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Cambridge City Council Votes to Clear Lengthy Backlog of Policy Orders, Seek Change in New Term

The Cambridge City Council voted to clear a backlog of policy orders during a Monday meeting.
The Cambridge City Council voted to clear a backlog of policy orders during a Monday meeting. By Marina Qu
By Avani B. Rai, Crimson Staff Writer

The Cambridge City Council voted to clear an enormous backlog of policy orders during a Monday meeting, allowing City Manager Yi-An Huang ’05 to prioritize new Council initiatives.

The Council’s motion to place the backlog on file was raised in response to a memo from Huang detailing the “steadily increasing” number of unanswered policy orders, known as “awaiting reports.”

Under Cambridge’s council-manager form of government, policy orders passed by the democratically-elected City Council typically take the form of requesting the city manager, who oversees city staff, to produce a report on a given issue or policy proposal.

The current backlog includes 68 policy orders, a figure which has dramatically risen in recent years, according to Huang’s memo.

In the memo, Huang called the backlog a “pain point” in the often-strained relationship between the Council and the city manager. Since 2019, city staff have responded to an average of only about 60 of the roughly 100 awaiting reports passed by the Council each year.

“The Council and the community just often feels like there is so much that’s getting passed and the city isn’t giving back about a response,” Huang said in the meeting.

This mismatch in pace, Huang said, pointed to a broader issue in the dynamics between the Council and the city, saying it was unrealistic for the Council to expect that the city “has the capacity or is willing to sacrifice the other work that actually has to get done” in order to address every new policy order.

“I respect the amount of work it takes to put in these policy orders, to debate them and pass them,” Huang said, “but there is a significant amount of work that it takes to actually provide the replies and to do the work to then actually implement them.”

Should the backlog of 68 awaiting reports not be placed on file and city staff were to continue to respond at their current rate, Huang said, they “may not get to something that passes in January until November.”

The Council voted 5-4 in favor of the motion to file, with supporters, including Councilor Paul F. Toner, citing a buildup of repetitive or irrelevant awaiting reports from previous terms.

“For me, the logic would be to look at the things that we sincerely want to pursue and prioritize,” Toner said during the meeting, “rather than spending time going through the 50 or 60 that we have there, and deciding which ones to keep.”

Newly-elected Cambridge Mayor E. Denise Simmons emphasized that the motion would not permanently eliminate the outstanding policy orders.

“Cleaning the slate, it doesn’t make them disappear,” she said, adding that councilors can request to bring certain awaiting reports back to the floor.

Though the motion’s opponents recognized the need for a change to the current awaiting reports system, they said filing the awaiting reports would undermine the policy orders passed by the Council.

“What’s really troubling to me is the thought of folks either at this body currently or those who are former colleagues who have left the council, has reports here that were pressing issues that we are now thinking to just keep on file,” Councilor Ayesha M. Wilson said.

Councilor Patricia M. “Patty” Nolan ’80 joined Wilson in voting against the motion, describing it as “fundamentally undemocratic and totally contrary to transparency.”

“These were all policy orders passed by the City Council, and the public expects it,” she said.

But Toner rejected that characterization of the motion.

“This is not intended to be undemocratic, it’s intended to help us all get focused on moving forward,” he said.

Despite the divided vote on the motion to file, councilors agreed on the need to modify the policy order process to prioritize efficiency in city governance, unanimously passing a motion to hold a hearing on the topic in the Government Operations Committee.

“I think that we need to kind of fundamentally revisit how we do this because there is no way that we can respond to that many policy orders,” Councilor Burham Azeem said.

—Staff writer Avani B. Rai can be reached at avani.rai@thecrimson.com. Follow her on X @avaniiiirai.

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