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Three Finalists Vie For Cambridge’s ‘Most Powerful’ Office

By Joshua J. Florence

In just eight days, the Cambridge City Council will vote for a new city chief executive.

Three finalists for the position of city manager, arguably the most powerful position in Cambridge, publicly addressed local residents Tuesday evening and City Councillors Wednesday evening as the scheduled decision nears on Sept. 29.

The months-long national selection process began last March when current city manager since 2012 Richard C. Rossi announced his upcoming retirement. Since then, finding Rossi’s replacement has been at the center of discussion for the City Council, the body tasked with choosing a successor.

Just two weeks before its decision, the City announced three finalists for the position: Robert “Jay” Ash Jr, Louis A. DePasquale, and Paul J. Fetherston. The three selected finalists all come from city planning backgrounds and one has even served in the position of city manager before.

Ash Jr., a graduate of Clark University, currently serves as the Massachusetts secretary of the executive office of housing and economic development and was formerly the city manager of Chelsea, Mass., for 14 years.

DePasquale, the only finalist currently working in Cambridge government, is the city’s assistant city manager for fiscal affairs. Reporting to Rossi, DePasquale has served as Cambridge’s budget director and graduated from Boston State College and received a Master’s degree in Public Administration from Northeastern University.

The third finalist, Fetherston, currently serves as assistant city manager in Asheville, N.C. A graduate of Trinity College and Western New England Law School, Fetherston was also the deputy city manager of Boulder, Colorado.

DePasquale, by virtue of his current position, is most familiar with the City of Cambridge and has worked most closely with the City Council.

“I would say that it seems to me that the entire administration, that the entire council is so proud of Louis that they are heavily leaning towards him,” Councillor Nadeem A. Mazen said. “Maybe circumstances will prove me wrong. I like all three candidates and I am truly not sure who to pick, but I think I’m in the minority there.”

The position of city manager is both influential and lucrative. As the chief executive of the city government, the city manager is responsible for enforcing laws and ordinances, advising the City Council and implementing their decisions, appointing city officials, and crafting the city budget. The previous city manager Robert W. Healy was often called the “most powerful man in Cambridge.” Rossi was paid $360,000 a year in 2015 for his tenure, one of the highest salaries of any public official in Massachusetts. By contrast, City Councillors in Cambridge are paid roughly $78,000 a year. Governor Charles D. Baker ’79 makes $151,800 a year.

The city’s Preliminary Screening Committee, a 19-member body including four city councillors and 15 local stakeholders in business, education and affordable housing, was created to help comb through 55 separate applications for City Manager. The city has also been aided by a consulting firm GovHR USA, a strategy the City Council used when selecting Rossi almost four years ago.

Mazen, a member of the screening committee, praised the final candidates for their records but did express some concern with the nature of the selection process.

“While I am in great admiration of the final candidates, I think we have a real diversity problem in the top level of city management nationwide,” Mazen said. “When it comes to actually headhunting and recruiting best in the nation, we really went to other places in Massachusetts.”

This Tuesday, the city held a public forum where the candidates had an opportunity to answer questions from the public. A multitude of issues were discussed ranging from the affordable housing crisis to current construction projects in Kendall Square.

“It’s not easy being the city manager in this city,” DePasquale said at the forum. “It’s not easy being a city councillor in this city.”

While Rossi originally intended to retire in June, the City Council requested that he remain city manager in perpetuity until a new manager was selected. Rossi is expected to retire officially on Sept. 30, according to documents from this week’s City Council meeting.

The three finalists for the city manager position did not respond to requests for comment.

—Staff writer Joshua Florence can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @JoshuaFlorence1.

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