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Paul F. Toner, who spent more than a decade in union leadership, is running for a second term on the Cambridge City Council to keep the body negotiating.
“For some people, they want to boil it down to yes and no and polarized,” Toner said in an interview. “We have to stop that. We have to start listening to one another and understand there’s a lot of nuance, and there’s a lot of gray in between these black and white positions that people put out there.”
Toner, who bills himself as a “practical progressive,” began his career as a teacher in Cambridge’s public schools before becoming president of the Cambridge Teachers Association in 2001 and later the Massachusetts Teachers Association — a teachers union with more than 100,000 members. He also previously served as vice president of the Massachusetts branch of the AFL-CIO, a national trade union.
Looking at the 2023 Council race, Toner labels himself “the more moderate of the candidates.”
“I’ve kind of been described as the adult in the room,” he said. “It’s great to be passionate about a subject, but we also have to be practical about a subject.”
“I want to do all those wonderful things, too,” he added. “But we have to have a plan for doing it that’s not going to completely turn over the apple cart on people.”
One such apple cart, in Toner’s view, was the recently passed set of amendments to the 100%-Affordable Housing Zoning Overlay, which raised height limits on affordable developments in the city.
The Council repeatedly voted down changes supported by Toner and two colleagues that would have reduced the new height limits and provided for more middle-income housing.
Toner lamented that a compromise was never reached.
“We do need more deeply affordable subsidized housing,” he said. “But I think the problem with Cambridge is, we just throw the word ‘affordability’ around, happenstance, and the reality is we need all sorts of levels of housing.”
“We have to have more market-rate housing,” he added. “We have to have more housing developed by the city and the nonprofits.”
Climate is another issue on which Toner feels moderation is warranted. In June, Cambridge amended its 2014 Building Energy Use Disclosure Ordinance, which originally required commercial and large residential property owners to report their emissions.
The amendments mandated emissions reductions in addition to reporting, though Toner and four other councilors voted to exclude large residential buildings from the new requirements.
“I think we have the most aggressive ordinance in the country,” Toner said. “But I’m proud of the fact that myself and other councilors were able to push back a bit and make it, again, more of a practical ordinance that people could support.”
“I think Cambridge is a leader,” he added. “I don’t necessarily think we always have to be the leader.”
Toner, who chairs the Council’s Economic Development and University Relations Committee, said he has built a good relationship with officials at Harvard and MIT.
Calling the universities “excellent partners with the city,” Toner said he looks forward to working with them to address transportation in particular. He stressed the need for “a better plan for public transportation” as the city expands its bicycling infrastructure at the expense of parking.
“I think we should be trying to work with Harvard and MIT and the businesses that have shuttle services in the city, and maybe purchase a couple electric vehicles ourselves, and have at least an internal shuttle system so that people can get around the city more easily,” he said.
“If we were able to capture and harness all those vehicles that are driving around the city on a pretty regular basis for mass transit, I think that’d be great,” Toner added.
Toner said lack of communication on bike lanes and the AHO amendments has weakened residents’ trust in the Council. He proposed longer discussion periods ahead of legislation in the future.
“I do think that there is a little bit of distrust by the citizens — that they don’t feel that the City Council is listening to them on some of the big issues,” he said. “There is a lot of frustration in the electorate as we come into the election right now.”
“I think having a year of real engagement with people and dealing with the issues before you vote on something is where we should be going,” he added.
Toner is holding out hope that, should he serve on the body for another term, his colleagues will come around to his approach to legislating.
“Hopefully, in the new term, people will be more willing to listen to each other,” he said.
—Staff writer Samuel P. Goldston can be reached at email@example.com.
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