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City To Explore Election Changes

New system would elect mayors democratically, rather than by councillors

By Zachary M. Seward, Crimson Staff Writer

The malicious in-fighting that has often accompanied the selection of Cambridge’s mayor could move to a citywide stage if a push for democratic mayoral elections continues to gain steam.

At a meeting last night, the City Council narrowly approved an order to explore—and possibly move toward legislation—shifting mayoral elections from the purview of the nine councillors into the hands of Cambridge voters.

Under Cambridge’s current system, city voters elect nine councillors and then these officials select the mayor in a subsequent vote.

Last night’s measure to explore popular mayoral elections passed by a 5-3 margin, with strong support from Mayor Michael A. Sullivan, Vice Mayor Marjorie C. Decker and Councillor Anthony D. Gallucio—all of whom could be candidates in a potential citywide vote.

The coming together of this five-member majority, which also included Councillors Kenneth E. Reeves ’72 and Timothy J. Toomey, was reminiscent of the coalition that formed to elect Sullivan mayor.

Last January, Gallucio, the former mayor and a perennial favorite of Cambridge voters, expressed an interest in the mayoral post. But he ultimately joined the four other councillors in selecting Sullivan for the position.

Councillor Henrietta Davis, who lost out to Gallucio in her bid for mayor earlier this year, led the opposition to the measure.

“I think there’s an inherent conflict if you want to have a city with a strong city manager,” Davis said last night, referring to a possible clash between a popularly elected mayor and the city manager.

The office of mayor, except for chairing the School Committee, is a largely ceremonial position. But Cambridge’s privately hired manager, Robert W. Healy, operates most of the city’s activities.

Gallucio maintained a mayor elected in a citywide election would not have any additional powers.

“This is not creating a strong or stronger mayor,” he said. “All we are doing is giving power to the people, which is a democratic thing.”

Councillor E. Denise Simmons voted “present,” effectively abstaining from the decision.

In the past, in-house votes for mayor among the nine elected city councillors have often sparked partisan rancor that can last long into the year. Last night, many councillors cited this bitterness in explaining their votes for the measure.

“After experiencing how we elect the mayor over the last several years, I just don’t have the confidence in our process,” Decker said, noting “the bad feelings and the tension that this mayor’s race provides among the colleagues.”

Reeves cautioned the Council to use discretion as it considers the initiative for democratic elections, citing personal ambitions of the councillors as a source for concern.

“It always seems to me that if the Council leads this discussion, it’s like we want to be the mayor,” said Reeves, who eventually voted in favor of the measure, saying he supported discussion on the matter.

But those voting in opposition expressed other concerns.

Murphy said many practical issues remained unresolved, including whether mayoral candidates would also be permitted to run for a seat on the Council.

“Is it one or the other?” Murphy asked during the meeting.

Partly answering this question, Gallucio said the committee established by the measure would address these issues.

As the Council approached a vote last night, more than three hours into its weekly meeting, the opposition failed in a motion to divide the measure into two votes, one for the establishment of a committee and another for the drafting, “if necessary,” of legislation to adopt democratic mayoral elections.

—Staff writer Zachary M. Seward can be reached at seward@fas.harvard.edu.

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