Council candidates discuss issues
By Niraj S. Desai
The decisions by three prominent City Council members not to seek reelection this year have prompted some to call the Nov. 7 city-wide election the most important in nearly 20 years.
The three councilors -- Saundra Graham, David E. Sullivan '74, and Mayor Alfred E. Vellucci -- have been among the strongest advocates of rent control and restraints on development in Cambridge. Their departure, at a time when Proposition 1-2-3 raises serious questions about the future of rent control, has pushed issues relating to the city's housing and planning policies to the forefront of this year's city council campaign.
It was those issues that stood out most clearly on Wednesday night as 18 of the 28 declared city council candidates participated in a televised forum sponsored by three women's organizations. Former Mayor Barbara Ackermann moderated the event, which will be rebroadcast by Cambridge Community Television on successive Wednesday nights before the election.
Each candidate at the forum was asked to respond to two of six possible questions and to make a closing statement. No debates between candidates were included in the program.
Two of the six city councilors seeking reelection -- Alice Wolf and Francis H. Duehay -- attended Wednesday night's candidates forum. The others are Thomas W. Danehy, Sheila Russell, William Walsh, and Walter J. Sullivan.
Prop 1-2-3 draws fire
The consensus among the participating candidates was markedly against making any substantial changes in Cambridge's rent control policies. In particular, Proposition 1-2-3 was the focus of heated criticism. The proposition, which will be voted on by Cambridge residents in November's election, would allow tenants to buy their rent-controlled apartments under certain circumstances. It would also exempt condominiums or single-family homes that have been owner-occupied for more than two years from rent control, if rented out to the owner or the owner's family.
"If [Proposition 1-2-3] passes, Cambridge will lose 14,000 units of affordable housing," Duehay warned. He claimed that money from interests outside the city was being used to further the proposition's cause.
Duehay's concerns were echoed by many of the other candidates. "This [1-2-3] will create more homelessness," James Michael Greene said.
No city council on which he sat would allow a measure like Proposition 1-2-3 to pass, Kenneth Reeves vowed.
Only two of the 18 candidates at the forum explicitly backed the proposition. If adopted, the measure can become a major new source of revenue for Cambridge services, Robert Heroux said, alluding to a section of the proposition that would allot most of the extra real estate tax revenue, resulting from conversion of apartments to condominiums, to a trust fund for needy citizens.
Moreover, Proposition 1-2-3 would increase the possibility that "tenants like me who [presently] have no opportunity for home ownership" could buy their homes, Heroux said.
Looking beyond Proposition 1-2-3 to larger issues of development and the city's housing stock, Wolf described the importance of the Nov. 7 election this way: "This city has got to make up its mind as to whether it is up for sale to the highest bidder."
"We must control development," she said. "We must move development over to [provide for affordable housing]." Acknowledging that curtailing development would also curtail the income development brings to city government, Wolf stated, "We have to find other sources of revenue instead of property taxes."
Other candidates expressed concern that development might bring traffic and other problems to neighborhoods. Much of the development that has gone on in the city has had the effect of "locking out and shutting out" city residents, candidate John St. George claimed. Instead of the pattern of the past, Cambridge could be a "show-case city" in terms of providing for the needs of its neighborhoods and its citizens who need help, he said.
But Alan Bell, a businessman who was involved in the redevelopment of Kendall Square, pointed to that project as an example of one that benefited the community and city. The Kendall Square project has generated substantial funds for the city, and has added 1000 units to the city's housing stock, he said.
Candidates discuss health
care, AIDS, facilities
Some of the other issues addressed at the candidates' forum included city health care, containing the AIDS virus, and finding sites for facilities like half-way houses for alcoholics and homes for the mentally ill.
It is extremely important to maintain the Cambridge health care system, Duehay believed, because "forty percent of those who use this system do not have insurance and would not receive health care" were it not for the city system. Duehay said the state has not been upholding its responsibility to the Cambridge medical system.
Paul Johnson called on Cambridge City Hospital to become more strict in collecting its bills, especially those that would be paid by Medicare.
The key to curtailing the spread of the AIDS virus is "education, education, education," according to Jonathan Myers. Too many people are ignorant of safe sex practices, Myers said.
Others advocated free distribution of clean needles as a method to contain the virus.
Neighborhoods have often resisted accepting public facilities like half-way houses and drug treatment centers. "It really does test the mettle of a community when there is a request [of this kind]," Reeves acknowledged. But "the fact of the matter is that we are all human beings," he said. No neighborhood or city policy should exclude a group of humans, Reeves concluded.
Reeves's view was generally shared by the other candidates who addressed this question, though Heroux believed that such public facilities are not well distributed across the city, and that the burden ought to divided more equally over the city.
though slates formed
The Nov. 7 city council election will be conducted under Cambridge's unusual proportional representation system. All candidates run at-large and voters are asked to rank the candidates in order of preference. If a candidate receives enough first-place votes to reach quota -- normally set at ten percent of valid votes cast plus one -- then he is elected, and his surplus votes are redistributed according to his supporters' second-place preferences. If, in the second round of counting, a candidate reaches quota, his surplus votes are also redistributed. The process continues until the nine council seats are filled.
The city council's term runs for two years.
City council elections are non-partisan, though many of the candidates are running as part of slates. The most prominent slate of candidates is that nominated by the Cambridge Civic Association, a liberal group that backs tenants' rights and rent control.
The traditional division in the city council has been between CCA candidates and independent candidates, with the latter generally being more pro-development and more willing to restrict rent control ordinances. Wolf, Duehay, Graham, and David Sullivan all had CCA backing in 1987.
This year, the CCA nominated Wolf, Duehay, Reeves, St. George, Myers, Ed Cyr, Esther Hanig, Regina Jones, Rena Leib, Renae Scott, and Denise Simmons. All appeared at Wednesday's forum.
The others who appeared at the forum were Johnson, Vivian Kurkjian, Kenneth May, and Peter Sheinfeld.