Thursday, January 25, 2007

The essential Cambridge political website.

Cambridge is a big little town. Once I was told that it is the largest
city in the United States without a daily newspaper. To be sure
everybody reads the Globe but the Globe doesn't pay much attention to
Cambridge. Quincy has a five day a week paper. Cambridge's only daily
is the Harvard Crimson, and if you're interested in Cambridge life its
a good idea to read the Crimson. Its also a good idea to read Robert
Winters' website, which is cleverly to be found at
Winters ran for council once and spends the rest of the time teaching
math and writing about local politics. Famously he once said that "it
is mathematically impossible for Central Square to become Harvard
Square so long as Harvard Square exists." This did not conclude the
endless argument about gentrification but it should have retired the
hysterical claim that Central Square was becoming Harvard Square.

This column also appeared in The Alewife, North Cambridge's excellent
weekly. The column might be read the way you'd read Howie Carr.

Robert Windows

January 09, 2007

Cambridge Ideas by Robert Winters

Fine Feathered Nests

Even before the year 2006 began, word leaked out from Cambridge city
councillors that a deal was in the works to grant some councillors
their own personal aides in exchange for their votes to make Ken Reeves
mayor. The plan at that time was for Reeves to appoint certain
councillors to chair several Council committees and to use this to
justify the supposed need for personal staff.

Robert Winters

Sure enough, when the committee appointments were made, new co-chairs
were created where there had been none, and the councillors appointed
by the mayor to chair some committees made no sense at all. Soon after,
each councillor was given the option of receiving a personal aide
courtesy of the newly anointed mayor.

By the end of the year, this city council had accomplished less than
any in the history of the city. At year's end, there were precisely
zero Council committee meetings scheduled and little for the
councillors to do.

In truth, 2006 was a year during which some councillors measured their
new offices, others measured their chances at getting elected to new
offices, and the rest measured how many more years of incumbency they
needed in order to max out their pensions.

It was a year to take care Number One, and no one did so with greater
extravagance than his royal highness, the mayor, Mr. Reeves. While all
other departments kept their budgets close to the levels of the
previous year, Reeves submitted a budget 54% higher than the previous
mayor. The main increase was the inclusion of personal "research
assistants" for each councillor - all paid out of the Mayor's budget to
complete the deal that made Reeves mayor.

It's important to understand several things about these "research
assistants." First, they don't do any research. In fact, nobody knows
what they do other than free up time for councillors to seek
reelection. Second, they are, for the most part, affiliated with the
political campaigns of the incumbents - just like almost everyone who
works in the mayor's office. For this reason, their salaries are
effectively campaign contributions paid out of city tax revenue. Third,
since they're provided by the Mayor's Office, it's important that
councillors make nice to the Mayor if they want to get their personal
coat-holder, letter-answerer, and car-parker.

When the Mayor's Office budget was submitted last spring, only one
councillor, Craig Kelley, had the gonads to pull that budget to allow
discussion. Unfortunately, when it came time to ask questions, the new
councillor declared that the budget was going to pass anyway, so there
was no point in asking questions. Wrong, very wrong.

By the time December rolled around, we discovered that our wandering
mayor had not only used up his $20,500 annual travel budget in less
that half a year, but there was now an appropriation request for an
additional $19,750 for travel expenses. The appropriation passed
without discussion.

What this all means is that this Cambridge City Council unanimously
believes in the principle that "you have to go along to get along."

In most political settings, there are two parties in play. No matter
what you call them, it's basically a balance between those who are in
control and those who would like to be in control. Those on the outside
play a vital role in requiring those in power to justify their actions
and expenditures. We really don't have that in City Hall any more.
Everyone's an insider. Last term, we could always count on David Maher
to point out the lack of garments on the king.

The only time anything is challenged now is when there is some
political gain to be had - all in the noble cause of incumbency

I've been closely following local government in Cambridge for two
decades now and I've never felt as little affinity with any group of
nine councillors as I do right now (with the sole exception of Michael
Sullivan who was recently elected as Middlesex County Clerk  of
Courts). Most of them put their own self-interest well ahead of the
taxpayers' interest. Half of them are focused more on their next job
than their current job.

Because Cambridge can always permit another large development project
to cover any added costs, this Council rarely has to be concerned about
any blowback from an unnecessary expense, especially the expense of
feathering their own nests.

What we could all use now are some good men and women who are willing
to run for local office and to challenge the incumbents. This can be a
daunting task. We don't usually get more than a few credible
challengers brave enough to give it a try. The campaign finance
reporting requirements are a pain (unless you fudge the numbers, like
the mayor), fundraising is awkward and time-consuming, and it's likely
that you'll catch some abuse from somewhere before it's all said and

Any new candidate has to get up to speed on a lot of issues in order to
avoid embarrassment, but there are many people who will be happy to
lend you a hand. Candidacy is one of the best ways to learn about local
government. There's a better than even chance that you won't get
elected. Nonetheless, we could really use you. Think about it! The year
2007 could be a great year to clean house at City Hall.

There are now a lot of people in Cambridge who would love to oust some
incumbents. They would love nothing more than to have their choice of
credible hallengers to support and to give their Number 1 vote next
November. The School Committee race could also use some competition. If
you have loftier goals, there are also several Massachusetts House and
Senate seats that could use new occupants in 2008.

Asking someone to become a candidate for public office is a lot to ask.
Consider yourself asked.

January 09, 2007 in Robert Winters | Permalink