Accountability on the Council

Photographs By Katherine W.K. Smith
Cambridge City Council Race Pits Old Against New
By Ignacio Sabate, Crimson Staff Writer

This is Part I in a three-part series about the upcoming Cambridge City Council elections. Part II will run on Wednesday and Part III will run on Thursday.

As Democrats and Republicans vie for their parties’ respective presidential nominations, another political battle is sprouting in Harvard’s backyard—the contest for the Cambridge City Council.

In a recent letter, incumbent Cambridge City Council candidate Dennis A. Benzan argued that there was an intimate, albeit unfortunate, link between the two elections.

“The toxicity of national elections is bleeding into our local elections,” Benzan wrote, “and it is unfortunate because that is not the kind of city we are.”

When they take to the polls on Nov. 3, voters across Cambridge will use their ballots to take sides on a number of issues, one of the most salient being accountability—or lack thereof—on the Council. As incumbents and newcomers have divided into camps, questions have been raised about whether the Council has fulfilled its obligations to Cambridge residents.

Voters are now tasked with deciding whether a change of face is needed.


Ilan S. Levy and Nadeem A. Mazen, both candidates for the Council, the latter running for re-election, were particularly outspoken about what they contended is a lack of accountability in City Hall.

“This is a $75,000 a year job where you can get away with what it seems like...20 minutes a day,” Mazen said, adding that he puts in “full days.”


Asked about accountability on the Council, incumbent candidates Leland Cheung and Dennis Benzan suggested that measures were in place in Cambridge to help address the accountability gap. Specifically, Cheung spoke of the Open Data Portal, which contains hundreds of pages worth of data that is open to the public, ranging from accidents maps and fiscal data to bicycle facilities and crime reports.

But the portal’s usage logs suggested limited adoption among Cantabrigians. As of Sunday morning, the most accessed data set on the Open Data Portal had received only 2,669 hits.

Some newcomers to Cambridge politics suggested that Cantabrigians’ limited engagement is, in fact, derived from a lack of communication from the present Council.

Candidates Marc C. McGovern and Mike Connolly spoke of a need to reach out to more segments of Cambridge in municipal debates.

“It’s always the same 20 people that come to the City Council meetings—we’re not getting people of color, people from different ethnic backgrounds, low income, and we’re not getting young people,” McGovern said. “The decisions that get made come from a certain demographic and so we need to do a good job of getting more people involved.”

Candidate Mike Connolly said the city could play a larger role in reaching out to residents and including their voices in these discussions.

The problem of limited communication has become especially salient this fall, as the Council has planned a higher number of roundtable meetings that are closed from public comment.

“I think they’re fine,” said Cheung, an incumbent. “They let us to have more informal discussions that don’t go on the record, so people are less hesitant to talk about proposals.”

A number of other incumbents also supported the continued planning of more roundtable meetings over public City Council meetings. Benzan argues that despite the increase in roundtable meetings, there are still a number of other ways that the public can engage Cambridge’s government.

Despite Mazen’s desire to maintain the meetings closed from the public, he argues that the meetings should be televised and open for public comment.

“If public comment is already falling on deaf ears…then roundtable [meetings] are just saying...the adults have to talk about some real stuff today, so you’re not going to get any comment,” Mazen said.

Agreeing with Mazen, both Mariko M. Davidson and Romaine Waite said the public should be able to view the meetings, whether that be in person or over an alternative form of media, such as a video feed broadcast on live television or a delayed online video upload.


Some candidates are also questioning the fairness surrounding the City Council elections themselves in light of this year’s campaign slates and fundraising practices.

This year, a number of candidates have linked arms and created two separate political slates—groups of candidates who lead their campaigns on common platforms—in order to more easily facilitate their election.

In early August, Mazen created the “Slate for Cambridge City,” with Davidson, Waite, John Sanzone, and School Committee candidate Jake Crutchfield making up the remaining slate members. According to Mazen, the point of his slate is to facilitate the introduction of newcomers to Cambridge politics. In response, seven of the nine incumbents created the “Unity Slate,” composed of David P. Maher, Benzan, Craig A. Kelley, Cheung, McGovern, E. Denise Simmons, and Timothy J. Toomey, Jr. All nine incumbents will be running for re-election.

The formation of the Unity Slate may have created an even stronger barrier to entry for the election’s political newcomers, who Davidson said face the disadvantages of less-developed professional and donor networks as well as a lack of name recognition among voters.

Mazen has argued that the incumbents’ slate does little more than promote the status quo.

“There is an insistence by the longest term incumbents who want to preserve their incumbency and continue their incumbency for as long as possible,” Mazen said.

—Aditya Agrawal, Sara A. Atske, Brandon J. Dixon, Raghu Dhara, Brittany N. Ellis, Joshua J. Florence, Laszlo B. Herwitz, Nathaniel J. Hiatt, Jesper W. Ke, Siqi Liu, William W. Maddock, Sruthi L. Muluk, M. Hanl Park, Maria H. Park, Luca F. Schroeder, Samuel Vasquez, Daniel P. Wood, and Sharon Yang contributed reporting to this story.

—Staff writer Ignacio Sabate can be reached at . Follow him on Twitter @ignacio_sabate.

', [])