7 Reasons Why Giving the City Council Special Permit Authority Might Not End Well

7 Reasons Why Giving the City Council Special Permit Authority Might Not End Well

Those supporting the City Council gaining Special Permit Authority have conveniently short memories about Council effectiveness

The City Council Ordinance Committee considers today a zoning petition filed by its co-chair that would amend the City Zoning Ordinance to give the City Council the exclusive power to grant Special Permits for large developments, a power that hitherto had been vested in the City's Planning Board.

This is a curious proposal. Rather than straightforwardly submitting a policy order to amend the zoning ordinance, Councillor Dennis Carlone chose a petition, a process usually undertaken by citizens who cannot otherwise propose policy orders. It has also gathered supporters who, not long ago, would routinely denounce the Council as being corruptly in the pocket of developers. While this might suggest that the proposal and its supporters not be taken at face value, reviewing the proposal on its merits means assessing whether this will lead to better decisions or worse.

The Council's track record in regard to development doesn't provide much hope for better decisions. The Council that has, in no particular order:

  1. ignored warnings that multiple appointments to the Cambridge Redevelopment Authority had lapsed, leading to the Authority having to engage in a long process to prove that it had not simply gone out of existence due to having no remaining members
  2. allowed there to be so little oversight in Cambridge Redevelopment Authority that its Executive Director saw fit to raise his own salary and increase his retirement package, actions that forced his resignation
  3. passed a sign ordinance and then, when faced with a well-funded fundamentally false opposition campaign led by a single individual, decided to withdraw the ordinance and complain about the unfairness of the world, rather than engage in a referendum fight to support what they had presumably thought was a good idea
  4. engaged in a hasty process to terminate the City's rights to part of rooftop park in Kendall Square, operating in fear that Google might leave Cambridge
  5. created planning processes for Kendall and Central Squares without acting on recommendations, even to reject them
  6. made last minute environmental changes to an MIT proposal in Kendall Square without understanding that those changes might scuttle the proposal
  7. in a process that lasted a few seconds, removed carefully crafted community benefits from that MIT proposal because the Council hadn't had time to consider them and, subsequently, done nothing to consider them or the larger issue of how community benefits for development work

It's not that City Councillors are incompetent. It's that their institution is structurally weak. We have, in Cambridge, a strong City Manager form of government, one that vests only limited power in the Council. And the Council itself isn't structured to use the powers it has most effectively.

The Council has no formal institutional history. Every year brings a new session, and every two years new members and a new committee structure. There are no transcripts of hearing or meetings to reference. City departments have long serving staff who have deep expertise in their particular domains. The Council has each Councillor and their personal assistant. Committees, which are the traditional place a legislative body develops subject matter expertise, have no staff, and get reorganized every two years.

This is not a problem unique to Cambridge development issues. A recent review of Council activities about inequities in access to the internet - the digital divide - shows a Council passing order after order, with no follow up and little to show for it. Where the Council has impact is when one or more members have a passion about an issue. It was then-Council Ken Reeves passion about Central Square that led to the Mayor's Red Ribbon Commission on the Square, and then the Central Square Advisory Committee. But, when Reeves lost his re-election bid, there was no one else invested in process, so the recommendations of the Committee languish, despite the money, staff, and volunteer time expended on it.

As zoning petitions require a hearing by the Planning Board, the Board will hold a hearing on a proposal for its own irrelevancy on August 5th. Perhaps, before the Council takes on new powers, it should figure out how to effectively use the powers it already has.

Disclaimer: The author volunteered his time to the City for the Central Square Advisory Committee referenced in this article and is a current member of the Public Transportation Advisory Committee. He is also a member of the leadership committee of A Better Cambridge, which has expressed disapproval of this petition.

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This work by Saul Tannenbaum is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Updated 8/31/2014: Changed the wording in paragraph 3 to no longer imply that the current Council was responsible for the seven actions listed below.


Thanks Saul.