Quick Guide to Cambridge Elections
Who’s getting your vote for Mayor?
That was a trick question! We don’t elect a mayor in Cambridge. And we don’t elect the person who actually runs our city—the city manager.
Under Cambridge’s “Plan E” form of government, we, the citizens, elect nine city councillors and six school committee members by proportional representation. (See below for an explanation of how this system of voting works.) All elections are citywide; there are no city councillors or school committee members from specific districts or neighborhoods.
The city councillors elect one of themselves as mayor, which is mostly a symbolic post that comes with a higher salary and the right to run the meetings of both the city council and the school committee. The city council also hires (and fires) the city manager, the city clerk, and the city auditor and passes city ordinances. The ordinance that probably has the greatest effect on our everyday lives is the zoning ordinance, which controls what people can build, where they can build it, and how it can be used. The city council also makes decisions about curb cuts and other issues affecting streets and sidewalks, and passes resolutions about what it wants the city manager to do.
The superintendent of schools proposes the school budget, and the school committee makes changes if they wish and then votes on it. The city manager proposes the rest of the city budget, and the city council votes the full city budget up or down. The city council can’t add to the budget but they can remove or reduce specific expenditures, and they can’t change the school budget at all unless the school committee requests an increase. Finally, if the city council doesn’t vote on the budget within 45 days, the budget passes automatically—without any input from our city councillors or mayor!
The city manager has the real power; he or she oversees all the city’s departments, commissions, and boards (except the school department), and chooses all their members. The city manager also chooses all city officers, except the city clerk and city auditor. It’s illegal for city councillors even to suggest someone to the manager.
What does this mean to you?
! The city manager, who actually runs the City of Cambridge, is not even required to live in Cambridge.
! Our mayor is chosen by the city councillors through backroom deals and negotiations. Sometimes it takes them months to choose a mayor! Because the mayor names all the committees, that keeps the city council from doing much of its work until they agree on someone.
! All councillors are elected “at large,” so no one has responsibility for any district and you don’t know whom to turn to when you need assistance.
Who’s getting your vote for City Council or School Committee?
How does our “Proportional Representation” (PR) voting in Cambridge work?
The first and most important thing to understand about PR is that, no matter how many people you vote for, your ballot will count for at most one and only one person. So how do we figure out which candidate that is?
You don’t need a complete understanding of PR in order to understand the basics of how your votes will be counted, so this explanation is somewhat simplified. You can read all the details at www.rwinters.com, as well as see how the vote counting has actually worked in past elections.
The number of votes a candidate needs in order to be elected is called quota, which is a fraction of the total number of ballots cast for the particular race. Strangely enough, because quota depends on the number of ballots and the number of seats, quota is lower for City Council candidates than it is for School Committee candidates. For the nine seats on the City Council, quota is one-tenth of the number of ballots plus one, and, for the six seats on the School Committee (the mayor is the seventh member), quota is one-seventh of the number of ballots plus one. For example, if we had a huge turnout of 21,000 voters, City Council quota would be 2,101, and School Committee quota would be 3,001.
When you vote, you rank the candidates you wish to give votes to in order of your preference. No two candidates for the same office can have the same ranking on your ballot, but otherwise you can vote for as many or as few candidates you want in any order you want.
The most important vote on each ballot is the ”# 1 Vote”. Anyone who reaches quota based solely on #1 Votes is elected. Any extra ballots beyond quota are “redistributed” by giving those ballots to the candidate listed as #2, or #3, if the #2 candidate has already been elected. After all of the possible ballots are redistributed, candidates with the smallest number of votes (number ones plus any redistributed ballots) are eliminated one by one and their ballots are redistributed to their #2, or #3 or #4, etc., depending on whether the listed candidate is still in the race (i.e., neither elected nor eliminated yet). Elimination and redistribution continue until nine City Councillors or six School Committee members have been chosen.
To promote greater citizen involvement in our local government, join the Association of Cambridge Neighborhoods today at http://cambridgeneighborhoods.org/
ACN meeting Thursday July 18
The Return of Riverfront Rooftop Signs
The Board of Zoning Appeals will hear an an application for a variance that would allow a large, illuminated sign for Sanofi atop an old, historic building owned by MIT along the Charles River. You can find more information at Save Our Skyline - Chapter 2.
If you would like to share your views with the BZA, please attend the hearing on Thursday, July 11, at 8:45 at the Central Square Senior Center across Mass Ave from city hall. If you cannot make the hearing, please send an email.
subject: Please deny the variance for the MIT-Sanofi sign
City Councillor Craig Kelley has written the following,
I understand that not everyone feels the same way about signs, with some folks viewing them as a visual affront, others as a waste of energy and still others as an important piece of creating and maintaining a vibrant economy. Having spent the morning at a Fire Fighter awards and badge presentation ceremony, I am more of the opinion that what makes Cambridge competitive for commercial interests from a City perspective are professional services like our Class I Fire Department, one of only about 53 in the entire US. CPD, inspectional services, our own water department (remember when the MWRA had a major system failure a few years back) and so forth round out what I am often told that commercial interests view as a very professional set of City departments. Add MIT, Harvard, MBTA access and so forth to the mix and I think you create a place that draws in the businesses that in many ways form the heart of the regional economy. The ability to light up one’s roof with signs does not strike me as being particularly important and, more problematically, is, I think, likely to lead to a jumble of signs like in Manhattan that does little to allow any one particular sign or business to brand itself.
Councillor Kelley has also written the following letter to the Board of Zoning Appeals,
Dear BZA Members:
I write in opposition to variance request 10466 for an illuminated sign at 640 Memorial Drive in violation of Chapter 7 of the CZO. As you may remember, the City Council visited the greater issue of expanding allowable signs a few years ago and, after much public angst, chose not to change the Ordinance. And as you may also know, the Council is currently exploring, and many members have expressed support for, a change to our light ordinance to address light trespass issues throughout the City.
Given the Council’s past decision not to expand permissible signs and its current focus on addressing City-wide light concerns, I think it would be best for the BZA not to approve this variance request from a public policy standpoint. While one cannot peer far into the future, I would be concerned that the light and sign issues pertaining to the Charles River skyline that helped focus public concern on the proposed zoning changes in the past would be sidestepped by a precedent-setting variance and we would have difficulty explaining why other, similar signs should not be approved. If the City would like to allow these signs, I think it should be done through the City Council.
I also have difficulty understanding how this request meets the relatively tight criteria for a variance, though I do understand that our use of variances is often viewed as a way to effectively implement a fairly clunky planning tool. In this case, I do not think the requested relief is appropriate, though.
As always, I would be happy to discuss this issue, or the larger issue of how our zoning code might be adapted to better serve our City, with any of the Board members should there be such a desire.
Thank you very much for your attention to this issue and your service to the City.
Craig A. Kelley
More on Our Lighting Ordinance
Our work on the Lighting Ordinance has been mentioned in a story in the Cambridge Day,
The city has a noise ordinance meant to keep things peaceful for residents, but hasn’t been able to enforce it at least back to 2007. The city also has an ordinance saying lighting must be “installed in a manner that will prevent light from shining onto any street or adjacent property,” yet it too is unenforceable. And the effort to correct the situation, which also goes back to at least 2007, comes from a citizen rather then the city itself. The city offers more lazy resistance than help, with Seidel once even resisting Cheung’s renewal of the petition from one council term to the next (the so-called Teague Petition is in its third filing) after the council failed to act on it in time.
(This may sound like déjà vu to some, and they’d be mostly right: The Inspectional Services Department couldn’t fine developers for building and zoning code violations, meaning its inspectors’ actions against law-breaking developers were sometimes simply ignored for years while citizens suffered the impacts, until a resident filed the zoning petition. With the backing of Teague and the Association of Cambridge Neighborhoods, the “deRham Petition” allowing up to $300 per day zoning fines went through in November 2011.)
As part of our fundraising campaign, we would like to point out that filing these zoning petitions costs money. Our three filings of the Teague petition have cost $450. If this work is valuable to you, please consider making a contribution to ACN by clicking on the Donate button on this page. Thank you.
Lighting Ordinance at City Hall, Thursday, May 16 at 4:30
Please come to a public hearing in City Hall at 4:30 on Thursday, May 16, to help us fix our law preventing floodlights from shining in your windows.
Our law protecting us from floodlights shining in our windows at night is difficult to enforce, and indeed has not been enforced. ACN is sponsoring an amendment to our lighting ordinance, small changes to the language of the ordinance, in a constructive effort to help provide relief and protection to people affected by intrusive lights shining into their homes. Our hope is that the “Teague Petition” will make enforcement of our law easier. It also extends across all of Cambridge to equally protect all residents.
Click here to read the Teague petition: http://bit.ly/15WnDPA
Intrusive light is a legitimate public health issue as light naturally disturbs human sleep. Humans need protection from light to preserve natural circadian cycles of rest and wakefulness. Compromised sleep has many negative health impacts including increased appetite and weight gain.
Nobody has the right to shine floodlights in your windows. Protection of your quality of life is one key purpose of our Zoning law. If you have had problems with intrusive light, this is your chance to tell your story.
If you are able to attend, please do. Your presence counts even if you do not testify. Otherwise, Email the entire City Council by noon on Wed May 15:
subject: SUPPORT Teague Petition
There is a second, less important, hearing at the Planning Board, 344 Broadway, 2nd floor on Tuesday, May 21. Email by noon on Thurs May 16:
subject: SUPPORT Teague Petition
This is ACN’s second effort to address this lighting problem. Each petition costs $150, for a total of $300. Please consider donating by clicking the Donate button on the left side of this website. Thank you.
Riverside Neighborhood Association
We would like to thank the Riverside Neighborhood Association for inviting ACN to present our amendment to the Lighting Ordinance at their meeting yesterday evening. We propose a few fairly simple changes to the language of the ordinance that we hope will make it easier to enforce. For us, it is always great to be invited to these events to spread the word about our activities and to hear what is going on in our city’s different neighborhoods.
The Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. school construction project is proceeding to its demolition and abatement phase. Information is available on the city’s website. http://www.cambridgema.gov/cmanager/mlkjrschoolconstruction.aspx
Chris Neill, Owen O’Riordan, and a couple of other folks from the DPW came to give an update about the Western Ave. reconstruction project. Anyone who drives through here knows that it has certainly affected road traffic in this part of the city. It has also caused considerable inconvenience to the residents, but in the end, it will result in a greatly improved street environment. http://www.cambridgema.gov/theworks/cityprojects/detail.aspx?path=%2fsitecore%2fcontent%2fhome%2ftheworks%2fcityprojects%2f2012%2fwesternave
Hoops for Health is returning to Hoyt Field on Sunday, June 16. This terrific annual event is a sports tournament, health fair, and a good time for all.
City Councillor Ken Reeves visited to talk about a variety of concerns, including the report of the Mayor’s Red Ribbon Commission on the Delights and Concerns of Central Square, copies of which he gave out and which is linked to on this page, http://www.cambridgema.gov/CDD/econdev/districtinfo/centralsq.aspx
Finally, David Gibbs, Director of the Cambridge Community Center, which hosted our meeting, spoke about his group’s fundraising campaign to renovate their historic building. Please consider a donation. http://www.cambridgecc.org/a-special-letter-from-our-executive-director-david-gibbs.html