Friday, October 16, 2015

Friday Grab Bag: A Better Cambridge hosts a forum

It's a Friday, and that means it's Grab Bag time, but I'm going talk about last night's City Council candidates' forum organized by A Better Cambridge. The focus of the evening was housing, urban issues and density and it was a chance for aspirants to voice their opinions about the ubiquitous affordability question facing this city. WBUR host and Cambridge resident Robin Young mc'ed, and her familiar radio voice filled the auditorium of the Broad Institute on Main Street in a pleasing way.


In full disclosure, I am a member of the leadership committee of ABC, and in fuller disclosure, as a former elected official myself, some of last night's participants I hope will get elected (or re-elected as the case may be) and others I am not supporting.  To see more on this, you can read my recent letter to the Cambridge Chronicle about the candidates likely to show up on my ballot.

To cut to the proverbial chase about last night, my takeaways were this --

The incumbents had a much better grasp on this issues, and were much better at presenting their cases than the challengers. That is of course no surprise.

Some of the challengers are intelligent, some are amusing, others are disturbing, others may have a truth-deficit problem, and still others have been recycled through the wash just one too many times for everyday wear.

The questions lingered too long on affordability and housing. As crucial as those issues are, they aren't the only urban questions we need to think about.

Technology, and the development it's bringing to the city, underlies all of this.

Developer money in politics is a titilating topic, but it's a side show to the core issues, as Vice Mayor Dennis Benzan said very well.

It was interesting to see Tim Toomey lay into Nadeem Mazen over Mazen's alleged 50 plus letters of reprimand from the state's Office of Campaign and Political Finance over reporting violations and irregularities [Update: Thanks to an attentive reader, you can see the official records from OCPF for both Mazen and Toomey in the next blog post "Mazen...36 v. Toomey...2"]. Toomey also pointed out that Mazen recently deposited $35,000 of out of state money into his campaign war chest. Not illegal. Just worth noting.

Craig Kelley, who I actively want to see back on the Council, spoke very well.  As one affordable housing developer said to me after the event, "It's been a long journey for Craig", from political outsider to someone in the discussion. I find Craig to be very articulate these days on complex questions about the future of the city, a topic that really needs to be the focus of our attention.

Ilan Levy is someone who used to come and lecture the Council about its shortcomings. I'm sure he still does.  But he's also about to become someone who's received voters' feedback about his own proposals -- the establishment of a strong mayor system in Cambridge. I suspect he's not going to like what he hears.

James Williamson has been to the rodeo too many times. As a perennial 100 vote getter, it's time for him to consider hanging up the spurs.

David Maher was at final interviews for the new Cambridge school superintendent, so couldn't be there. Leland Cheung was not there. Jan Devereux didn't attend.

These events can swing in a heartbeat from farce, to theater, to substance to passion and last night was no exception.  Will the Council have a decidedly different complexion when all is said and done? I doubt it. But that won't be for lack of effort on the candidates' part.  A good event on an important topic.


18 comments:

  1. I agree with almost everything you wrote and will simply concur that ABC has been doing a good job of vetting the candidates this year, and we know which ones have the experience to deliver. As a longtime Craig Kelley supporter and friend, I echo your specific praise there as well.

    That said, while there are many good reasons not to vote for Levy, his support of a strong mayor system shouldn't be dismissed out of hand. In my view, Somerville has moved leaps and bounds ahead of Cambridge on a variety of fronts precisely because it has strong and directly accountable leadership in the form of Joe Curtatone.

    We have a lot of talented municipal leaders already on the Council capable of being that kind of Mayor. The late Brian Murphy comes to mind as someone who brought a good mixture of city management and policy advocacy to the forefront. Why restrict them to an advisory role to a strong City Manager, who's contract almost never gets voted down and inevitably ends up having more pull over the council in practice when it should be the other way around in theory. I have nothing against Rossi, I always found him to be more approachable and accountable than his predecessor. But I do wonder if a city our size would be doing better under Plan B.

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    1. Thanks James. The ABC leadership team has been working hard to vet, compile and disseminate info for this upcoming election, so thanks for the kudos. You and I are likewise about Craig, which I am sure is nice for him to hear. And Plan B v strong mayor is a fun (and long) debate. You mention Brian, who was also a friend and sorely missed, and yes, he brought his many talents to his job in City Hall and perhaps could have done more than counsel and advise. But like any system, strong mayor has its strengths and weakness, which would make for too many paragraphs here. So we can let Ilan carry the banner for the moment and then look at it more in depth after November 3. I appreciate you taking the time to comment.

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    2. Which of course is actually called Plan E, as you and I both know. But maybe you're saying we need to start thinking of a Plan B?!

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    3. Actually Sam, Jame Conroy did not misspeak: he was referring to "Plan B", which is one of the six standar plans of municipal government provided in M.G.L. chapter 43. (Plan B is typical of that currently in effect in Boston, with a strong mayor and a city council composed of a mix of at-large and district councillors.) Modifed versions of each of these plans can also be adopted on approval by the legislature of an appropriate home rule petition.

      With respect to our current Plan E charter, some of us have so reified it that we think that it was created for Cambridge from high and for all eternity. The fact is, we have only had Plan E since 1947, and it was adopted to deal with particular issues of the day. Almost 70 years later we face vastly different issues. A broad-based and well publicized charter review process would not be a bad thing - except perhaps to those who, for whatever reason, are resistant to change.

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    4. Thank you Lesley for your clarifications, corrections, close reading, and knowledge. Much appreciated.

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  2. Some very good observations. However, I thought Dennis Carlone made some fine observations from his experience.

    Leland Cheung actually WAS there. He just didn't join the conversation when he arrived. Curious.

    James Williamson may not be a big vote-getter and an is an unlikely winner, but at least he is in there trying to drive the conversation.

    Certainly worth a mention is challenger Mariko Davidson who was able to rise above some of the nonsense and policy white noise to sound informed, determined and not swayed via "me too" comments. I thought her points about regional cooperation and supporting nonprofit housing developers were well-taken.

    Finally, real estate developers' money flowing into the council campaigns is not a sideshow. It's real, it's important and it's a conflict. Mr. Benzan simply couldn't or wouldn't answer the question about it because he's one of those taking it.

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    1. Yes, I like Dennis Carlone and my differences with him are not at all personal ... but we do differ on policy and policy direction. So ok on that point. You are correct, Leland was there. I saw him too, and you're right, he didn't speak during the session. Ok, on Mariko. There are a slew of young MIT whiz kids (I'm including her in this group) who talk as if they believe the art and craft of policy making can be relegated to a spread sheet or a best management practices seminar. My characterization, to be sure, but they are incorrect if they do believe that. My comment isn't so much a knock against them as it is an endorsement of experience as an essential component for this kind of work. As for developers' money in politics, I think that misses the forest for the trees. To me, the really distorting effect in our current economics is also our most valuable asset: the very smart and talented and ambitious young men and women graduating from our world class universities. Without them, all this money and investment and development pressure would dry up and go elsewhere. Their presence here is why builders want to build. To me, that's a net positive for us, though the tradeoffs need to be fully debated. I will note that there were at least three of these graduates on the stage last night.

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    2. Dennis Carlone seems very smart but he came off as deeply unserious last night when he argued that building towers would lead to higher suicide rate. Not quite as detestable as his 2013 comment comparing development along Mass Ave in Central Square to the kamikaze attacks on Pearl Harbor, which killed 2,500 people, but detrimental nonetheless to a productive public discussion of an important issue. What's up with this guy?

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    3. Good points. Can't really argue with any of what you say. My first reaction to his comment last night was to laugh (like most of the audience), and then I leaned over to the person next to me and said, "Build buildings with windows that don't open." That was a joke, of course.

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  3. Can you please comment more on Councillor Mazen's 50 letters of reprimands about reporting irregularities? Is it true?

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    1. The actual number is 36, according the official records we obtained online from the OCPF website. By comparison, Toomey received 2 such letters over the same time period. I post the data in my subsequent blog post "Mazen...36 v. Toomey...2".

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  4. Btw, an attentive reader checked on the Tim Toomey allegation that Nadeem Mazen had over 50 audit reports from the state's Office of Political and Campaign Finance. The actual number of reports filed by OCPF against the Mazen campaign for filing errors or omissions: 35. For the record, the Toomey campaign had 2.

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  5. But if you look closely, several of those letters contain multiple issues (receipt, expense and credit card related), so the actual number is 44

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    1. Well spotted, and good eagle eye detective-ing. We'll leave the number as 36 on the blog post, but we'll add a note that that represents the number of separate entries on that sheet, not the number of issues raised, which is the bigger number -- 44 -- and let the readers do their own close reading of the findings.

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  6. One thing that seriously rankles me is the blanket condemnations of "real estate developers". One of those "evil developers" who has written checks to 6 city councillors this year also convenes the Central Square Safety & Infrastructure meeting twice monthly, is the largest contributor to public events held in Central Square, regularly cleans up the Lafayette Square area himself, signs long-term leases at below-market rents to local businesses that we all patronize, and contributed more toward the funeral expenses of someone recently murdered at Newtowne Court than anyone else (even though he never met the person who was murdered). Nonetheless, Dennis Carlone returned his check because he was "a developer". I can get a little suspicious about people from far away pouring money into the campaign coffers of local candidates, but I think it's totally wrong to paint all property owners/builders with a broad brush like some candidates seem to be doing this year.

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    1. That's interesting, Mr. Winters. That's not what you said in 2011:

      "It may be time for the Cambridge City Council to consider an Ordinance prohibiting campaign contributions by any party with business before the City Council (or the representatives of any such party) for a period of one or two years before and after the matter is voted by the City Council. In these days of Citizens United, it is unclear what such limits may legally be imposed, but it would be a welcome initiative by any city councillor willing to propose such an ordinance."

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    2. And here's another quote from Mr. Winters, circa 2011:

      "It's bad enough that the unquenchable desire for additional real estate taxes often conflicts with good planning, but it's even worse when zoning votes are delivered in exchange for one-time monetary contributions to favored charities."

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    3. Thanks for the Anonymous reminder. I'm not aware that any such law was ever passed, so there's been no violation. I gave an example of a community-minded Cambridge resident contributing to candidates who he knows and respects. Please note my last sentence: "I can get a little suspicious about people from far away pouring money into the campaign coffers of local candidates, but I think it's totally wrong to paint all property owners/builders with a broad brush like some candidates seem to be doing this year." I stand by that statement.

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