The Beginning of the End

Cambridge City Manager’s long service deserves praise, structure evaluation

On Monday, the Cambridge City Council voted to extend the contract of city manager Robert W. Healy for 15 months. Having served in his current position since 1981, Healy will retire at the end of his contract extension. This time is intended to be a period of transition while a new city manager is trained.

Healy has done a great service to the city during his tenure and we wish him well in his retirement. Even still, this moment of transition—the first in more than thirty years—provides us with an opportunity to reflect on the position of city manager and the structure of Cambridge city governance.

As Cambridge residents, our experience tells us that Cambridge is a well-run city. Public property is extremely well maintained, and repairs are carried out promptly. The City Council—which appoints and oversees the office of city manager—is one of the most forward-looking in the country, as demonstrated by their decision to compensate married LGBT couples for lost benefits due to the Federal Defense of Marriage Act. Having served for over three decades, Healy has, at times, been the object of some criticism. In fact, three of Cambridge’s nine city councilors voted not to extend his contract, due in part to grievances over his performance. Nevertheless a strong majority did support the extension, signaling that even at the end of his tenure he maintains the faith of his employers.

While it may be tempting to find issue in the extremely long tenures of city managers like Healy, it is important to remember that the office is administrative rather than political in nature. Indeed, it is part of the position’s very design that it be removed from the yearly whims of city politics. The fact of the matter is that city managers are concerned with the day-to-day upkeep of the municipality, not the political direction of its leadership. Furthermore, the Cambridge city manager serves at the pleasure of the City Council: if they find Cambridge’s chief executive to be falling short in his or her duties, they have the ability to hire a new one.

Additionally, we must be careful not to fetishize short tenures. As with most positions, an individual’s ability to perform the role of city manager improves with experience. High turnover would more likely lead to sloppy management than anything else. All the reasons that term limits exist for other officials have no relevance when applied to the office of city manager. There is no risk of despotism from an administrator accountable to the City Council, and no reason to believe that performance diminishes with age.

Of course, as with any job, the mechanisms for accountability ought to work effectively. The key to ensuring high-quality performance from a city manager lies not in term limits or pay cuts, but rather in the alert oversight of the City Council. That said, the notoriously generous compensation of the Cambridge city manager ought to prompt some review of the office. While it’s true that a high salary alone does not signify a lack of oversight, the office is one of the few in the world that comes with a yearly pension close to $300,000.

City Manager Healy has spent much of his adult life in the service of this city. We salute him in advance of his retirement, and hope that the people of Cambridge and the City Council take this opportunity to look critically at the office of city manager.