Happy January and happy beginning of a new council term. To be honest, I had hoped to be mayor this term, and am disappointed that I am not. I will not let that disappointment stop me from working hard and having a great term. I look forward to working with Mayor Simmons and the entire council and the city administration on many initiatives over the next term.
Before I delve into the substantive (albeit long) review, the picture above is not the usual newsletter photo: it is meant to inspire you to adopt a hydrant near your home. Who knew how many hydrants there are in Cambridge? Astonishing, right? And astonishing how FEW have been adopted by a resident who promises to shovel out the hydrant in case of snow. Though snow is rare, if it does come, hydrants need to be cleared. One of the very few adopted (GREEN) hydrants is the one nearest my house that my family adopted. As a new year act of kindness, if you are able to shovel out a hydrant, please sign up!
Over the holiday break, I have reflected on some of my work on council and the broader context of the previous term. It’s hard to quantify an entire year, let alone an entire council term into a simple narrative. But broadly, we, as a city, council, community, and administration, did extraordinary work and maintained many of the high level services and programs that distinguish our city as a wonderful place to live and work. And yet, we made mistakes and failed at times to live up to our ideals. It’s important to consider our successes and our failings together as we look towards improving our city in the future. I am looking forward to the new year and the new council term. There is a lot we can and should do to make our city more equitable and just and to make our government more accountable and effective. I am committed to working towards that.
As the new year and new council term begin, I wanted to take an opportunity to briefly review some top line notes from the past year. Below, please find some notes on a few of the most important parts of my work last year and some thoughts on other notable events. It is already a long review – and yet covers only some of the work! If you’re interested in digging into more of what we were able to accomplish this year (big or small), check out my newsletter archive here. I try to make my newsletters a place where folks can quickly get updated on all things Cambridge City Council and learn about how I think about all the issues. Please forward to others who may be interested in the newsletters. And of course unsubscribe if you don’t want to receive these newsletters.
I would like to acknowledge everyone who voted and participated in our democratic process last November. Democracy is a cherished value, and this year with national elections of great importance, I hope every voter participates. I am honored to serve the city and hope the new year will bring opportunities for continued focus on the most important issues, and greater effectiveness addressing them.
2023 In Review
It is impossible to consider the previous year without first acknowledging that the year started with a tragedy. On January 4, 2023, Cambridge Police killed Arif Sayed Faisal. There has been extensive reporting on the shooting that I encourage all who haven’t to read. An independent inquest ordered by the Massachusetts District Attorney eventually resulted in no charges being filed against the officer, but this result doesn’t do anything to change the tragic event. As a city and as a council we spent time this year reflecting on our failings and working for changes. We are moving towards more accountability and to improve our community response efforts. The council held hearings on the police budget, on police equipment, and on body cameras. The council also sent directives to the city manager to conduct an independent review of police department practices and procedures. This work was done with an eye for accountability and community safety and was done with the willing partnership and leadership of the city manager. We have a world class police department and excellent city leadership, but even that does not insulate our community from this kind of tragedy, so we, as a city, must do better. Improvements have come slowly at times, but there is a clear commitment within the council and the city administration to improve community safety.
2023 was in many ways a banner year for environmental justice in Cambridge, and I am proud of all the work I championed that led us there. In June, we passed amendments to the Building Energy Use Disclosure Ordinance (BEUDO) that requires large buildings to reduce their carbon emissions over time – the largest of which have to reduce to netzero by 2035. This was an extraordinary accomplishment and I am grateful to the city staff and my fellow city councillors for joining me in support of this transformational policy. Throughout the process of passing these amendments I worked to bring people along in a transparent way. I held meetings, sent out postcards, wrote several articles, and met with many stakeholders to explain the rationale and the approach, listen to concerns, and craft a policy that would eventually meet the moment while addressing reasonable concerns. That work was paired with incredible support from residents, climate advocates, and community members who were essential in showing the city that this kind of action was necessary and possible. That advocacy was remarkable and our city and the world are the better for it.
The set of BEUDO amendments was in many ways the most transformational step we took in 2023, but it was in no way the only big accomplishment. 2023 began with the council approving an update to the city’s Net Zero Action Plan (NZAP). This update, which I worked closely with CDD to implement, tracks a suite of programs and policies that will eventually lead the city to carbon neutrality. One of my main focuses in this update was to include at least some SMART (Specific Measurable Actionable Relevant Timebound) goals which had been lacking, and which will allow us to track progress and adjust actions to meet goals over time. The climate crisis is deepening and we cannot afford to waste any more time by missing deadlines or targets. Two other major accomplishments were in adopting state policies, namely, the Specialized Stretch Energy Building Code and applying for the state’s Fossil Fuel Free Demonstration Pilot Program. I worked hard not only to implement these programs in Cambridge, but also on the state-level to advocate for strong policy options for cities. These programs, if well implemented, in tandem with BEUDO, will absolutely transform the way building construction affects the climate crisis.
The climate crisis is not just decarbonization however, it’s also improving climate resiliency and public health. In 2023 the council adopted the Climate Resilience Zoning Amendment to ensure that our zoning addresses the risks associated with climate change. I also held a Health and Environment Committee meeting (more on that later) to begin to review the progress of the Urban Forest Master Plan, which seeks to utilize our natural environment and improve our urban forest to help our city become more resilient to climate change, reduce the urban heat island effect, mitigate stormwater runoff, reduce nutrient runoff, and broadly contribute to community well-being and public health. Similarly, I held a committee meeting to review and adopt the city’s Natural Hazard Mitigation Plan. In December I also led a successful effort to ban gas-powered leaf blowers over time in Cambridge. This was a community-driven effort over many years, and I am proud that we eventually got this important effort across the finish line.
This work wasn’t always easy, and we didn’t always have success. BEUDO was nearly much stronger. We lost a number of 4-5 council votes that would have led to stronger climate policies. These votes included restricting new lab construction to reach netzero by 2030 and reducing the threshold for the 2035 netzero deadline for large buildings from 100,000 sqft to 50,000 sqft, and including the largest residential apartment buildings, among others. In addition, we only won several votes by an equally slim margin, 5-4. Without each and every vote, the council may have voted for numerous other exemptions and loopholes. These close votes and near-misses are indicative of the uphill battle we have to fight, even in Cambridge, to enact transformational climate policies. I am still committed to working to change that culture and work to make our city more effective at addressing the climate crisis and achieving our goals. This work will continue in the new term.
As co-chair of the Finance Committee, along with Councillor Carlone, I was proud of the work we did to improve accountability and get more council input into the budget process. We held more and earlier Finance Committee meetings in order to work with the city administration to better address council priorities. We also held a very important meeting to review the police department budget – an ordinance requirement which had previously gone unmet. We also held numerous meetings to discuss ARPA funding and long-term capital planning and public investment. These meetings resulted in a far more transparent financial view of the city for the council and the public at large. This kind of transparency is essential for good government and I hope to continue these practices in the new term.
City Manager Review
Last term was, in many ways, defined by our search for and hiring of a new city manager. One of the most important decisions a city council can make in Cambridge is hiring an effective city manager. As the legislative body, it’s equally important to conduct oversight on the city manager through effective reviews. For the first time in our city’s history, the council conducted a thorough review of the city manager. As those of you who follow my work closely know, accountability and goal setting are paramount to my work on council. I am grateful to City Manager Huang for agreeing to and working to complete this review process. City Manager Huang has proven to be an excellent choice to lead our city. He has brought more accountability, transparency, caring, and empowerment to the city and city staff. I remain grateful he applied and thrilled we hired him. Our review was supplemented by City Manager Huang’s regular quarterly updates, which were greatly appreciated. There are areas that deserve more attention and concerns that need to be addressed, including how to incorporate input from all residents and make sure the input is considered – not just heard. I’m proud to be working to implement this kind of increased accountability throughout the city in the new term.
In the last term I was honored to co-chair the Finance Committee and chair the Health and Environment Committee and I take both of those roles very seriously. I see committee work on the council as an opportunity to work on issues in a way that is public, transparent, and collaborative. In 2023, I am proud to say that I held more committee meetings than any other councillor. Part of the interesting thing about being a city councillor is that there isn’t really a how-to guide on how to be effective. For me, a lot of my most effective work was through holding committee meetings to investigate issues and have discussions and then following up with policy proposals. I believe that when we bring people to the table in order to tackle complicated issues, we can work towards common goals together – and I think the results speak to that. In the Health and Environment Committee I held 8 hearings in 2023 on topics including: renewable energy expansion, the urban forest master plan, gas-powered leaf blowers, the public health department, the zero waste master plan, and others. Many of these hearings led to real, substantive improvements to city operations and policies and many more of them will build on existing work. In the Finance Committee, my co-chair, Councillor Carlone, and I held 8 hearings as well. In addition to the typically scheduled budget hearings which happen every year, we also held hearings on the police budget, on council budget priorities, on capital budget planning, on Participatory Budget and ARPA spending, among others. A lot of time and effort went into planning and preparing for all of these committee meetings and I am excited to continue to build on this work in 2024. As I mentioned, I see an important opportunity within committee work to work collaboratively and transparently to tackle large issues.
Other Notable Work
This year we enacted new zoning that will help to create a unified vision for a revitalized and reimagined “Alewife Quadrangle”. If you’ve been following my work, you’ll remember that two years ago I led an effort to institute a development moratorium on new office and lab use in Alewife until the Council enacted new zoning. Over the course of the last year and a half, the Alewife Zoning Working Group worked to come up with just that: new zoning that would create a unified vision for the neighborhood. CDD worked hard to take the recommendations from the working group and came up with a zoning proposal. As a result, housing will be 40% of development in the area. I am impressed with the effort and vision of the working group and believe that this new zoning represents a clear vision, filled with community input and compromise. It is very clear from the work that has been done that this group has put together a thoughtful and collaborative proposal that has the potential to dramatically improve Alewife for decades, and I am excited to work to make that a reality.
There was also a lot of important transportation work that got done this year. Late last year I worked with several of my fellow councillors to provide community input to the MBTA for the redesign of the MBTA bus network. That work was finished in 2023 and will hopefully be implemented soon in order to better provide public transportation options to Cambridge residents. I held a joint meeting of the Health and Environment and Transportation Committees in order to assess many of our transportation and parking goals. In December, the city announced a new partnership to introduce e-bikes into circulation in the Bluebike system. This announcement is a long time coming and will do a lot to improve bike accessibility for folks who may not be comfortable on a traditional bike. In terms of traffic safety and enforcement, I worked this year on two policies that would allow the city to enact automated enforcement. The first is a possible pilot program for automated parking enforcement that has had some promising results in other cities. The second is a home rule petition I worked to file with our state delegation that would allow the city to use traffic cameras to enforce certain moving violations. I think that both can have a positive effect on road safety.
Municipal Broadband is another important priority and I am proud to have made some progress on that this year. After years of work, in March we received a long-awaited feasibility study. And in December we got another update from the City Manager this week on Municipal Broadband and Digital Equity progress in Cambridge. These new updates are in response to policy orders I filed asking for the city manager to continue working on the proposal. When we are able to further discuss this effort in council, I expect it will be a complicated conversation. Not everyone on council agrees on the necessity of this effort and there are concerns about the price tag associated with municipal broadband. I am committed to working through those concerns and exploring more of the benefits of municipal broadband – too often we only hear about the prices and drawbacks of such an investment and not enough about the essential benefits of municipal broadband and the costs of inaction. Part of the reason I support municipal broadband is that our commitment to equity demands that we pay attention to digital equity. In today’s world, reliable, affordable internet is as necessary as other utilities like electricity and water. For jobs, education, and life, the internet is a critically important tool for everyone in our community.
While I no longer serve on School Committee, I still was able to use my platform to effectively advocate for students in 2023. By raising the floor for students, we allow them to reach greater heights, and that’s what we can do by guaranteeing access to Algebra 1. I was happy that the School Committee eventually voted to establishe Angebra 1 education in all eighth grade classrooms by 2025. It’s been a goal for decades, and we had made progress – that was erased – we now need to rebuild the program.
I was also able to submit two important streetcorner dedications last year to honor several historic Cambridge women, notably: two suffragists, Florence Luscomb and Grace Allen Johnson, and two “computers” of the Harvard Observatory, Williamina P.S. Fleming and Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin.
There are so many other good and important things we did in 2023 including expanding the Universal Preschool Initiative, launching Rise Up Cambridge, launching a number of great climate programs, and more. The work is always ongoing.
Other Notable Events
There were of course things that I, and the city, struggled with in 2023. As I mentioned earlier, the police shooting in January of 2023 did a lot to divide our community and caused us all to look deeply inward. I believe the city has grown through actions following the tragic event, but the pain is still there. In November, as the world was grappling with tragic events in the Middle East, the city council was not isolated from the pain of the Israel-Hamas war. At this point in time we still do not have a conclusion to this complicated and tragic war, and many in the community are still reeling. Following a vote of the city council, I wrote an op-ed explaining some of my complicated thoughts that I hope you will take some time to read. I do not have all the answers, but I will always commit to thinking critically about what is best for Cambridge and doing my best to act in that way.
The amendments to the Affordable Housing Overlay (AHO 2.0) also took up a lot of time and energy in 2023. I’ve written about this issue at length in many previous newsletters so I won’t go into great detail here, but throughout that process I did my best to work towards compromise, asking questions and proposing amendments to address height concerns and access for middle-income households. In the end, the AHO 2.0 amendments passed. Despite the, at times, simplistic and divisive message that the AHO 2.0 was an either/or, for or against affordable housing, I still pride myself in having a long, solid, and documentable history of supporting affordable housing. And not only supporting: I was the first councillor to propose ending parking minimums, and to end exclusionary single and two family only zones. Votes for which I paid a price. I also led the moratorium in Alewife that resulted in a zoning that is viewed as a model – after 40 years of delay – and will result in far more housing, including more affordable housing. I was disappointed in how the AHO 2.0 process ended up, but I will continue to work towards making our city more affordable and accessible for everyone.
Thank you to everyone for reading. If there are any topics you want me to cover in future newsletters, I’m always happy for the input! As always, please feel free to reach out to my aide, Patrick (email@example.com) , or me for any of your City Council needs.
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