Part 7: Charter Reform, City Management, Municipal Broadband
Part 7 of a series on my priorities as a first-time candidate for Cambridge City Council. Next: Part 8: Local Innovation, Business, and the Arts
Our city government has a unique structure called Plan E, which places the bulk of authority with our city manager, who is appointed by the council. While councillors are responsible for voting on policy changes, the city manager runs day-to-day government operations and most internal hiring.
The amount of concentrated power placed in our unelected manager has caused problems. The proposed feasibility study for municipal broadband, which would have cheaply clarified the costs and benefits of implementing public city-wide internet, is an example. After a vote in favor by the council the study was blocked from moving forward by the city manager.
Technically, the council can fire the city manager at any time with a majority vote; in practice, however, this is no small decision. Leaving the city without a manager can cause immediate logistical crises in the basic functioning of the city, especially if there is no named deputy city manager to smoothly fill in (as there isn’t now).
To be clear, I take issue with the structure of our government, not any individual. We need a better system of accountability among our unelected officials that does not radically threaten the basic functioning of all city departments to operate. This issue extends well beyond the topic of municipal broadband, which simply illustrates the deeper challenges. We cannot allow the wishes of the public and their representatives to be able to be arbitrarily blocked. That is not a democratic process.
The recently proposed measures of required board appointment approval by the council as well as yearly reviews of the city manager are a start to getting at implementing more accountability, though I believe more is needed. At the very least, I believe real, meaningful, and practicable consequences for noncompliance by unelected officials are necessary. These might include legally enforced, predefined timelines for acting upon mandates by the council, for example. Switching to a system with an elected executive official is something we should alternatively consider.
I want the form of government that best serves our people. There are advantages to our “strong manager / weak mayor” system: Operations tend to be more efficient, since they are headed by someone who had to submit a resume detailing their relevant professional qualifications to run the operations of a city and judged on that basis, rather than a person tasked with being charismatic, rousing, and having wide popular appeal. And the theory goes that in a “strong manager / weak mayor” government like our own, operations, hiring processes, and most appointments are “depoliticized,” since they are led by a government employee who is not directly elected by the people.
However, I feel that, in reality, there is not one role in our government that is not political. There is not one role in life that is not political. Every person has an agenda, and if they are not directly beholden to voters then they are beholden to their own individual biases and political leanings. Concentrating undue power within a single human being is always an extremely risky and undemocratic structure. It is an acute liability to the stability of our city and to the wellbeing of our people.
Thus, I feel if we are to keep our current Plan E structure, we must enact greater measures of true accountability and a more balanced distribution of oversight as mentioned above. And switching to an elected mayor system is something we should consider.
Choosing a Next City Manager
Regardless of our decisions on charter reform, our current city manager is retiring this coming July 5. Until such time as we may or may not update our Plan E Charter, the council must choose a next city manager. As applicable, I hope to help choose a city manager who prioritizes transparency, inclusion, and community engagement and who is willing to collaborate closely with the council on forward-thinking initiatives.
We need to perform a feasibility study to illuminate the costs and benefits of implementing city-wide public internet. The study on municipal broadband feasibility was blocked by the city manager against the vote by the city council, representing an example of our need for more accountability among unelected officials in respecting the wishes of the public and their chosen representatives.
Regardless of your views on whether we should, in fact, have municipal broadband, opposing a relatively cheap feasibility study of its costs and benefits is simply unjustifiable. In fact, it is nothing less than pulling the wool over the eyes of our people regarding the real facts. It also obscures and stagnates further discussion about the right strategy for providing equitable digital access to our people. This is an incredibly important issue — one that touches upon fundamental human rights to basic utilities that enable, among other things, access to critical health information, means to financial income, and access to education.
Comcast’s internet monopoly in the area is damaging. Fundamentally, I see this within the context of our city’s urgent responsibility to ensure every Cambridge resident has affordable access to the internet. Frankly, I am agnostic as to the specific means by which we do this — whether through municipal broadband, investing in competition, subsidizing access, or otherwise. But I do believe that halting further study on the matter does nothing to benefit anyone.