City Council Agenda Highlights (3/21/16)

The agenda for the Cambridge City Council meeting on March 21 is posted on the Open Meeting Portal.

Here are my thoughts on items of particular interest to me.

City Manager Agenda: 

#1 & #2 Both items relate to reallocating money saved ($70K) from the installation of more efficient LED streetlights to other capital expenses (fiber optic cable for public safety radios and a new bucket truck). Some residents have concerns about the harsh blue light from the high-efficiency 4000K LED streetlights and its impact on sleep when not well-screened. At least the promised savings are being realized. Perhaps when these bulbs wear out we can consider swapping them for 2000 or 3000K bulbs, recognizing that the savings will be less.

#7 Report on Cost and Feasibility of Opening a Tool Library. This comes in response to a policy order I sponsored. The estimated costs seem high; I think the library could operate on a more limited schedule without the expense of a full-time employee and a part-time assistant. I also think $50/sf is on the high side for rent; a tool library doesn’t need to be housed in premium office space. There is a space on Concord Ave renting for <$30/sf.

#8 Report on A-Frame/Sandwich Board Sign Approval Process. This comes in response to a policy order I sponsored after I and others questioned the application process and criteria for sandwich board signs. The report describes the new application and approval process and says there are typically about 100 such signs permitted annually but does not say how often rogue signs are removed. There is still nothing in the criteria that speaks to the issue that originally prompted questions — is there a point at which a busy sidewalk, say in Harvard Sq, could have too many signs and other sidewalk fixtures for a new sandwich board to be approved, and is that the Council’s job to determine, or DPW’s? I still wonder why the Council is involved. It’s a little like the situation with curb cuts; if a driveway meets the legal standard, under what conditions would the Council overrule the recommendations of city staff? This has come up with regard to the curb cut at 41 Gibson St, which has unfortunately proved very divisive.

#9 Hazard Mitigation Plan with Policy Order to Adopt Updated Plan. The prior plan (dating to 2008) was updated in 2015 by FEMA and MEMA in conjunction with the Cambridge Local Hazard Mitigation Committee. The principal hazard it addresses is flooding due to major storms. Improvements to the city’s drainage and emergency preparedness systems are called for. Over the next 5 years of implementation this plan will inform the ongoing Climate Change Resiliency Planning.

#10 Complete Streets Policy with Policy Order to Adopt it. This formalizes the city’s commitment to “incorporating Complete Streets principles into all publicly and privately funded projects.” The city stands to benefit from up to $400K of funding from MassDOT for construction of infrastructure improvements.

#11 Vision Zero Plan with Policy Order to Adopt it. Related to the Complete Streets Policy, this affirms the city’s commitment to developing an action plan to reduce crash rates and traffic fatalities to zero. This is something I supported in my campaign.

#12 New Water and Sewer Rates. Water consumption has not decreased, and as in the prior 5 years the water rate will not increase. The sewer budget is anticipated to increase, so the city is raising sewer rates by 3.2%, resulting in a proposed 2.4% increase in the combined water and sewer rates for FY17. This increase is estimated to cost about $18 a year for a single family home and $26 and $37, respectively, for two- and three–family homes. Combined rates are projected to rise modestly over the next 5 years due to debt costs for continued infrastructure improvements. One thing I’d like to understand better is why reduced water consumption is disincentivized through rate increases. Wouldn’t the city like us to try harder to save water?

Calendar Items:

#1 Posting Applications for Variances etc Online: Held over from last week’s meeting, this policy order was intended to require that building and renovation applications under review by the BZA and the Historical Commission be posted on online (similar to how applications for special permits and large project review are posted on the Planning Board’s site). I support this requirement, but charter-righted it last week because the wording was so vague, and amending it on the floor while Councillor Cheung was on speaker phone would have been cumbersome. As it is, BZA applications are already required to be submitted electronically, so ISD already has the materials in digital form. Posting them online for public review should not require a great deal of extra effort.

Policy Orders:

#1 Divest city retirement funds from nuclear weapons industry. I certainly don’t want my retirement savings invested in companies profiting from the production of weapons that already have the potential to destroy the world many times over! I also like that this order suggests holding a public info session on divestment so residents can do the same with their personal savings.

#2 Tying the Living Wage Ordinance to the Linkage Ordinance. As written this order does not provide enough detail for the basis of the request to the manager to report on his progress. As a new member and on behalf of the public who may not even know what the Living Wage and Linkage Ordinances are, I would ask that my colleagues provide adequate information with their orders so that it’s clear to everyone (see also #10). Update: Councillor McGovern explained in an email: “The Income Insecurity Commission and the Housing Committee both recommended that the City study if we can require companies that are subject to our incentive zoning to also be subject to our living wage ordinance and also if we can require them to hire a certain percentage of Cambridge residents.” Note: Incentive zoning is also known as “linkage” and is a fee charged per s.f. on large non-residential developments; the fee goes to the Affordable Housing Trust.

#3 Municipal Lobbying Regulations: I sponsored this order along with Councillors Nadeem Mazen and Dennis Carlone. In the interest of greater transparency the order asks that the city explore regulations on municipal lobbyists. Presently the state law for disclosure of lobbying relationships only applies to those lobbying state officials. The Boston City Council has a home rule petition in committee, and the State Senate is considering a bill that would extend disclosure requirements to municipal lobbyists.

#4 & #9 Lead Water Pipes and Water Hardness: The first order (#4) asks the city to create an online database of lead water service lines. Having this information online is a good idea, but I wouldn’t want anyone to fear that we are in danger of becoming another Flint. I’ve been assured by the manager and water department staff that significant progress has been made in helping property owners replace lead service pipes and that the risk is minimal. The city offers free water testing kits and publishes detailed water quality data online. A related order (#9) asks the city to post information that would help people installing plumbing understand the impact of our water’s “hardness” on fixtures and pipes.

#5 Marking of Street Hazards to Protect Cyclists: Amidst all the street construction, especially in West Cambridge with the sewer separation project, there is good reason to be concerned that unmarked street hazards create unsafe conditions for cyclists — not to mention cars, which may suffer tire damage, or worse. I agree with the intent of Councillor Craig Kelley’s order, but I think that rather than drafting an amendment to the ordinance that spells out exactly how and when such hazards must be marked (down to specifying yellow paint be used), he might better have left it to DPW and the City Solicitor to draft using their greater expertise in such matters.

#7 Non-Citizen Representation on the Council: A significant number of Cambridge residents are non-citizens. This order suggests that we allow them to elect a non-voting representative to the City Council. This person would have the ability to suggest policy orders and would be given space to meet monthly with fellow non-citizens to air grievances and discuss issues. Presently there are no procedural obstacles to a non-citizen speaking during public comment, airing grievances to any of the 9 councillors or in public hearings, or to their suggesting policy changes to any of us; I worry that rather than furthering inclusion (the intent), it could become divisive and create a distraction. The order suggests sending this to two committees that I am a member of and I look forward to discussing this further.

#8 Charter Schools: Councillor Kelley, an avowed foe of charter public schools, wishes the city to go on record as opposing charter school expansion statewide. I disagree with his characterization that charter schools “serve a narrow select few.” They are public schools that admit by blind lottery, charge no tuition, and in the case of charters operating in Cambridge and metro Boston enroll mostly students of color and those from low income families. Boston area charters also outperform many district schools and all charters are closely scrutinized by the State’s Dept. of Education and subject to a “cap” on their enrollment despite demonstrated demand from thousands of students on wait lists. A Senate working group is currently laboring diligently to hammer out a compromise bill that is palatable to both camps in this very divisive debate. Such a legislative compromise would be preferable to an even more divisive ballot referendum this fall. I say let the Senate group do its best to forge a compromise and then see what impact it would have on Cambridge.

#10 Sidewalk Vaults in Central Square: This one-sentence order by Councillor Cheung will likely be a complete mystery to most people. I have only recently learned that vaults extend beneath the sidewalks along Mass Ave and pose a substantial obstacle to sidewalk work. For my own and the public’s benefit I think the order could have explained this situation.

#11 Placing CHA tenants in Inclusionary Units: This order seeks to help Section 8 tenants displaced from Cambridge Housing Authority due to construction by offering them the opportunity to live in the “inclusionary” units for low and moderate income households that are managed by the Community Development Department. CHA is not a city department so it is not a matter of course that the city’s two largest affordable housing landlords routinely collaborate in this way.


#7 Happy 70th Birthday to a Special Cantabrigian: Normally I don’t comment on resolutions, but this one from Councillor Toomey piqued my interest. The identity of this distinguished septuagenarian is a mystery. Any ideas who it might be?

Public Comment and Viewing Meetings:

Public comment begins at 5:30 pm. Each person is allowed to speak for 3 minutes on any agenda item except for communications from other members of the public. You may call 617-349-4280 on Monday from 9:00 am to 3:00 pm to sign up to speak, or sign in when you arrive (before 6 pm). If you wish to submit written public comments, please email and cc City Clerk Donna Lopez at if you wish your comments to appear on the public record at the next Council meeting.

City Council meetings are televised on CCTV Channel 22 and live streamed on the City Council’s website. Recorded versions of all Council meetings may be found on the city’s Open Meeting Portal.


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Jan Devereux
City Councillor
Cambridge, MA