are seeing."

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