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The Cambridge Charter Review Committee met on Zoom this Tuesday to discuss changes to Cambridge’s plan of government, with members debating potential changes to the charter’s framework of city leadership.
Committee members debated two alternative forms of city leadership: a strong mayor accompanied by a chief financial officer or a city manager without an elected mayor. Members appeared roughly evenly split on the leadership system a new charter should adopt, with the committee’s director, Anna Corning, deciding to postpone a vote for a future meeting.
The Cambridge Charter Review Committee is part of an ongoing review of Cambridge’s government structure. Throughout this year, the committee — a task force made up of a group of diverse Cambridge residents — will convene to discuss various aspects of Cambridge governance and make recommendations to the Cambridge City Council on how to improve and modernize the city’s charter.
Under Cambridge’s current “Plan E” form of government, the city is led by a mayor, city manager, and the City Council, who each have distinct leadership roles and responsibilities. Cambridge’s mayor leads the city politically and ceremonially, while the city manager is an administrative leader, tasked with overseeing Cambridge’s city departments and making recommendations to the City Council. The City Council itself adopts policies that it requests the City Manager to pursue and oversees Cambridge’s finances.
The Charter Review Committee hopes to recommend a more centralized form of leadership to the Cambridge City Council, consolidating the responsibilities of the mayor, city manager, and City Council into fewer roles.
Tuesday’s meeting began with a short presentation discussing the two alternative forms of leadership: a strong mayor system with a CFO or a city manager system.
Under the strong mayor proposal, Cambridge would be led by a mayor who would retain most of their current duties while also taking on some of the city manager and City Council’s administrative and budget responsibilities. The mayor would be advised by a CFO, who would help them draft and implement economic initiatives.
The latter proposal would see the city manager and City Council work together to govern Cambridge with a weak unelected mayor, with the city manager taking on many of the political and ceremonial roles currently fulfilled by Cambridge’s mayor.
After hearing about both forms of leadership, the Charter Review Committee spent the rest of the meeting discussing each method’s costs and benefits.
Many committee members questioned which form of leadership would be more representative. Proponents of the strong mayor argued a mayor would be more directly accountable to citizens than a city manager because they are elected. Committee member Ellen Shachter said she believes the strong mayor would “infuse more democracy” into Cambridge’s system of government.
“I just feel like we’re lost in the conversation without an elected leader,” committee member Jennifer Gilbert said.
Other committee members, however, said a City Council and city manager would be more representative.
“I’m really concerned that somebody could put a lot of money into a mayoral run and be able to run a campaign and essentially buy an election,” added committee member Lisa Peterson.
Beyond representation, the committee also focused on expertise, with members debating which form of leadership would better enable the drafting and implementation of effective city policies.
Several committee members expressed concerns that a mayor — who under the current system holds few financial responsibilities — would not be well-equipped to handle Cambridge’s budget.
“There are some functions that require somebody to go who has a very thorough knowledge of the city budget,” said committee member Kathleen Borm. “Typically speaking, the mayor in the city doesn’t.”
However, other committee members said the proposed CFO role would enable the mayor to make well-informed financial decisions.
“I see a CFO as a way to get the best of both worlds,” Gilbert said. “Have professionalism, have leadership.”
After debating for nearly two hours, the Charter Review Committee closed the Tuesday session without reaching a consensus.
“I don’t have a strong sense that we’ve had a lot of changed minds tonight,” said committee member James G. Stockard Jr, who is a lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. “We have a pretty evenly split group at the moment.”
The Charter Review Committee hopes to return to the issue of leadership at their next meeting, where they plan to vote on which form of leadership to recommend to the City Council.
“I’ve always been massively impressed by what a wonderful diverse group this is and how it seems to me to reflect Cambridge in so many ways,” Stockard said. “Makes me feel much more comfortable about moving forward.”
Correction: June 27, 2023
A previous version of this article misstated the position of committee member and Harvard Law School professor Nikolas Bowie as favoring a city manager form of government. In fact, Bowie supports a strong mayor form of government. Bowie was quoted restating an opposing viewpoint, and as this quote lacked context, the article has been updated to remove it.
—Staff writer Adelaide E. Parker can be reached at email@example.com.
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