Good Governance and Oversight
Some of my most deeply held values are accountability and transparency. And I have lived them as a councillor.
Going back just two years to the last election, remember our shared concern that, unlike virtually all other MA municipalities, Cambridge had not reviewed its charter in the 80 years since it was written. And for many years, the Council had failed to review the City Manager’s performance. I was the councillor who surfaced these two critical failures and led the effort that ultimately overcame resistance and got both questions – about the need to review the city’s charter and the need for the Council to do its job and properly review of the City Manager annually – onto the ballot. Both were supported overwhelmingly by you, the voters.
If re-elected, I intend to prioritize, and play a leadership role in, the Council’s response to the charter review committee’s recommendations. Those recommendations will be known in December, and the next council will review and possibly amend them, then create a city charter proposal to put before the voters. The Council’s deliberations and the votes it takes to shape the final charter proposal that voters will see, and vote on, is arguably the Council’s most important task next term. Yet it’s not part of discussions in the current election, nor is it presented as a priority by other candidates. It’s top of mind for me because I have a clear sense of what good governance means. If elected, I will ensure that the Council’s charter review process is transparent, open and inclusive. And I will prioritize it because I recognize its importance for the long-term well-being of our city and its citizens.
This term, I’ve led some important and fundamental changes, too. As co-chair of the Finance Committee, I worked with Councillor Carlone to make the budget process significantly more open, transparent, and collaborative than ever before. Recognizing that the council and the community felt the process was opaque and a “done deal” by the time it was unveiled to the council and the public, we organized hearings before finalization, sought input from residents and the council on priorities, and categorized spending in understandable buckets directly tied to city goals.
Another example my values and effectiveness is how I championed transparency, accountability and good governance in the City Manager search. I worked closely with Vice Mayor Mallon to ensure a robust process for gathering input. The community had multiple ways to communicate. And, for the first time ever, staff across the city were invited, encouraged, and given multiple opportunities, to engage. The staff input was startling in its honesty and how deeply felt was the need for a culture shift. As a member of the search committee, I worked with other members to cull a group of great semi-finalists, then present four finalists to the full council. That process was also unprecedented in how we vetted candidates, and ultimately chose the first Asian-American to lead our city. That the community and the council ultimately voted to appoint Yi-An Huang, who had never worked in local government, is a testament to how forward-thinking we are. The job involved complex management, leadership, and vision – all attributes displayed by Mr. Huang in his prior roles in a highly complex bureaucracy with a diverse set of stakeholders serving a multitude of residents – perfect training for our city CM!
Nothing else will matter if the planet continues on its current path. And thus far, Cambridge has failed to meet every emissions reduction goal we have set for the past two decades. My leadership, focus, and collaboration with colleagues, are key reasons why we’re now changing that. The Mayor’s Climate Crisis Working Group, which I formed and chaired, laid out a framework for ensuring transparency and accountability in the city’s climate work, and that our goals would be matched with the resources required to achieve them. We are now poised to assert our city’s leadership role – largely due to my ability to work with others, push hard for real impact, and compromise and adjust to realities. We passed a groundbreaking ordinance (the Building Energy Use Disclosure and Emission Reduction Ordinance) to require our largest buildings to reduce emission pollution and become net zero by 2035. I am proud to have played an essential leadership role in building the consensus required to achieve that milestone by bringing together my colleagues to pass BEUDO with an 8-1 vote; it was deemed unlikely to get more than 5 votes, and it quite possibly would not have passed without my consistent insistence on working together and making the case. While some of its elements were weakened by two disappointing 4-5 Council votes, I am hopeful it will produce meaningful results in Cambridge and serve as an example for other municipalities. Another success I help lead was passing legislation to require new buildings to be fossil fuel free; we know that this can now be accomplished for new buildings economically, so it is appropriate and important for the City to require it. Again, I worked hard to ensure passage and yet was disappointed that we significantly weakened the state’s model rule in a 4-5 vote. My leadership on climate, and the positions of my fellow councillors, is shown clearly in the tallies for this vote, three others that weakened our City’s two most important climate policies.
Many in the community resisted our efforts and fought against any changes, arguing that we are moving too fast and that the city’s new requirements are not feasible. To that, I pointed out that world leaders are asking places like Cambridge to show the way, to lead and be bold, to provide concrete examples of success and serve as the models that others can follow. Another criticism is that all our efforts as a city would be a tiny drop less in the ocean of emissions. To that, I focus on our moral responsibility to do what we can – the urgency of the crisis demands we go all in – and the fact that if we are successful, other cities will be able to follow and the cumulative results will be substantial.
It is important to note that I am working on a plan to ensure there is money and staff available to achieve our climate goals; we need to provide technical assistance and funding for residents, businesses and property owners to support them in decarbonization. Further, I led the effort to include creation and use of verifiable local carbon offsets in BEUDO; implementation in Cambridge will provide a model for the nation’s cities that will help them, and their large property owners move forward, while simultaneously helping low income and/or small property owners finance the transition to a fossil fuel-free energy future.
A note about trees: In the lead up to this election, there has been misinformation shared about the extent of my support for Linear Park, and for trees more generally. It’s ironic, given the many policy orders I have sponsored related to trees and the fact that I held the first public hearing to review the status of the Urban Forest Master Plan [UFMP], a prominent feature of the City’s climate planning, to ensure progress will be made. My voting record demonstrates consistent efforts to protect trees. And a key fact here is that I was the lead sponsor of the policy order addressing the concerns of Cambridge4Trees asking the city to restore Linear Park instead of a redesign that may needlessly risk dozens of trees. And it was through my hard work and collaborative approach that that policy order passed unanimously
Improving Communication and Listening
Too many residents feel left out of the city’s decision-making. And we have not always been honest about our lapses in seeking input or communicating about proposals, projects and plans. One example relates to the city’s marketing of out electricity supply program – called “community aggregation,” an important component of our overall emission reduction strategy. The rates we offer for electricity and for the 100% renewable option are among the very lowest in the state, and far lower than Eversource, yet the city hadn’t communicated that fact to residents. Nor had it consistently promoted our 100% green option or provided information to help counter confusing marketing from higher-priced competitors that prey particularly on lower-income customers. I wrote the policy order that changed how the city communicates about our programs. Another example was changing the way we advertised the bike lane changes. The first projects talked about “safety improvements.” Those improvements were, in fact, meaningful, yet the notices were incomplete because they failed to mention reduction of parking spaces. When residents realized that the project resulted in a dramatic reduction of parking, they felt the city was hiding something – and became more cynical. I documented and critiqued the poor communications, made calls, and kept pushing within the administration. So now, notices and documentation of our projects include information about all consequences, including loss of parking spaces, so we are all well informed. The City needs to rebuild trust with residents who feel blindsided by these changes. Our neighborhoods thrive when the city respects its citizens, they feel respected, their input is honored, and they have a say in proposed changes. As councillor, I have focused on how the city can be include, and truly listen to, more voices, on supporting neighborhood groups, and working with CDD to ensure action in response to community needs.
There’s a need for more affordable housing in Cambridge. Only very wealthy people can afford to buy or, increasingly, to rent unless they qualify for subsidies. I believe everyone has a right to housing. Yet we all know that Cambridge cannot house everyone in need in the state, much less the country or world. While that sounds obvious, we need to grapple openly and honestly with this fact. Both the need and the complexity of the issues involved are tremendous.
Inclusionary zoning, higher linkage fees, and Section 8 rent changes based on zip codes have all proved effective in creating more units of affordable housing. My first priority is those with the direst needs – people who are unhoused, and those in unsafe and/or unhealthy housing situations. People in severe situations number in the hundreds, from all the information available; the vast majority of the thousands on waiting lists are not in this category of dire need.
I’m also concerned with the middle income residents because Cambridge has lost too many working class families and continues to lose more each year, as documented by our city census. Even teachers, firefighters, and lab technicians, who may earn $100,000 a year or more, often can’t find affordable housing here in Cambridge. Supporting and expanding programs to help the full range of residents with varying income levels is essential to maintaining our city’s economic diversity.
We must thoughtfully assess new proposals to understand their likely effectiveness and secondary impacts. The Affordable Housing Overlay has helped several projects get built a little faster and therefore cost a bit less. However, all of the projects thus far would have been built anyway, with or without the AHO, and most are simply expansions of already existing affordable housing complexes, which was not the intent of the AHO. We need to expand more small-scale opportunities for home ownership, which builds equity. And we need to explore social housing – mixed income developments – which European cities have built, producing positive impact on housing availability, livability, and income mix.
A City for the Future (including bikes AND everybody else)
We need to imagine and build a city for the future. Decades ago, few people owned cars, and people walked and took streetcars everywhere. Many cities have been reclaiming public roadways to be multi-modal instead of prioritizing cars only. More than a quarter of the land in Cambridge (perhaps as much as one-third) is used for public ways – roads and sidewalks. What is the best way to use that public land? In recent decades, cars have dominated. But now we need to use that land as an inviting, welcoming, and evolving streetscape, where pedestrians feel welcome, the bicycle traffic we encourage can exist, and other forms of transportation can also function. We need to continue to build our network of safe, protected bike lanes; it’s imperative to ensure that people who are not confident cyclists can transit the city safely using this modality. For those who say Cambridge is not, and cannot be, Amsterdam or Copenhagen, I remind us that that only a few decades ago, those cities were car-heavy and yet have now been transformed into multi-modal model cities we can emulate. New York, Paris, Minneapolis, Boston, even cities in the heartland of America are recognizing that the current situation heavily prioritizing automobile use is wrong for the future – not only from an emission pollution perspective, but also in terms of public health.
Even as we transform and transition to encourage bicycle use, public transportation and walking, we must simultaneously listen to our small businesses, seniors and mobility-limited residents and respect their views and needs. Doing so doesn’t mean we stop building bike lanes. But it does mean we do things differently than in past years. As we transition in the years that come, we need to plan and design consistently with the goals of ensuring availability of handicapped parking spots, enabling bus-only lanes to be used for parking outside of rush-hours, and maintaining (or conveniently relocating) parking spots whenever possible. We also need to provide support and incentives for people to leave their cars at home. I’ve been on the board of Green Streets for over a decade. Our mission is to encourage car-light transportation – walking, bicycling, and mass transit –for environmental and health reasons. We do it not by shaming, but by uplifting stories of those who have found ways to reduce or eliminate their car use and encouraging others to try alternatives to their cars as an experiment that, once familiar, may become habitual. The city needs to gather data on use and impacts. And if those data confirms in Cambridge what studies in similar urban settings have shown – that businesses are not harmed by installation of bike lanes, we should be fully transparent and communicate the study. And if our data show that some businesses are hurt, we need to acknowledge it and find ways to mitigate the negative impacts. In any case, we should and can provide more support to small local businesses, who are the lifeblood of our neighborhoods and city. See my statement focused on bike lanes, which includes the specific actions I have taken to advance bike lanes in the City and also ensure that we serve all stakeholders.
As part of our vision for the future, we need to consider new mass transit options. While we hope the state be able to provide more reliable, affordable, frequent public transit, we can’t necessarily count on the solutions we need in Cambridge. Can’t we get all the various vans and shuttles to work with the city to create a free shuttle that goes along major avenues? If Kansas City and Denver can do it as a great boon to life, work and business in their cities, so can Cambridge.
There are many other aspects of “future city” on which I have worked, key among them addressing the climate crisis. Take a look above at that and also my note about trees.
Thoughtful Planning and Development
Over and over, Cambridge residents ask for thoughtful planning and for a comprehensive approach to the development of the city – what is the appropriate level and type of development? And… over and over, we don’t provide that planning; we research, sometimes with public input, and generate reports, reports and more reports; yet we do not produce comprehensive overarching plans then serve as our guides. Our zoning is out of control – with base zoning overshadowed by overlays, planned unit development (PUDs), and zoning at the level of individual properties (sometimes termed “spot” zoning). We need to take on the task of comprehensive planning and zoning in earnest. We also need to honor the plans we do create with discipline in following them and a willingness to thoughtfully and honestly evaluate progress and results.
An example of my work toward these aims is my leadership on comprehensive zoning in the Alewife area. I sponsored and successfully advocated for a one-year building moratorium that led to a adoption of a zoning petition with widespread support developed by a stakeholder group comprised of residents, developers, property owners and advocates. Now that effort is heralded as proof that we CAN do thoughtful development and planning.
Another example relates to changes to the Affordable Housing Overlay. I believe that the 5-year review build into the AHO was a sensible element of the original policy. I also believe that the council was premature in changing the AHO prior to that review, which is why I voted against those changes. Minor adjustments could have been fine to consider as a mid-course correction; but the amendments proposed were wholesale changes that failed to follow the city’s own Envision plan or requests from affordable housing developers.
A final example is my work on municipal broadband. Equity and justice are integral to my thinking, so when I realized that the city had, over many years, failed to study the feasibility of municipal broadband as requested multiple times by the Council, I pushed. My actions drove City action on a long-neglected policy area with important implications for digital equity as well as net neutrality and municipal control. Having assessed feasibility, the City is now in the process of proposing a specific model for the Council to consider adopting.
Planning does not mean we can’t grow or change. But it does call on us to be thoughtful about how we grow, true to our plans and commitments, honest in our agendas, sensitive to equity, and disciplined in our assessments of results and their causes. We can enhance equity, justice, quality of life, and an enjoyable, livable cityscape as our city grows, but not without careful planning. Similarly, programs for climate mitigation and resilience, both of which profoundly affect equity, need to be designed and implemented thoughtfully in order to deliver their intended benefits while also maintaining equity. As we build on Envision, face the challenge of decarbonization and adjust to a digital world, we must be willing to learn from best practices and experts in urban design. We must implement policies that go beyond feel-good declarations and actually move the city to be more equitable, just and livable.
Strengthen Programs for Our Kids
My knowledge of the schools – after 14 years on School Committee and two children who went through the Cambridge Schools – combined with my willingness to do research means that you have a councillor able to ask the right questions, and critically evaluate our educational decision-making and programs. The City’s educational system is an essential contributor to our children’s futures and to so many aspects of citizens’ quality of life. It’s also an enormous portion of the City’s overall budget.
While on School Committee, I was a passionate and effective advocate for higher expectations, bold goals including equally high expectations for the entirety of our diverse student body, engaged classrooms, and more programs like Montessori and bilingual immersion that close achievement gaps and are highly desirable to families. This year on the Council, I helped catalyze a citywide conversation about algebra in middle school when I learned that the school district – for the first time in thirty years (or more) – was not providing any of its eighth graders with the opportunity to have a full algebra class during the regular school day. Appalled, I wrote a piece for CambridgeDay asking people to join me in demanding that the dream of Bob and Janet Moses’ Algebra Project be resurrected and progress restored. To further make the point, I voiced my concerns at the budget hearing and voted against the school budget. The schools’ backsliding on high standards is troubling, but as a result of my actions, the issues of equity and slipping standards are on the table and all 8th graders will have the opportunity to study algebra as part of their regular school day. The City Council role in education is restricted to approval of the budget as a whole, buildings (if we need to build more schools), and expanding preschools, afterschools and summer programs. I have long advocated for universal PreK. After years of unacceptably slow progress, it’s fantastic that under the new City Manager’s leadership, we now have a plan in place. As with PreK programs, afterschool must be guaranteed for all residents; the benefits are tremendous and there is no reason the city cannot provide it. I am proud of consistent, longtime work, along with others, towards this key goal.
Along with cities throughout the US, Cambridge is stepping up efforts to provide public safety through established public safety organizations like our police department AND through alternative public safety organizations outside of formal government. Our city has a phenomenal public safety record and yet the complex social issues – of mental health and drug use that has spilled over into our streets make for a challenging environment for our community, our residents and our public safety staff. We must also acknowledge that for some residents local government is not seen as a safe haven, but instead an entity to avoid. That’s why I support the Cambridge Holistic Emergency Alternative Response Team (HEART), an exciting and important initiative led by young people of color in our community. We must all acknowledge that our country’s history of slavery and racism continues to have an impact on our institutions and systems. Exploring a shift in emphasis from traditional policing to social services is an important step, but just one of many. I also know that our police department is delivering on many of the promises made – to provide support, address lapses, and be honest about shortcomings. New policies on naming officers involved in shootings and wearing body cameras, the direct result of policy review after the tragic death of Arif Sayed Faisal, are welcome even as his death was, and still is, devastating.
Today’s public safety concerns go beyond police reform. Our city has seen an increase in the unhoused population, in drug use, in criminal activity in our squares, in encampments by the river and in many parks. We need to recognize that the police and the courts are only a part of a larger system that must include a robust social welfare response and bring in resources at the state level to help deal with our issues. The growing sense that our city is not safe for people to walk in must not be ignored.