Amending the City Charter

Pride celebration at Starlight Square last week


Happy Juneteenth! And Happy Pride Month! And Happy Father’s Day! It is quite an exciting day – the first-ever official Juneteenth holiday in Cambridge and Pres. Biden signed federal legislation as well. There are many celebrations and commemorations – and above it all, I recognize that as much as we should celebrate, we should also never forget why we are celebrating – and what – the end of a system of enslaving people that should never have been started. The Globe today lists several Juneteenth-related arts events – enjoy. And the city’s diversity committee put together a wonderful event which occurred on Wednesday. Even remotely, the passion and wonder of the performers in the dance, singing, and spoken word parts were moving. And hearing from many Cantabridgians about what Juneteenth means to them was quite meaningful.

I couldn’t be more excited about two items on the agenda for next week – a proposal to have some charter changes be placed on the ballot this fall and a proposal to start exploring how Cambridge might engage in reparations. PLEASE email the council if you agree that these are policy orders the council should pass. And/or sign up for public comment. For years (decades?), people in Cambridge have talked about revising the charter – to update it, make our city governance more democratic and address items that merit change. Finally we are taking steps to do that. Similarly, a discussion on reparations is long overdue. Below is more on these and other agenda items. 

As the pandemic eases, the city continues to offer free vaccinations – at sites and with a mobile unit that brings vaccines to neighborhoods. Please ask everyone 12 and over to get vaccinated. The science is clear that the higher the percent vaccinated, the more the coronavirus will be contained. 

It is almost SUMMER officially! And for those with kids still in school – or working at schools – next week marks the end of an incredibly difficult and challenging year. One item about which I am passionate and for which I have advocated forcefully is the need to provide summer learning opportunities for all – I believe summer learning can be enriching, meaningful, AND fun. Our kids deserve it – especially since the buzz in some education circles is that more conservative states will see less of a slide in learning that more liberal/progressive states like Massachusetts – since our schools were closed longer in general….. The city has worked to ensure more summer programming and the school district is working on plans to address this issue – it is needed.


“The City of Cambridge, which adopted the Plan E Charter in 1940, has not once held a formal review process to consider revisions, making it one of the only municipalities in Massachusetts to go 80 years without reviewing its most important legal document.”

The first line of a policy order I submitted for Monday’s Council meeting begs an important question: why has this taken so long? Charter review, in cities and towns across Massachusetts, is a normal, often mundane procedure. Like going to the dentist, it’s an exercise in caution, ensuring that the document central to city governance is still healthy. And in Cambridge, ever since I started paying attention to local politics, I heard people complain about and wonder about changing the charter. For some, they’d like an elected mayor, others think some ward-based city councillors would be better, others want the election proportional representation method to be adjusted to use the fractional transfer method in our ballot counting. When I took office, I wanted to ensure that we engaged in a process to consider charter review and change. 

Over the past year, the council has had several meetings about this idea and the time is ripe for us to act. The proposal on the agenda is not a broad comprehensive review – it represents the first steps. Over the last year, we have worked with the Collins Center, which is the Commonwealth’s most knowledgeable body in the area of Massachusetts charters. In their work, they found a consensus, or at least strong support, for some changes to the charter initiated by the council. The changes of most interest and agreement and were discussed at multiple meetings and in the Collins Center memos, were council approval of appointments to board and commissions, ensuring an annual review of the city manager, and doing a comprehensive regular review of the charter every ten years, starting in 2022. All of these proposed changes are ones that many municipalities – cities and towns – have in their charters. And each one will, if the home rule passes, be voted on by the voters in Cambridge this November. So stay tuned – please advocate for this policy order so Cambridge voters will have a say in our governance structure. 

The policy order on reparations which Councillor Simmons is sponsoring and I am a co-sponsor asks the city manager to start a process of exploring how we might engage as a city. While the federal and state levels are the most appropriate for national reparations, we at the local level can and should also make reparations. The country’s discourse on reparations for descendants of formerly enslaved people has evolved from a tiny sliver of people a century ago to a small number a decade ago to a growing movement today. Count me as one of those who wasn’t sure whether reparations made sense a decade ago to someone who now believes we have an obligation to do reparations. Best books I have read on this topic: From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty-First Century – by William A. Darity (Author), A. Kirsten Mullen And The Color of Law, by Richard Rothstein (which mentions housing developments in Cambridge that were race-segregated by law). 

I also put in a policy order with Councillor Zondervan about preserving trees at the city’s next school building project – the Tobin/VassalLane project. With so many old-growth large trees being cut down citywide and the city engaging in measures to incentivize other property owners to save trees, it seems that we could be doing more to save our own trees on public land. 

At last Monday’s meeting, the items for which I advocate and mentioned in last week’s newsletter all passed: needing a plan for afterschool programming for all (I advocated for expanding programs, not just restoring seats), buying land in Alewife, permanent remote participation in meetings, and ensuring discussion of the bike safety updates. In accepting the report from the city manager on appointments to the Police Review Advisory Board I asked whether we had any applicants who had been incarcerated – the answer was no – so I asked that we reach out for future appointments into the community since that seems to be a perspective that would be helpful. For all actions taken, see the city website

Events and Updates:

History Cambridge (formerly the Cambridge Historical Society) is part of the inaugural season of Civic Season – check out some of their offerings, which includes several related to Juneteenth: 

The Cambridge Carnival Jamboree is a celebration for National Caribbean American Heritage month and will be held in collaboration with the City of Cambridge’s Mayor’s office on the City Hall Lawn on Thursday June 24, 2021 from 5-8pm. The Carnival Jamboree event will celebrate the contributions of Caribbean residents of Cambridge and recognize the rich cultural heritage of the Caribbean diaspora. The event is free to the public and a rain date of July 8, 2021 is scheduled.

2021 Cambridge Summer Food Program will run from June 28 through September 3, 2021. Monday through Friday between 11:30 a.m. – 1:00 p.m., Cambridge youth ages 18 and younger can pick up breakfast and lunch meals at locations throughout the city. As part of the program, free evening meals will be provided at Cambridge Summer Basketball Leagues from 6:00 – 7:30 p.m. beginning the week of July 6th. Youth do not need to participate in the leagues in order to pick up a meal. Additional information, including meal site locations and multilingual flyers, is available here.

For info on some additional local Juneteenth events, see Cambridge Community Foundation page.

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