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City Council Reforms for Cambridge

Michael J. Ring

In Friday’s edition of The Tech, City Council candidate Helder “Sonny” Peixoto’s campaign manager mentioned the campaign was focusing on one neighborhood in particular -- East Cambridge. Peixoto is not alone in his targeting of a specific neighborhood. Incumbent Timothy Toomey has been quite successful by emphasizing East Cambridge as well. Other candidates seem to be focusing their efforts on other parts of the city -- Kathy Born in Porter Square, for example, and Marjorie Decker in Cambridgeport. And yet, these candidates are all seeking citywide offices.

Cambridge’s system of proportional representation is not working if it elects councillors more beholden to a neighborhood than to the city at large. The city’s election system becomes a de facto district system. Why go through the rigmarole of proportional representation when it’s much easier to have the real thing -- a true district system?

A second problem with the Cambridge City Council is its size. As a legislative body, it must be closely connected to the people it represents. And as a local government, working on a scale on which pure democracy is sometimes workable, it should be as democratic as possible. But with just nine councillors representing nearly 100,000 people, is this level of responsiveness really possible? Consider that the nearby town of Framingham, with a population of 65,000, elects a legislative body of 204.

Several candidates have embraced charter reform as part of their respective campaign platforms. Reforms to the Cambridge City Council should be a part of these proposed changes.

First, the City of Cambridge should implement a system of district councillors, similar to the system used in Boston, Somerville, and other surrounding communities. District councillors would serve as a natural office for those seeking to represent a particular neighborhood, allowing candidates for at-large seats to focus more on city-wide concerns and issues.

Cambridge is divided into 13 neighborhoods. Each of these neighborhoods generally has a coherent population with shared interests. These neighborhoods could serve as a natural base for council districts. Some adjustments to neighborhood boundaries may need to be made to insure a roughly equal population in each neighborhood, but these changes should not serve as an impediment to using the neighborhoods as a base for city council districts.

As an added bonus for students, a district system based on neighborhoods would greatly increase the chances of electing a student representative to the council. Area 2, for example, consists almost entirely of MIT, and an Area 2-based district would be highly likely to send an MIT student to the Cambridge City Council. Significant populations of Harvard students live in Areas 6, 7, and 8, and student candidates would also be competitive in those neighborhoods. This proposal offers a better chance of consistently electing students to the Cambridge City Council than at-large candidacies such as that of Erik C. Snowberg ’99, which must compete in student-indifferent and student-hostile areas of the city as well as in friendly neighborhoods.

The institution of district councillors would give proportional representation a chance to work its real magic, offering an opportunity for normally disenfranchised groups not concentrated specifically in one neighborhood to gain representation on the council. Some groups may be too diffuse in population throughout the city to succeed at electing a district-based candidate; these are the groups for which proportional representation was designed. But in a proportional representation system which becomes a de facto district system, these groups are crowded out.

Ultimately, the Cambridge City Council proposed here would consist of 21 members. Thirteen members would be elected in neighborhood districts, through a traditional primary-final election process. Proportional represenation would probably not work well given the small size of the districts. Eight at-large seats would be contested through the current proportional representation system.

The weak mayor-city manager system should be preserved. The administration of a city manager brings professionalism to the city government and reduces partisanship. It also augments the power of the City Council, which hires -- and fires -- the city’s executive authority.

Strong mayor systems look less like democracy and more like quasi-tyranny. The city of Boston is a perfect example: the City Council is reduced to a rubber-stamping agency and three-ring circus for political gadflies, while Mayor Thomas Menino calls all the shots and enjoys little criticism of his administration. The weak mayor system preserves the vibrancy and relevancy of the city council.

As the City of Cambridge considers charter reform, its leaders should change both the size and composition of the city council. A larger council, composed of both district councillors and at-large representatives, can best represent the city’s voters and meet the challenges facing city government.