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By Marina Qu

‘It’s Way Past Time’: How Cambridge is Reconsidering its 80-Year-Old Form of Government

By Ryan H. Doan-Nguyen and Cam E. Kettles, Crimson Staff Writers

Last August, the Cambridge City Council appointed 15 residents to a charter review committee set to reassess the city’s form of government and recommended changes. The committee continues to grapple with its first major dilemma: Should the city be run by a mayor or a city manager?

For the last 80 years, the City of Cambridge has been run by an appointed city manager. But soon, the city may change its form of government entirely.

The current city charter — essentially the “constitution” of Cambridge — includes both a city manager and a council-elected mayor under the “Plan E” system. The Cambridge City Council currently appoints the city manager, currently Yi-An Huang ’05, to act as the chief executive of the city, responsible for implementing Council legislation and running all government departments except the school department, which is run by a separately elected School Committee.

The Council itself comprises nine at-large members, one of whom is elected mayor by the Council. Having been first elected in 2020, Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui is currently serving her second term in the role and third on the Council.

The Plan E charter itself was established by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in June 1938 and adopted by Cambridge two years later, after its then-mayor was caught accepting bribes. Now, Cambridge’s mayor chairs the City Council and the School Committee, but otherwise has very little power in the council-manager system.

But in most other cities in Massachusetts — save a few, such as Worcester and Lowell — local government is set up very differently.

Instead of an appointed city manager, an elected mayor acts as the city executive, with full control over city function, including finances and the police department. In most cities with strong mayors, like New York City, the mayor is directly elected by citizens.

Last August, the Council appointed 15 residents to the Cambridge Charter Review Committee, which was tasked with establishing a set of recommended changes to the charter over a 12-month period. That timeline has since been extended, and a final committee recommendation is expected at the end of 2023.

The review committee has not yet decided which version of a “strong mayor” system they will vote on, but discussion has centered around a directly elected mayor, according to Charter Review Committee member Jim G. Stockard Jr.

“But there has been some discussion of a directly elected mayor, but with only the same powers as the current mayor — chair of the council and the school committee and ceremonial chief of the city,” he wrote in an email.

The structure question is being evaluated before other proposed charter revisions, including the potential adoption of city councilors elected by district and mayoral term limits.

“The city manager-mayor [decision] is really a starting point, and lots of other decisions flow from that,” Stockard said in an interview.

Once a recommendation is made, it will then be reviewed by the Council, which will vote on the changes before a potential city-wide referendum.

“We are mostly an advisory group,” committee member Kevin Y. Chen said. “But the idea is that we are supposed to be representative of the city population at large, and hopefully our recommendations carry some weight given that we are engaging in such a long and hopefully thorough process to figure these things out.”

Reconsidering the City Manager

Before Huang became city manager in September 2022, there had been a series of city managers who were almost all “cut from the same cloth,” according to Cambridge City Councilor Paul F. Toner.

Robert W. Healy served as city manager from 1981 to 2013, followed by his deputy Richard C. Rossi. After Rossi came Louis A. DePasquale, who was the assistant city manager for fiscal affairs under both Rossi and Healy.

“They were different personality-wise, but they had the same general philosophy of municipal government, which was being fiscally responsible, providing solid public services to the residents, and being good to the employees essentially,” Toner said. “That was a 50-year tradition.”

Huang, however, had never served in Cambridge’s city government. He instead came from a nonprofit background, having previously served as executive director of Boston Medical Center hospital clinical operations.

Yi-An Huang '05 serves as Cambridge's city manager, where he is responsible for implementing Council legislation and running all government departments except the school department.
Yi-An Huang '05 serves as Cambridge's city manager, where he is responsible for implementing Council legislation and running all government departments except the school department. By Julian J. Giordano

“I know that Cambridge has essentially promoted from within, but most city managers get hired from other cities — they move up the chain in terms of size. It’s a profession,” said Stephen Goldsmith, a Harvard Kennedy School professor of the practice of urban policy.

With Huang largely viewed as an outsider, his term is seen by many as a test of the council-manager system.

“His selection and his seemingly good work as he begins is a kind of endorsement of the system,” Stockard said. “In other words, it’s not just one more guy from the family.”

In November 2021, during DePasquale’s term, citizens voted on and approved a set of ballot initiatives that would institute annual reviews of city managers’ performance and require the Council to launch a charter review every 10 years.

Cambridge City Councilor Patricia M. Nolan ’80 said she led the ballot initiatives effort because she had “heard many many people express concerns and complaints about the structure of the government.”

“It’s way past time to do something like this,” she said.

Toner, who voted against the ballot initiatives, said he believes those who view the city manager as unaccountable to Cambridge residents are mistaken.

“The narrative out there among people who are watching the city is, well, it’s all because of the city manager,” Toner said. “We got to get rid of the city manager because he’s not elected, or he’s not an elected person. But the reality is, the City Council hires them.”

“In my opinion, we have all the authority in the world,” he said.

A Conflicted Committee

At the Charter Review Committee’s May 9 public meeting, committee members were split 9-5 in favor of the council-manager form of government. But many members have switched their votes throughout the process, and some remain undecided on the structure question.

“I came in pretty open,” said Chen, an environmental attorney. “I think I didn’t have a really in-depth understanding of how the city government works. I got the sense that, in general, the city operates pretty well.”

“I’m not saying there’s not room for improvement — there always is — but we’ve been able to really implement effective programs,” committee member Lisa Peterson said.

“I don’t think you have to change the form of government to have more accountability,” she added.

Toner, likewise, said he believes the Council is “supposed to stay out of the way.”

“We could certainly come to meetings and criticize a city manager and raise our concerns and let him or her know what we’re upset about,” Toner said. “But we’re not supposed to be interfering in the daily operation of the city government.”

Others, however, believe switching to an strong mayor system allows the government to be more accountable to citizens and centralizes decision making.

“The last time our committee took a vote, I voted for mayor structure,” Charter Review Committee member Jessica De Jesus Acevedo said. “I do think Cambridge is at some point leading into that direction, whether it’s this charter review or the next.”

“I just think centralizing a center of power makes the most sense, but I haven’t made a final decision,” she added.

Cambridge City Councilor Quinton Y. Zondervan said one of his primary concerns with the current form of government is that once the city manager is directed to enact a Council policy order, “at that point, the manager can ignore the request.”

The City Council holds meetings in Cambridge City Hall, located in Central Square.
The City Council holds meetings in Cambridge City Hall, located in Central Square. By Marina Qu

“Our only real power when it comes to the city manager is to fire them,” Zondervan said, which he added is politically difficult when citizens are less informed about what’s happening.

On the other hand, Goldsmith, who previously served as mayor of Indianapolis, said he thinks the threat of firing is insufficient to keep city managers generally accountable.

“I don’t think termination as the way you enforce accountability is particularly helpful,” Goldsmith said.

In comments to the committee and at meetings, members of the public unaffiliated with the committee also showed a sharp divide in opinion.

Some, including Susan Fleischmann ’94, have written to the committee to express support for different systems.

“The skills required to be a successfully elected official have very little overlap with the ability to be a successful manager, in my opinion,” Fleischmann wrote in a March 24 public comment.

“A strong mayor might be challenged when weighing the needs of the City at-large with the particular interests of their most vocal constituents. Attention to those who reliably vote may take precedence over those who may not. Whether consciously or not, actions will be taken with the next election in mind,” she added.

Ilan Levy, a Cambridge resident who has unsuccessfully run for Council four times, said at a community engagement event May 16 that he also hopes for a change to the existing structure.

“I don’t want to be reckless and destroy what we have. I want to make sure that we do it right,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean that we don’t have to be imaginative and that we don’t have to do something different.”

Assessing Accountability

Accountability has emerged as a central point of contention in the ongoing debate over whether Cambridge should adopt a manager-council or council-mayor form of government.

Currently, the city’s operation under a council-manager model grants significant control over daily operations and a nearly-billion-dollar budget preparation to Huang, the city manager.

Recent events have created a greater impetus for greater transparency and accountability in Cambridge. Most prominently, the killing of 20-year-old Sayed Faisal — a Cambridge resident and Bangladeshi-American student at UMass Boston — by Cambridge Police on Jan 4. sparked months of protest and intensified calls for widespread reform.

Though protesters have largely directed their ire at the Cambridge Police Department, the city government has also also faced scrutiny, with some demanding that the city name, fire, and prosecute the officers involved in Faisal’s killing, as well as release the full unredacted police report of the encounter.

In the wake of Faisal’s death, Huang and other Cambridge officials have made commitments to implement reforms ranging from increasing funding for non-police public safety alternatives to outfitting CPD officers with body cameras. CPD has also engaged the services of the Police Executive Research Forum, an independent think tank specializing in law enforcement matters, to conduct an external review of the department.

Protesters have demonstrated for months over the killing of Cambridge reisdent Sayed Faisal by the Cambridge Police Department in January.
Protesters have demonstrated for months over the killing of Cambridge reisdent Sayed Faisal by the Cambridge Police Department in January. By Ryan H. Doan-Nguyen

“I hope that we’re doing a good job of putting together a real agenda for police reform that will continue on a lot of what the police have already done within the city of Cambridge, but there is more work that needs to happen,” Huang said in an interview.

“I think it really did shine a light on areas where we need to make continued changes,” Huang added, pointing to the more than a dozen protests that followed the fatal shooting.

During a Feb. 27 rally and teach-in at Cambridge City Hall, Party for Socialism and Liberation organizer Suhail P. Purkar referred to Cambridge’s government as “an undemocratic mess.” Purkar alleged that the city’s current charter deprives Cambridge residents of the accountability they deserve in their local government.

Another PSL organizer, Rafeya V. Raquib, told protesters that the city has “been ignoring the community’s calls for transparency and justice.”

“We’ve seen that the city manager has the freedom to pick and choose what policies get enforced with no accountability,” Raquib said.

Huang said he maintains a steadfast belief in his own accountability despite his position as an unelected city manager, a feature of the Plan E charter that some have called undemocratic.

“I am more accountable in these kinds of circumstances. If you look at my contract, ultimately, a majority of city councilors could terminate my contract at any time,” he told The Crimson in an interview after a March 21 meeting between activists and city officials.

Huang said he feels a sense of accountability from both residents and the Council in an interview earlier this month.

“If you talk to me or if you talk to city leaders, we really do feel accountable and like we are in close relationship with the councilors,” Huang said. “We are constantly trying to both help them understand the implications of what they’re asking us to do and help them prioritize.”

Huang said he’s proud of what he’s accomplished in his first eight months in office and believes he has responded to the city council’s requests appropriately.

“If the Council is not willing to hold the city manager accountable, there is a lack of accountability,” Huang said. “That’s sort of true of every boss or manager relationship.”

Comparing Cities

Despite the council-manager form of government’s relative rarity in Massachusetts, where only 15 out of the state’s 351 municipalities employ it, the model is widespread on a national scale.

Approximately 40 percent of municipalities across the country have embraced the council-manager model, some of the largest including Dallas, Texas, San José, California, and Charlotte, North Carolina. Cambridge’s neighboring cities of Somerville and Boston, however, have opted for a mayor-council form of government.

Joseph A. Curtatone, Somerville’s longest-serving mayor from 2004 until 2012, said he believes that when choosing a form of government, Cambridge should carefully consider the system that strikes the right balance between transparency, accountability, effectiveness, and efficiency.

The goal, according to Curtatone, should be to deliver results that align with the community’s values and aspirations, though he declined to weigh in on the best structure for Cambridge’s government.

When it comes to his own city of Somerville, however, Curtatone is a “strong advocate” for the mayor-council form of government.

“There is no way — and I’m confident — Somerville would have ever accomplished what it has accomplished during our time there in a city manager form of government,” Curtatone said.

Somerville, which neighbors Cambridge, has a mayor-council form of government.
Somerville, which neighbors Cambridge, has a mayor-council form of government. By Andrew W.D. Aoyama

“We built what was — I submit — the best public administration in the country,” Curtatone added, pointing to Somerville’s implementation of data-driven decision-making, real-time budgeting, and customer service through programs like 311.

Goldsmith, who also supports a strong mayor system, said this model of government was “essential” to his accomplishments during his nearly decade-long tenure as mayor of Indianapolis.

According to Goldsmith, the system aided him in “repairing the neighborhoods that had been too long neglected” by helping him “operating more efficiently.”

“The efficiency of operation for me was directly connected to implementing my vision. It was invaluable for me,” he added.

Regardless of what the charter review recommends, however, Goldsmith emphasized the importance of having frequent charter revisions.

“There are cities like New York City that more regularly have charter revisions, and doing it on a more regular basis was helpful as well. Then you can make some small modifications as you go instead of trying to do everything at once, which allows you to focus the community on certain things,” Goldsmith said.

Engaging the Public

Some advocates for a strong mayor system argue that Cambridge would be more democratic and conducive to higher voter participation compared to the current city manager system.

Proponents of an empowered elected mayor say the role establishes a direct link between residents and the government, enhancing accountability and responsiveness and encouraging civic engagement. This, they contend, would make it easier for residents to participate in local politics.

“If there is a simple question on the ballot for the charter change and its strong-mayor city manager, 60 percent of those people are going to scratch their heads and say, ‘What in the world is a city manager?’” said former Cambridge Mayor Henrietta Davis at a May 16 Charter Review Committee meeting.

Cambridge City Councilor Burhan A. Azeem disagrees, however, calling the difference “negligible” — though he acknowledged “people would be drawn to the simplicity” of having fewer city officials.

“It’s not like Somerville, which has a strong-mayor system, has a really high turnout, and we don’t,” Azeem said.

Both cities saw roughly a third of registered voters turn out for their 2021 municipal elections.

The charter review process itself has also led some to question civic engagement in Cambridge — fewer than ten people attended the May 16 community meeting with committee members to discuss their thoughts on the process.

Goldsmith said resident participation is vital for a successful government in Cambridge.

“Democracy and effectiveness depend on trust. Trust depends on people believing their voice matters. And the narrower the participation, the less likely that trust is to resonate, and therefore, the more difficult it is to govern,” Goldsmith said.

“To some extent, though, these are pretty arcane questions for the average person, and they need to be made as visible and understandable as possible,” Goldsmith added. “Enlarging the number of people who care and participate will be important.”

—Staff writer Ryan H. Doan-Nguyen can be reached at ryan.doannguyen@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @ryandoannguyen.

—Staff writer Cam E. Kettles can be reached at cam.kettles@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @cam_kettles.

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City PoliticsCambridge City CouncilCambridgeYear in ReviewMetro