Even before the year 2006 began, word leaked out from Cambridge city councillors that a deal was in the works to grant some councillors their own personal aides in exchange for their votes to make Ken Reeves mayor. The plan at that time was for Reeves to appoint certain councillors to chair several Council committees and to use this to justify the supposed need for personal staff.
Sure enough, when the committee appointments were made, new co-chairs were created where there had been none, and the councillors appointed by the mayor to chair some committees made no sense at all. Soon after, each councillor was given the option of receiving a personal aide courtesy of the newly anointed mayor.
By the end of the year, this city council had accomplished less than any in the history of the city. At year's end, there were precisely zero Council committee meetings scheduled and little for the councillors to do.
In truth, 2006 was a year during which some councillors measured their new offices, others measured their chances at getting elected to new offices, and the rest measured how many more years of incumbency they needed in order to max out their pensions.
It was a year to take care Number One, and no one did so with greater extravagance than his royal highness, the mayor, Mr. Reeves. While all other departments kept their budgets close to the levels of the previous year, Reeves submitted a budget 54% higher than the previous mayor. The main increase was the inclusion of personal "research assistants" for each councillor - all paid out of the Mayor's budget to complete the deal that made Reeves mayor.
It's important to understand several things about these "research assistants." First, they don't do any research. In fact, nobody knows what they do other than free up time for councillors to seek reelection. Second, they are, for the most part, affiliated with the political campaigns of the incumbents - just like almost everyone who works in the mayor's office. For this reason, their salaries are effectively campaign contributions paid out of city tax revenue. Third, since they're provided by the Mayor's Office, it's important that councillors make nice to the Mayor if they want to get their personal coat-holder, letter-answerer, and car-parker.
When the Mayor's Office budget was submitted last spring, only one councillor, Craig Kelley, had the gonads to pull that budget to allow discussion. Unfortunately, when it came time to ask questions, the new councillor declared that the budget was going to pass anyway, so there was no point in asking questions. Wrong, very wrong.
By the time December rolled around, we discovered that our wandering mayor had not only used up his $20,500 annual travel budget in less that half a year, but there was now an appropriation request for an additional $19,750 for travel expenses. The appropriation passed without discussion.
What this all means is that this Cambridge City Council unanimously believes in the principle that "you have to go along to get along."
In most political settings, there are two parties in play. No matter what you call them, it's basically a balance between those who are in control and those who would like to be in control. Those on the outside play a vital role in requiring those in power to justify their actions and expenditures. We really don't have that in City Hall any more. Everyone's an insider. Last term, we could always count on David Maher to point out the lack of garments on the king.
The only time anything is challenged now is when there is some political gain to be had - all in the noble cause of incumbency protection.
I've been closely following local government in Cambridge for two decades now and I've never felt as little affinity with any group of nine councillors as I do right now (with the sole exception of Michael Sullivan who was recently elected as Middlesex County Clerk of Courts). Most of them put their own self-interest well ahead of the taxpayers' interest. Half of them are focused more on their next job than their current job.
Because Cambridge can always permit another large development project to cover any added costs, this Council rarely has to be concerned about any blowback from an unnecessary expense, especially the expense of feathering their own nests.
What we could all use now are some good men and women who are willing to run for local office and to challenge the incumbents. This can be a daunting task. We don't usually get more than a few credible challengers brave enough to give it a try. The campaign finance reporting requirements are a pain (unless you fudge the numbers, like the mayor), fundraising is awkward and time-consuming, and it's likely that you'll catch some abuse from somewhere before it's all said and done.
Any new candidate has to get up to speed on a lot of issues in order to avoid embarrassment, but there are many people who will be happy to lend you a hand. Candidacy is one of the best ways to learn about local government. There's a better than even chance that you won't get elected. Nonetheless, we could really use you. Think about it! The year 2007 could be a great year to clean house at City Hall.
There are now a lot of people in Cambridge who would love to oust some incumbents. They would love nothing more than to have their choice of credible hallengers to support and to give their Number 1 vote next November. The School Committee race could also use some competition. If you have loftier goals, there are also several Massachusetts House and Senate seats that could use new occupants in 2008.
Asking someone to become a candidate for public office is a lot to ask. Consider yourself asked.