Young people have been roaming the City of Cambridge recently, in preparation for an upcoming election for members of the City Council. This page says that the job involves showing up for meetings on Monday evenings at 5:30 pm for about nine months every year. The Council has no power regarding anything involving the public schools, i.e., the most expensive and least functional part of the city. Most actual decisions in Cambridge are made by a city manager and his staff and/or by a school committee and school system bureaucrats (sample). Why the intensive campaigning? “The job pays $75,000 per year,” one candidate explained (a rounding error compared to the outgoing city manager’s $5 million retirement package (source)).
My vote is for Logan Leslie, a veteran of our Iraq and Afghanistan adventures, who is young enough that he might question the status quo. His description of Central Square is plainspoken compared to the usual fluff that we get from politicians:
“Central Square isn’t safe or clean. Its large community of vagrants openly drinking, urinating, and taking drugs is an embarrassment. It’s a hotspot of crime. Many women who work in Mid-Cambridge or Cambridgeport are terrified to walk home from the T station at night. And it all goes down right across from our City Hall, steps from Harvard and Kendall Squares.”
(Personally I don’t feel afraid of crime in Central Square, but walking through there does lead to interesting conversations with a 4-year-old, e.g., “Daddy: Why is that man sleeping on the sidewalk?” Walking through with a Samoyed on a leash leads to all kinds of conversations and interactions with the more colorful denizens. It is kind of interesting how much of the grit that I remember from my arrival here at MIT in 1979 persists even in Central Square’s Starbucks era.)
The most plain-spoken candidate of all seems to be James Williamson, whose 2011 profile notes that “The current council get $70,000 a year each and often have other paid activities, too. In addition, each are allowed paid ‘research assistants.’ Yet they often still don’t seem to have a clue about obvious things that are going on in our community, nor do they embrace some of the obvious and simple solutions available for our more urgent problems. They’re way better at getting themselves re-elected with contributions from big corporate real estate interests. … Healy and his deputy have been in charge of all too much in Cambridge for far too long. Thirty-five years, to be exact. (That’s actually longer than Mubarak!) …”
It is not obvious why it should be hard to run the city. Harvard and MIT bring in floods of money while generating virtually no demand for city services (e.g., not too many Harvard students are arrested for crimes (and Harvard has its own police force), sign up for free health care at the Cambridge City Hospital, or ask for a free apartment from the City’s housing office). While most of the Boston area succumbs to traffic gridlock, Cambridge enjoys four Red Line and one Green Line T stations. The only thing that the city tries to do that is arguably challenging is run a high quality public school system and, of course, it is failing to meet that challenge (Boston Magazine ranks Cambridge as #88/147 in quality among Massachusetts districts and… #1 in spending (though the $26,305 per-student figure is understated because it does not include capital expenses, e.g., for renovating the school buildings)).