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Rent Control, City Government Organization, and University Taxation Debated by Council Candidates

By Frank Dabek

STAFF REPORTER

Wednesday’s debate among candidates for Cambridge City Council highlighted the lack of controversial issues in this year’s race. Few sparks flew as the candidates discussed, and mainly agreed on, the perennial Cambridge issues of rent control and affordable housing, university relations, and Cambridge’s city manager form of government.

The debate was sponsored by the Green-Rainbow party and the Progressive Democrats. Former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich served as moderator.

Rent control petition debated

A ballot question on whether the city should ask the state legislature to allow Cambridge to re-institute rent control will appear on the November ballot, but has a long way to go before being implemented.

The question requires the approval of one-third of registered voters before a petition can be sent to the state house where it will be reviewed by the legislature and Governor Mitt Romney.

Support for the petition was mixed at the debate. Aimee L. Smith PhD ’02 said that she would support the petition and that residents “have the right to live in the neighborhood they grew up in.” Joining Smith in favor of the petition were long-shot candidates Vincent Dixon, Robert LaTremouille, and Laurie Taymor-Berry, along with incumbent Denise Simmons.

Former mayor and sitting councillor Anthony Galluccio said that he was opposed to the rent-control measure. Galluccio said that poor management, not the loss of rent control, was to blame for the loss of students from the city’s schools. Citizens should not “get divided on an old battle,” he said.

Fellow incumbent Marjorie Decker echoed Galluccio, saying that it is “important not to be polarized” by the issue of rent control. Decker is undecided on the issue of the petition.

On the more general topic of improving access to affordable housing in the city, candidates generally agreed that a combination of zoning changes and planning board influence should be used. Additionally, the general consensus among the candidates was that the city should increase its affordable housing trust fund to subsidize rents.

Candidates look to schools for help

Several candidates looked to MIT and Harvard to alleviate the city’s housing crunch.

John Pitkin said that large universities should be taxed. “Universities should pay for the services that they use,” he said. Non-profit institutions such as universities are exempt from property taxes.

Galluccio has supported such a change in the past and indicated that his view has not changed. Decker proposed that the city “treat [universities] like developers” and tax them. Smith suggested a payroll tax on workers at non-profit institutions.

Matthew DeBergalis ’00 said that universities can reduce the demand for housing in Cambridge by building additional graduate dormitories. He said that he would hold universities accountable for pledges to rent graduate housing at below market rates and to include affordable housing units in their developments. Galluccio also said he supported requiring universities to build affordable units.

Plan E debated

A debate over the merits of Cambridge’s city manager form of government, the “Plan E” government adopted in 1940, revealed widespread dissatisfaction from both incumbents and challengers.

Galluccio said that Plan E is a “system designed to disempower elected officials” and that the school system needed greater continuity in leadership. Under Plan E, the mayor is elected by the council and serves as chair of the school committee, and the city manager is also appointed by the council.

Many candidates argued that the city council, not the manager, should be responsible for appointing members of city boards such as the planning board. Smith said that the city “should press for a more democratic government,” and pointed out that the police review and advisory board has four of its five spots vacant.

Councillor Kenneth Reeves said that the current manager, Robert Healey, is popular with voters because he is credited with Cambridge’s positive financial outlook. Any motivation to change the city manager or the form of government would have to be grassroots, Reeves said. “You have to do it. We can’t do it,” he said.

DeBergalis spoke out against increasing the power of the mayor. A strong mayor makes it difficult for a minority voting block to have influence, he said.

The Cambridge City Council consists of nine members that hold two year terms.