I recently led on passing two policy orders related to out-of-school (OST) time options in Cambridge, both of which are now sitting on the City Manager’s desk and awaiting implementation. One order asks the City Manager to present a plan (including funding) for expanding OST options, and the other asks him to establish a Caregiver Advisory Council for engaging key stakeholders around the issue.
I’ve long called for expanded OST options, but things really came to a head last month when many Cambridge families were suddenly at the last minute denied slots that they had been counting on for the upcoming school year. The insufficient notice inevitably caused lots of confusion in the community, and in some cases, parents and caregivers faced jeopardized employment or were left without childcare options.
There are three big things I’m looking for in the City Manager’s plan for expanding OST options. They are:
Immediate expansion of Community Schools programs by hiring additional staff. These programs offer flexibility for our families and important enrichment opportunities for our scholars which might not be available anywhere else. The major constraint here is staffing, not space, and that is resolved with a deeper investment. This is the most immediate way we can expand OST options, and I am frustrated that we have not already made more of an effort to do so.
Implementing the highly successful King Open Extended Day program at other schools in the city. This program functions as a more natural extension of the school day, offering social and academic enrichment in a classroom setting. It works in synergy with the Community Schools program, and both of my kids benefited greatly from having both options available to them at King Open. The Extended Day program also has a more diverse staff, which both of my kids really appreciated as they were growing up. We are told that one of the main obstacles to implementing this program at other schools around the city is that the day school teachers do not want to share their classroom space with after school programs. While I can appreciate the ways in which sharing space might be inconvenient and challenging, we must get serious about resolving this so that all of our children can benefit from a more traditional extended day option in addition to the more a la carte options offered by the Community School programs. We are about to spend $250 million on rebuilding the Tobin School, and it is incumbent on us to find a way to maximize the utilization of that space, as opposed to having it sit empty and underutilized more than half of the time!
Expanding Youth Center hours and programming, including on Saturdays. There is an urgent need to expand our youth centers to create options for our young people, including on Saturdays. Once again, all we need to do is make a deeper investment. And in addition to expanding hours and capacity, we need to make a direct investment into the facilities. Back in 2019, the Moses Youth Center was a finalist in the participatory budgeting process. They asked for $95,000 to improve the quality and equipment of the Moses Youth Center by adding new furniture, upgrading technology, and modernizing sports equipment & supplies. It wasn’t chosen as a winner of participatory budgeting that year, and as far as I can tell the upgrades have yet to be made. Why not? It is unacceptable, and that’s just one example.
The final piece is establishing the Caregiver Advisory Council for engaging key stakeholders around the issue. High-priority families are most detrimentally impacted and must lead and be partnered with to address their needs in out-of-school time programming, especially considering the rippling effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. For this reason, the Caregiver Advisory Council should be overly represented by high-priority families. This body would focus on key issues like enrollment, capacity, staffing, and outreach efforts.
Providing more equitable access to expansive OST programming is essential to support and uplift the city’s low-income and Black and Brown families, as well as families with disabled children. Of course, these proposals are only a small piece of the work that needs to be done. My recent op-ed covers many more topics including the need for universal pre-K, expanding the RSTA program and vocational options, and creating more economic opportunity in our community. Special thanks to Councillor McGovern, Mayor Siddiqui, and Councillor Carlone for cosponsoring these proposals- read them in full here and here!
Thank you as well to all the parents and caregivers who reached out to share their perspectives. I’ve heard you and I will keep on pushing the city to do better!
I have worked with colleagues to propose that the city create a Racial Justice & Equity Commission. One of the main tasks of this commission will be to implement related policy orders around delivering reparations for slavery and restitution for the war on drugs. Please support Policy Order #11 on Monday night’s agenda by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org! Below you will find the detailed proposal in full.
The Commission will examine all aspects of government, society, economy, and environment in light of historic, systemic, and ongoing racial injustice and inequity in our city. Within the first year the commission will report on at least the following:
1. Implementation of policy order 2021 #141 calling for a percentage of revenue from local cannabis sales, as well as applying funding from other sources, towards reparations for slavery, and implementation of policy order 2021 #166 calling for a percentage of revenue from local cannabis sales to be applied towards restitution for the war on drugs, and redress for other racially unjust policies.
2. Proposals for immediate changes to any aspects of city government that would likely lead to improved racial justice and equity outcomes, based on research and data, including but not limited to housing, education, economic opportunity, healthcare, mental health, crisis response, and environmental justice.
3. Identify future areas of work, including but not limited to: additional sources of revenues for reparations for slavery and land theft, additional acknowledgments of harm and apologies for past and ongoing transgression, names (of buildings, streets, neighborhoods, schools), climate change impacts and any other aspects of life that can and should be addressed from a racial justice and equity lens.
The Commission will also track and respond to state and federal efforts, such as H.R. 40, which was recently moved out of the House Judiciary Committee in Congress.
The commission shall at its inception have not less than one full-time staff person hired by the city. The commission shall further have appointed commissioners who represent different areas of knowledge, including but not limited to:
Climate Change Impacts
The commission shall pay a stipend of $100/hour for regular meeting attendance to all Commissioners. Any work done in addition to meeting attendance shall be compensated through a contract with the city.
Commissioners will serve for 1-year terms, with no more than 2 consecutive terms served.
A majority of the Commissioners shall be women or non-male identifying, and a majority of the Commissioners shall be people who identify as Black, with the remainder having a balance of representatives of other marginalized communities, including Asian, Native American, Hispanic.
The majority of Commissioners shall be current or former Cambridge residents. Relevant city departments will select representatives to coordinate with the commission, but city staff shall not be commissioners.
Timeline and Implementation
The commission shall be seated in the fall of 2021 and begin regular meetings. Staff will be hired as soon as possible, and the first order of business shall be taken up regarding cannabis revenues and a comprehensive audit of racism embedded in our laws, policies, departments, and structures of government and the economy.
History and Motivation
Racial injustice in the U.S. goes back not just to the founding of the United States but to the very beginnings of colonization of the American landmass by European people, beginning with the subjugation and displacement of Indigenous People, and continuing with the abduction of African People as slaves, and the mistreatment of Asian immigrants and others denied access to full participation in American society.
While modern American society has abolished chatel slavery and outlawed some forms of overt racism, people of African, Indigenous and non-European descent continue to be harmed by racist policies and ideas that perpetuate and amplify both historical and new inequities.
By establishing this commission and fully acknowledging the magnitude of harm that is being done, we create opportunities to systemically and radically eradicate racist policies and ideas from our lives and from our future.
Education and Awareness
Because racism is active literally everywhere in our society, it can seem daunting and overwhelming and even intractable. However, the only true limit to what we can accomplish is the depth of our commitment to accomplishing it. While we cannot eradicate racism and inequality everywhere all at once, we can identify specific aspects of racism and inequality to attack and continue to collect and focus resources on different areas of our society and government, improving the lives of people who have for too long been ignored, marginalized and oppressed.
To that end the commission will seek to educate the government and the people of Cambridge on these issues of racial justice and equity, empowering more and more people to take right action in order to reduce harm, using both formal and informal means of education.
Resources and Growth
The commission is neither the beginning nor the end of our reckoning with racism and inequality. There are many ongoing efforts in our city that the commission can strengthen and drive resources towards, and there are many areas of effort that will require their own organizational structures, funding and staffing to succeed. The commission’s purpose is to identify these areas and steer resources towards them, not to solve every problem it sees by itself. The intent is to put the full power and resources of the government behind these efforts to maximize success and produce ongoing positive outcomes.
As these efforts succeed, they will empower more and more people and organizations to make change, until anti-racism and equity work become as routine and thorough as food production or electricity generation: a normal part of what we do every day to nurture and sustain our civilization.
The Cambridge City Council finally passed a comprehensive update to the city’s Tree Protection Ordinance. I am so grateful to everyone who contributed to this important work including the volunteer members of the Urban Forest Master Plan Task Force who spent 18 months studying the issue in-depth, DPW Commissioner O’Riordan and all the city staff who rose to the challenge of enforcing the council’s interim moratorium, as well as our former Vice Mayor Jan Devereux whose visionary leadership sparked the years-long journey to the council adopting these amendments.
Here are the key amendments in the revised Tree Protection Ordinance (TPO):
Cements key provisions of the interim moratorium, including broad applicability to trees on private property and the fundamental requirement that a permit must be obtained before any Significant Tree can be removed. Previously, the city had no jurisdiction over trees on private property except for large projects greater than 25,000 square feet.
Redefines what it means to be a “Significant Tree” so that more trees fall under the protection of the ordinance. The ordinance used to apply only to trees measuring 8 inches or more in diameter at breast height (DBH), but that threshold has now been lowered to protect any tree that measures 6 inches or more at DBH. According to the Urban Forest Master Plan (page 133), this change will increase the number of protected trees by 49%.
Introduces the concept of an “Exceptional Tree”, defined as any tree with a DBH of 30 inches or more. The replacement cost for an Exceptional Tree is 1.5x as much as for a Significant Tree.
Establishes a new mitigation formula that incentivizes replacement tree planting while still requiring substantial replacement fees. The new formula retains the financial penalties of the moratorium, but subtracts the DBH of any replacement trees planted onsite from the total DBH of the trees removed, and then applies a 50% discount to that number if any trees are replaced, creating an incentive to replant any trees that are removed.
Expands the Tree Replacement Fund so that it can be used for tree planting and maintenance throughout the entire city instead of just along the public right of way. We need to plant many thousands of trees, but most of the city’s plantable area is on private property. This new language will hopefully allow us to scale up our planting efforts to the degree that is necessary to curb canopy loss by unlocking new opportunities across the city.
Adds a “duty of care” provision which requires property owners to take care of Significant Trees and replacement trees on their property. This ensures that replacement trees are cared for and allowed to thrive as we incentivize replanting on private property.
Includes an explicit provision that affordable housing developers (including the Cambridge Housing Authority) shall be permitted to apply for mitigation funds from the Tree Replacement Fund to increase canopy protection and expansion as affordable housing is constructed and renovated. I worked with Mayor Siddiqui to ensure this language was included in the final ordinance after the Council refused to make the TPO apply to affordable housing projects by a vote of 4-5. City staff and consultants had initially recommended that the Tree Protection Ordinance apply in full to affordable housing developers as a matter of equity. Many tenants bravely testified to remind us that this is a fundamental matter of environmental justice, and I have heard their voices. I still think the TPO should apply to all projects, but this compromise is an important step in that direction which should result in greater equity at affordable housing sites around the city.
These amendments are a critical step in our efforts to protect and expand the tree canopy, but the work of implementing the Urban Forest Master Plan is only beginning. I led a recent effort to triple the tree planting budget, but now we need even more funding to be able to plant thousands of trees across the city each year like the report calls for. We also need to continue our focus on equity because we know that areas with the least amount of canopy cover tend to be where our most vulnerable residents live. I’ve worked with DPW to plant dozens of trees at Greene-Rose Heritage Park and other parks in the Port, Wellington-Harrington, East Cambridge, and more. But there are still far too many empty and paved-over tree wells in these neighborhoods, and we need to do more. We need to continue advocating with property owners and the city on the importance of reversing our canopy loss. Trees provide critical protection from the increasing threat of heatwaves and flooding. Unfortunately, the City Manager has yet to fully incorporate that reality into the city’s own construction projects, and that needs to change.
Here is a more detailed update on the effort to demilitarize the police.
The original policy order I submitted on April 26 can be reviewed here. At that meeting, Councillor Simmons immediately exercised her charter right on the item, blocking all discussion and postponing further debate until the next meeting. I didn’t even get a chance to speak on my own motion!
On May 3 at the following week’s meeting, Councillor McGovern introduced a substitute order which completely replaced the original language with his own version. The amendment by substitution was a not-so-subtle way of erasing the original message with something deemed less offensive to the status quo protectors. When you have a majority of votes on the Council, you can do that! Councillor McGovern didn’t send his language until 6:42 PM, 90 minutes after the meeting had already begun. I’m not generally paying much attention to my inbox during the council meetings, so I didn’t even see the amendment until we started discussing the matter much later in the night.
Because Councillor Simmons had exercised her charter right the previous week, she got to speak first when the item came up. She stated her opinion that she “doesn’t see the police department as militarized” and that she found the proposed language to be “inflammatory”. Then I finally got to introduce my order, which called on the City Manager to produce a plan for demilitarization of the police force including getting rid of the Lenco BearCat. The preamble rationalized the ask with a careful accounting of nearly a year’s worth of community discussions and progress.
Our effort really took off last year when we found an obscure provision in the municipal code which compelled Police Commissioner Bard to provide the City Manager with a complete inventory of the police department. We passed a policy order pointing this provision out, and a few months later we had perhaps the first ever public inventory of our Cambridge Police Department. It took months to schedule a committee hearing on the report at a time that worked for all relevant city staff, including the Police Commissioner. At the January 2021 hearing, we heard from Alex Vitale (author of “The End of Policing”) who presented evidence showing that military weapons in policing neither reduced crime, nor enhanced officer safety, as well as community activist Matthew Kennedy who presented a nationwide analysis of the deadliness of armed policing and the disproportionate impact on Black people. Cambridge residents Queen Cheyenne-Wade spoke on behalf of the Black Response, outlining their demands which include demilitarization of the police and the creation of an unarmed public safety response alternative. Public comment was also overwhelmingly supportive of getting rid of the military weapons.
Back to the discussion of the policy order. During this, two of my colleagues suggested that I had not done any work on this issue other than January’s Public Safety hearing. In fact, I had a meeting with the Commissioner, the City Manager, the Solicitor and the Mayor where the City Manager made it very clear that he did not wish to dispose of these weapons. In addition I’ve conducted several meetings with experts and community members on this topic and others both before and after the January 6 Public Safety Committee hearing. The Commissioner chose to announce a “20% reduction” of the long guns (assault rifles and shotguns) on his own, without any communication with me or the council. However, a “reduction” is not the same as “to eliminate”.
The amendment by substitution passed with a 7-2 vote (Sobrino-Wheeler and Zondervan against) and the order as amended was then adopted with an 8-1 vote (Zondervan against).
Also noteworthy is that the Council insisted on referring the imagined response from the city manager straight to the Public Safety Committee, a minor procedural sleight of hand that makes it clear that the Council is not truly interested in the matter.
This is how the council does business. In the dark of night, while almost nobody is watching, the voices of Black and Brown community members objecting to living in a white-supremacist occupation are erased, and the majority-white council instead demotes the objection to a “concern” and the ask to “eliminate” with an ask to report back on “reduction”.
These actions reveal the depth of white supremacy and gaslighting that operate in Cambridge to keep the racist system intact while we march in the streets for change.
If you want a different outcome, you will have to elect a different council.
So let’s compare the two orders to fully understand the depth of subterfuge at work here in order to erase the demands of the community that our police department demilitarize:
WHEREAS: The inventory includes many assault rifles and shotguns, as well as a Lenco Bearcat armored vehicle; and
WHEREAS: A concern has been raised by some in the community regarding the number and types of weapons and equipment in the possession of the Cambridge Police Department and
Original specifically names the offending equipment; Substitute erases the details in favor of a vague “concern” about “weapons and equipment”. Substitute downplays the broad community support for demilitarizing the police.
WHEREAS: The Lenco Bearcat armored vehicle has been used to intimidate peaceful Black Lives Matter protesters; and
All references to the Lenco Bearcat are stripped out of the substitute. The community concern that it serves as a form of intimidation is erased.
WHEREAS: On January 6, 2021 the Public Safety Committee heard from community members and subject matter experts, who argued that there is no credible benefit to the Police Department having this type of military-grade equipment, and that its presence does ongoing harm to the community; and
WHEREAS: Police Commissioner Bard presented an inventory of such equipment to the Public Safety Committee of the Cambridge City Council earlier this year and
Substitute reframes the January 6 committee hearing to make it about the Police Commissioner, completely erasing the community members and subject matter experts who led the conversation and educated the council. Specific objections raised are replaced with an assiduously neutral statement that even softens “weapon” to “equipment”.
WHEREAS: On February 19, 2021 the Police Department announced it would eliminate camouflage materials and reduce its weapon inventory by 20-30%, a concession that does not go far enough to address the calls to demilitarize the police; now therefore be it
WHEREAS: Police Commissioner Bard has already taken steps to reduce this inventory and has publicly indicated that he is taking steps to further reduce this inventory in the future and
Substitute replaces a factual, specific description of concessions made by the PD with a vague, ineffectual statement and an empty promise of future reform. The original language acknowledges the concession and expresses a desire to go farther, but the substitute is just an informational dead end.
WHEREAS: Some remain concerned regarding the CPD’s possession of such weapons and equipment, therefore, be it
The substitute adds this additional, redundant clause which uses the same language as above to erase the people closest to the pain.
ORDERED: That the City Manager work with the Cambridge Police Department to present a plan to the City Council for demilitarization, including the destruction and recycling of all rifles and shotguns, and elimination of the Lenco Bearcat; and be it further
ORDERED: That the City Manager is hereby requested to work with the Police Commissioner and report back to the Public Safety Committee on steps taken to address this concern and issue a status report on how the City is moving forward with reducing weapons and equipment deemed unnecessary by the Cambridge Police Department.
This is the meat and potatoes of course: the original asks for “a plan” whereas the substitute calls for “a report”. The original calls for the “destruction and recycling” of “all rifles and shotguns”, the substitute refers to “reducing” again “weapons and equipment” deemed unnecessary by CPD. This last phrase is key, leaving the decision entirely up to the Police, rather than expressing any policy directive from the Council.
ORDERED: That the City Manager present a response to the City Council ahead of the relevant upcoming FY22 budget hearings
Erasing any link to the budget discussion, thereby ensuring that no response will happen.
Cambridge’s Inclusionary Zoning Ordinance famously requires 20% subsidized housing in developments of ten or more units, but it does not apply to infill development of less than 10 units. As currently written, the new Missing Middle Zoning Petition takes advantage of this to incentivize small infill development without offering a mechanism for creating any subsidized housing. This proposal would also erode the advantage the Affordable Housing Overlay was designed to confer to nonprofit housing developers in our city. If the petition is successful it will generate 100% market rate (luxury priced) infill development while rendering the AHO less effective and accelerating condo conversion. This is an unacceptable classist and racist outcome.
The goal of ending single family zoning is laudable and something I support, and I have long been a proponent of eliminating parking minimums, but this petition takes a hammer to the zoning code with sweeping disregard for the most vulnerable neighborhoods in our city. Zoning has long been a tool of oppression and racism, but it is misguided to think that we can undo those long entrenched patterns by deregulating the zoning code for market rate housing only. Right now in neighborhoods like the Port and Wellington Harrington, we are seeing a few developers convert large amounts of rental housing into expensive condos. This proposal would accelerate that pattern, which would be devastating for our city. As Black Response Cambridge pointed out in a recent op ed,“history doesn’t repeat, but it rhymes”. In her most recent oped, movement leader Stephanie Guirand makes it abundantly clear that low-income and Black and Brown people are being left behind permanently by this zoning petition. I still have not seen any substantive proposals for how to address the legitimate racial and economic justice concerns that have been raised, even after several community leaders have spoken out in opposition.
Upzoning an already dense, expensive housing market full of vulnerable renters is a dangerous game, especially without any legitimate tenant protections or stronger condo conversion restrictions. Without an inclusionary component the proposal will only drive up land values and housing costs in this already overheated market, and that is unacceptable because it will cause harm. By adding an inclusionary requirement for smaller developments as part of this upzoning, we could mitigate some of this harm, while creating more affordable homeownership opportunities for longtime residents of historically oppressed and neglected neighborhoods in our city. This is one way to begin to actually counter the historical injustice of redlining.
Here is my proposed amendment:
On any lot, a certain minimum number of new Dwelling Units built shall be owner-occupied Affordable Dwelling Units (Affordable Home Ownership Units), subject to all applicable affordable housing laws and regulations, including and not limited to the applicable provisions of Section 11.203 of the Cambridge Zoning Ordinance (Inclusionary Housing).
The number of Affordable Home Ownership Units that are required to be produced are as follows:
Total Newly Constructed Dwelling Units
Affordable Home Ownership Units
10 or more
As determined by Section 11.200 of the Cambridge Zoning Ordinance (INCENTIVE ZONING AND INCLUSIONARY HOUSING)
Here are 5 reasons why Councillor Zondervan is not ready to move ahead with the proposed upzoning in the Alewife Quadrangle:
1. There is no guarantee of a bridge.
CC&F talks big about building a bridge across the commuter rail tracks, but this language allows them to get out of that by making a financial payment. Without a guarantee that the bridge will be built, it is sometimes hard to understand why we are spending so much time on this proposal. The developer hasn’t even secured key permits and easements with the MBTA, adding significant uncertainty. Even if this bridge were to get built, it isn’t in an ideal location- it is sited to primarily serve the developer’s tenants, rather than the public interest.
2. Too much parking.
The proposed 85-foot tall above ground parking garage is simply unacceptable from a climate perspective. Traffic is already famously bad in the area and we need to reduce the number of cars that come into our city. The developer’s insistence on a 700+ car garage makes connectivity feel like less of a priority. I asked them to build more housing instead of the massive garage, but they don’t seem to be willing to move in that direction. I appreciate their commitment to rooftop solar, but that does not make the parking structure acceptable.
3. Subverted process.
The developer went to the nearby rock gym to collect signatures of registered voters in order to submit the upzoning as a citizens’ petition instead of having to engage in contract zoning with the council. It is unclear if those who signed were even aware of what they were signing since none of them have shown up to our meetings, which is highly unusual. Why isn’t this a PUD? Through this trick, the developer is able to offer community benefits based on just ⅔ of the land being upzoned, and if the developer were to buy the adjoining parcels they would get the upzoning without having to provide any additional benefit.
4. Cherrypicking the Alewife District Plan.
Ironically, the city’s Envision Alewife process led to a near consensus on preserving the light industrial nature of this area. But the market pressure is all about building high-end laboratory/office space, because that commands the highest rents. The CC&F proposal pretends to honor the light-industrial buildings envisioned in Alewife, but is mostly focused on collecting the high rents of laboratory/office space. The proposal does not reduce dependency on automobile traffic as Envision calls for. CC&F has not grappled with questions around public amenities or the open space network that Envision calls for, to reduce heat and flooding impacts of climate change.
5. A worthless financial analysis.
The analysis we were initially presented with showed a -$3M net value for the proposed upzoning, which didn’t make any sense. That value is the assumed increased value of the upzoning minus the assumed costs to the developer including community benefits. It defies belief that the developer would go through the trouble of filing this petition four times at a net loss compared to what they could do building as-of-right. CDD said the initial analysis was done without the commitment letter, so there was no way to actually know the true costs of the community benefits to the developer. We received the letter on Monday (2/16) and it shows a much lower estimated cost for the bridge by millions of dollars. CDD will have to redo their analysis.
I strongly stand with the Mayor and Vice Mayor in prioritizing closures of indoor spaces like bars and gyms ahead of the schools. Cambridge needs to lead here to save lives. We should be clear with the City Manager that we need a relief program and these spaces need to close immediately. It was frustrating that this important discussion got charter righted into next week because time is of the essence when dealing with exponential growth.
Asking for weekly COVID updates
Cases are on the rise here in Cambridge and across the state. In response, I called on the City Manager to start delivering weekly updates on the city’s COVID-19 response during council meetings, as opposed to the less frequent updates that we had slipped into. Here’s a clip of what I said:
Extending Memorial Drive closures
One policy order from Monday’s agenda called for an extension of the popular Memorial Drive closures, which normally end in November. Many residents have called for an extension due to the pandemic. We need to maximize open space and opportunities to get exercise and fresh air outside while maintaining social distancing requirements. I have previously called for Memorial Drive to be shut down entirely, but the least we can do is extend the current weekend closures.
Some of my colleagues who were unsupportive pointed to young people not wearing their masks properly outdoors as a cause of the recent spike. It is important to recognize that outdoor transmission is not considered to be a driver of the pandemic, and every bit of scientific evidence we have points to indoor transmission as the culprit.
One of my colleagues exercised their charter right on this policy order and it won’t be considered until next Monday. Watch my take on this here:
Tree Protection Ordinance update
Lasting changes to the Tree Protection Ordinance have advanced to the Ordinance Committee. At the recent meeting, I proposed a two-month extension to the current regulations around tree cutting to ensure there is no gap in coverage. If this change is adopted, current restrictions will not expire until the end of February, 2021. More details in the video:
Support for 32BJ SEIU
I strongly support the workers of the 32BJ SEIU labor union as they demand a fair contract with no layoffs from Harvard. These workers have been on the frontlines of the pandemic, protecting our entire community from the virus. I am calling on Harvard University to do right by these fine folks as one of the wealthiest institutions in the world. I have sent a letter to President Bacow about this.
I recently chaired a hearing of the Health & Environment Committee to restart discussions around amending the city’s Tree Protection Ordinance.
How we got here
This discussion began in earnest back in 2017 with a policy order from then-councillor Jan Devereux, which resulted in the creation of a task force charged with looking at ways to better protect the urban tree canopy. The Urban Forestry Master Plan Task Force finished meeting in 2019, and though consultants delivered an excellent presentation to the Health & Environment Committee in a November 2019 hearing, the discussion was ultimately sidetracked by the COVID-19 pandemic and the start of a new council term.
Early on in their deliberations, the task force received an infamous report from the city stating that based on LiDAR data collected over time, the city’s tree canopy had declined by nearly 20% since 2009. This data confirmed a long suspected trend and brought a new level of urgency to the discussion. Last term in response to this new information, which also revealed that most of the loss had occurred on private property within the city, the council approved an amendment I introduced to the Tree Protection Ordinance (TPO) to create a new permitting requirement for cutting any significant tree on private property, as well as a one-year moratorium on issuing such permits (with exemptions for dead or dangerous trees). This had an immediate cooling effect on the destruction of healthy trees in our city, as anticipated.
The purpose of the “tree moratorium”, as it has come to be known, is to prevent as much canopy loss as possible while new regulations are implemented based on the findings of the task force. Trees are one of the only irreplaceable elements of our urban landscape; if a 50-year old tree is cut for convenience sake, it will take 50 years to replace what was lost. There are no shortcuts, and each unnecessary loss is devastating for our city. When it became clear this past February that the process was delayed to the point where the council would not have a chance to incorporate findings into the existing Tree Protection Ordinance ahead of the moratorium’s expiration date, I led the effort to extend it for another year (we got that done just before the pandemic hit).
Proposed long term changes
Of course, reversing our canopy loss requires a comprehensive strategy that goes far beyond changing the city’s laws. But strengthening the existing Tree Protection Ordinance is one of the most immediate and direct interventions we can make as a City Council, and changes are long overdue. Here is a list of the key changes being proposed:
Expand the ordinance to cover all private properties (including affordable housing)
Redefine what it means to be a significant tree, lowering the threshold from 8 inches in diameter down to 6 inches
Extend special protections to all trees 30 inches or larger (often referred to as “legacy”, “exceptional”, or “heritage” trees)
Change and adjust mitigation requirements for cutting down a healthy tree
Require a city arborist’s inspection prior to occupancy for large projects
Establish a tree trust and ensure tree replacement funds are spent on enhancing our canopy in an equitable way
The biggest challenge is finding a way to prevent large trees from being cut down while further incentivizing planting and preservation. While it is easy to say that no healthy, significant trees should ever be cut down on private property, the task force cautions that such a policy could stymie new plantings. They found that we would need to plant 2,750 trees annually just to reduce the amount of canopy loss we are experiencing by 50%, yet we currently plant less than half that amount each year on public land. Our ability to increase the number of trees planted each year is limited by opportunity rather than funding, as most remaining opportunities to plant are on private land. For this reason, finding ways to get property owners to plant as many new trees as possible is key to our success. The city has proposed three primary mitigation strategies for consideration:
A “one for one” replacement policy, in which a tree of any size that is cut down must be replaced by a single new tree. Obviously this policy would not take into account the size and age of the tree being cut down, and would always result in a net canopy loss.
A “some for one” replacement policy, in which replacement and mitigation is determined by the trunk diameter of the tree being lost. This recognizes that bigger, older trees are more valuable.
A hybrid of the first two options in which additional consideration is given to where the trees are planted. If the trees are replanted on private property, then the replacement would be based on 50% of the diameter of the tree trunk instead of 100%
In addition to those options, the city has presented three additional mitigation tools for us to consider:
Requiring additional mitigation of 1.5x the diameter for “exceptional trees”
Allowing alternative mitigation (things that provide shade that aren’t trees) on certain smaller properties
Determining mitigation by a “trunk area formula” instead of the diameter of the tree trunk.
There’s no one simple solution to this conundrum, and any cocktail of mitigation strategies we employ must be accompanied by more resident education and support. The general population is not very well educated on the importance of trees to human health and safety. This needs to be remedied, both in our public school curriculum and general outreach.
We also need to support property owners in making good decisions about their piece of our shared canopy. That includes helping them make decisions on appropriate species to plant, optimal planting location(s), and financial assistance not only with planting but also with maintenance of the tree. We can even provide trees to property owners from our bare root nursery.
Time is of the essence
COVID-19 and other council priorities have delayed the continuing of this discussion until now, and the moratorium currently in place expires on December 31, 2020. Thanks to the hard work of the UFMP task force and DPW we are very well positioned to make timely updates to the TPO, but we want to make sure we get it right and give ourselves enough time to do so. The next committee discussion on this topic will take place on November 10 at 10 AM, and we should actually have ordinance language available at that meeting to advance to the full council for a hearing in the Ordinance committee. If you’re interested in this topic, please send us your thoughts ahead of the next hearing. You can email email@example.com (be sure to copy firstname.lastname@example.org so your testimony gets entered into the official record).
Rest assured, this council will not invite a tree cutting frenzy by letting what is currently in place expire for any length of time before the long term protections are in place- I will propose an additional (short) extension to the moratorium if necessary!
The council recently met to discuss issues of digital equity and municipal broadband, coincidentally six years to the day that the city’s Broadband Task Force was initially appointed.
Last June, after many years of grassroots activism and a “NO” vote on the IT Department budget by six members of the City Council, City Manager DePasquale finally agreed to move ahead with a broadband feasibility study. At the time, he stated that an appropriation for the money needed to conduct such a study would appear on a council agenda sometime this fall, so I am very grateful to Councillor Nolan for chairing this hearing as a means to continue the dialog and seek accountability on this critically important issue.
Last term, an inside-outside strategy of activism reignited the conversation around digital equity and municipal broadband in our city. Activists applied an unprecedented amount of grassroots pressure through the creation of Upgrade Cambridge, while I led on a series of committee hearings and policy orders that forced the conversation inside city hall. These collective efforts allowed us to break the stalemate that had existed in the years following the September 2016 release of the final recommendations of the Broadband Task Force, which included proceeding with a “highly focused, broadly inclusive” feasibility study on municipal broadband. While the entire task force was supportive of this recommendation, the City Manager was adamantly opposed.
Digital equity and municipal broadband are interrelated but ultimately distinct issues which each need to be addressed. Our efforts last term resulted in an appropriation from City Manager DePasquale to support a 12-month digital equity research initiative and the creation of a new Digital Equity Advisory Board. I want to be clear, however, that my policy order asked for far more than simply another study. The order laid out four specific policy goals (one of which was a clear quantitative & qualitative understanding of the digital divide in our city) and asked City Manager DePasquale to develop a plan to achieve all four of them. It also put the council on record in explicit support of four aspirational goals, which included achieving universal affordable broadband access in Cambridge by 2025. Both the policy order and the unanimous council vote could not have been more clear, so it is frustrating that only one small piece of the order has been partially addressed with the digital equity study and advisory group. We didn’t need to spend two years doing another study, but here we are. And by the way, we still haven’t received the outcomes of that study or any detailed update on its progress, nearly two years after the council appropriated $150,000 to pay for it.
Several difficult conversations with constituents last term helped me more fully appreciate the grim realities of our city’s infamous Comcast monopoly. I spoke with a recent CRLS graduate of color who had experienced inconsistent internet access at home during their four years, which often forced them to rely on their friends or the wifi connection at Starbucks. I also spoke with senior public housing residents who described Skyping with loved ones and preparing taxes in common areas of their building that afforded little privacy, because that was the only place they could access the internet. These anecdotes underscored what was already apparent: that our collective decision to treat the internet as a premium service rather than as a utility afforded to everybody has created a vast digital divide in our city, with striking disproportionate impacts on our most vulnerable residents.
I am heartened by the City Manager’s newfound willingness to move ahead with the municipal broadband feasibility study following the digital equity efforts that began last term. Particularly encouraging is the city’s decision to hire Patrick McCormick as our new CIO. Patrick served on the original Broadband Task Force and brings extensive and specific expertise which was previously missing from the city administration.
At this most recent hearing, the council gave city staff the clarity they need to come back with an appropriation for the broadband feasibility study, hopefully in the next few weeks. I remain deeply appreciative of Councillor Nolan’s persistence and insistence that we move this forward in her role as chair of the Neighborhood & Long Term Planning Committee (I chaired that committee last term). And in the meantime, we all await the results of the digital equity study with bated breath.
This was the most discussed budget process in recent memory, one that will surely be remembered for its uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the resulting economic recession, and the national uprising against the racial injustice and police brutality that has plagued American society for far too long. It will also be remembered for how difficult it is to undo centuries of racism, even here in liberal Cambridge.
Start with the intro (after the picture) or jump to my thoughts on:
We rightfully gave the most scrutiny to the Police Department this year, but the entire budget is racist. To be clear, when I say that a department or institution is racist, I do not mean that the individuals working for or in that institution are individually bad people. That is a favorite misunderstanding of those who want to ignore racism. Unfortunately, that denial is the heartbeat of racism, as Ibram X. Kendi says. As a society we need to correctly understand the word ‘racist’ not as a slur or an insult, but as a labeling of the outcomes that are produced.
I want to be clear and upfront about the fact that I voted against this budget, just as I did last year. This post contains my reasons for doing so, including my take on some individual sections that need your attention. Despite my vote, I appreciate all the hard work that goes into preparing our budget, and I recognize that we’ve made progress since last year. The fact that we are now openly and more correctly talking about the racism that pervades our entire city budget is progress in itself.
As the late African American writer James Baldwin said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced”. For the first time in a long time we are facing our racism as a society, and doing the work to change it. I’m committed to spending the next 12 months making sure we are not faced with another racist budget next year.
Approving the budget is the single most consequential decision the council makes each year, and our process needs to be rebuilt from the ground up, starting with the fact that we don’t even begin formally discussing the budget until weeks before it must be decided on. To move forward in a way that is explicitly anti-racist, we must truly examine every department in our city including through an enhanced, extended budget process with more public input. I am committed to doing this work, and this post also looks ahead to how we will get there. As always, do not hesitate to reach out directly to discuss anything on your mind.
Cambridge Police Department
The murder of George Floyd on Memorial Day 2020 was the spark that set the country ablaze with righteous anger. This has become a long overdue national reckoning on racial injustice, and Councillor Sobrinho-Wheeler and I made sure Cambridge took part in the conversation to fundamentally rethink the role of policing in our cities.
In solidarity with the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL) and their national call to defund the police, we introduced a policy order asking the City Manager to re-allocate $4.1 million away from the Cambridge Police Department and towards high-priority community needs in other departments.
$4.1 million is the difference between the projected expenditures for the police in the fiscal year that ended on June 30, 2020 ($61.8 million) and the proposed budget for the police department starting the next fiscal year on July 1st, 2020 ($65.9 million).
In response to COVID-induced revenue shortfalls, the City Manager proposed a budget that left many council priorities in various departments glaringly unfunded or only partially funded. Examples included a housing stability case manager in the City Manager’s office, a social worker at the Central Square library, and several much needed preschool teachers. At the same time, the proposed Police Department budget included many vacant positions that we can easily live without, totalling millions of dollars.
Our proposal was the opening to a conversation about how to address this very visible and immediate injustice in the FY21 budget, and how to re-prioritize our spending to address the long neglected needs of Black people in our community. Fueled by the energy of the moment, it gained far more attention than we were expecting, or than anything else I’ve seen in my 2+ years on the council so far.
We received thousands of emails, and over 400 people signed up to speak during public comment on Monday June 8th, causing the council to limit comments to 1 minute each and to defer the rest of the meeting to Wednesday, June 10th. The emails and comments we heard that Monday were almost entirely supportive. We heard clear demands from Black leaders on what is needed to restore health & safety to our community. I recognize that the stakes are high for any Black person who speaks on the topic of policing, and I appreciate the many brave voices who did so despite the risk. It was also heartening to have so many white allies stand in solidarity with the proposal, many of whom had never weighed in or spoken up before.
The proposal also created legitimate fear and confusion among some residents who understandably wanted to make sure there weren’t cuts to things like the cadet program, school resource officers, or crossing guards. I spent a great deal of time meeting with members of the Black community who had these and other concerns in an effort to provide clarity and build even more consensus. I came to the Wednesday continuation of the council meeting ready to introduce amendments that emerged out of those conversations, and they were ultimately incorporated in the final version of the policy order at the June 15 meeting.
These amendments would go on to form the backbone of the council’s eventual compromise: a promise by the City Manager to delay $2.5 million of planned hires within the Police Department in order to immediately fund some of the aforementioned positions that had been placed on hold. On the surface, this compromise represents a huge victory. As just a small example of that, there is now the potential for a housing justice case manager to begin working immediately instead of next April. With an eviction crisis looming, that will make all the difference for many individuals and families struggling to navigate the system. I appreciate the City Manager’s compromise proposal and the willingness of my colleagues to unite around it as an important step forward towards justice.
At the same time, the compromise we reached did not change the proposed budget in any way. While we succeeded in shifting the immediate hiring priorities away from policing, those positions will continue to exist, and they will be filled as soon as the current moment passes. This tactic is similar to Mayor Walsh’s approach in Boston: a splashy $12 million reallocation away from the police overtime budget loses some of its luster when you realize that money can simply be moved around later in order to cover whatever overtime spending actually occurs. These sleights of hand have undoubtedly produced immediate victories, and given the short time we had, we got as much as was possible in this year’s budget cycle.
But even making these modest, critical, and broadly supported improvements would prove to be challenging. Shortly after the City Manager proposed the $2.5 million compromise, he gave the floor to our Police Commissioner, who was put in the awkward position of defending his department’s budget after his boss had just proposed a reallocation. Commissioner Bard, who is African American, was appointed three years ago. He holds a Doctorate in Public Administration and has a real expertise in kinder, gentler policing, which he has brought to the Department. He was understandably upset and indignant about the calls to defund the police in Cambridge, but he unfortunately overplayed his hand in an attempt to deflect criticism of his Department and the proposed funding change.
The Commissioner’s remarks began with insulting both the white allies and the Black voices who spoke during public comment when he said that he didn’t hear “authentic voices,” just “a bunch of people looking for their ‘I’m a black ally’ receipts, hoping they could somehow use it to pay off white guilt.” In fact, the council heard from more Black people on this issue than on any other issue this term. Giving public comment can be very intimidating, especially the first time, which was the case for so many who spoke. It is critical to welcome and appreciate everyone who takes the time to participate in our democracy, and to encourage them to keep coming back. As a council we need to hear from the people and so it was difficult for me to hear them be so disrespected.
When he implied that the motion makers displayed “arrogance” by not consulting him, I objected, pointing out that in fact I had reached out to him and gotten no response. He was also assuming intent, which we are asked to refrain from doing during council deliberations. Finally, it is entirely appropriate for councillors to scrutinize the budget and make proposals without consulting individual department heads. Our job is to provide oversight, not micromanagement.
He went on to lay out a large list of programs that, in his view, would have to be cut if the council did not approve the proposed budget increase. As a reminder, even with the reallocation factored in, our proposal would fund the Department at the same level of spending as the previous year. Additionally, the manager had just finished stating that we could avoid cuts simply by not filling some of the vacant positions in the police budget. Detecting this contradiction, I interrupted him through a “point of order,” which is a parliamentary appropriate way to interrupt a speaker. Councillor Simmons interjected before the Mayor could address the point of order, and the meeting descended into chaos.
Over the years, Councillor Simmons has repeatedly challenged my Afro-Caribbean heritage and questioned my Blackness, while I see our shared membership in the African diaspora as a beautiful thing. I hope she will come around and see the benefits of working together on an anti-racist agenda. While her name calling and shouting at me were entirely inappropriate, I’m prepared to forgive (though I can’t promise to forget) in the interest of moving forward. I felt that we made significant progress in that direction at our final meeting before the summer recess on June 29.
It is critical that we have this difficult conversation about policing in our cities. As Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez recently said in a viral Instagram post, defunding the police “looks like a suburb”. She accurately points out that suburban communities generally spend a larger percentage of their budgets on education and public health and a smaller percentage on policing as compared to urban communities like Cambridge. In nearby Lexington, for example, the police budget represents just 3% of overall spending compared to 9% of overall spending in Cambridge, while 70% of their budget goes to education, compared to 30% of Cambridge’s budget. We should be spending a lot less on racist policing and a lot more on education, community building and creating economic opportunity for our residents, with a heavy focus on undoing the harm that has been for so long done to our Black residents.
The suburbs themselves were created through racist, exclusionary policies designed to keep Black people out. Policies like redlining and the war on drugs systematically denied economic opportunity to Black people as urban policing and mass incarceration became the primary tools for maintaining the racist status quo. Modern day policing of urban centers is generally carried out by violent invasionary forces of suburban white males who oppress Black urban communities. Despite admirable efforts in recent years to diversify and tame our local police force, the Cambridge Police Department retains vestiges of our racist history of policing. I look forward to working with the Commissioner to dismantle these racist traditions and remake the police into an even less violent and less racist institution.
Cambridge Public Schools
During the discussions around the police budget, many folks rightfully pointed out that the police is not the only racist part of our budget. I have long shared that view, for instance I voted against the school budget (and the overall budget) in 2019 primarily because of the ongoing racism in the school department. I am the only current councillor to have done so.
The school department is racist because it disproportionately fails to educate Black and brown students to the same level as white students.
In 2019, the grade 3 literacy rate was 80% for white students but just 44% for African American/Black students. We see this trend across nearly every educational outcome we measure. Even worse, this type of racial achievement gap is enshrined into nearly all of the 2020 outcome goals. And all of the pre-COVID inequities were only exposed and magnified when the pandemic hit. Being anti-racist means identifying this inherent racism and actively counteracting it.
The School Committee and the School Department have begun to do this work with the new Building Equity Bridges initiative and the creation of the new Office of Equity, Belonging and Inclusion. I have been impressed with the direction and ambition of our four new School Committee members, as well as the leadership and transparency of Mayor Siddiqui. While I couldn’t vote “yes” on this section of the budget, my “present” vote reflects the newfound trust and confidence I have in my colleagues to accomplish even more together in the next year.
We also voted on a $237 million bond issue to rebuild the Tobin/Vassal school, which is partially named after a slave owner. During that discussion, the City Manager pointed out that we have already spent $13 million (before the shovels have even hit the ground) and that it will be a challenge to keep the entire project below $250 million. To put that figure in perspective, it is almost as much as we spent on the MLK/Putnam Avenue Upper School and the King Open/Cambridge Street Upper School combined, including all the additional facilities that were built or rebuilt at the latter facility: the Valente Branch Library, the Gold Star pool, and the new Cambridge Public School Department’s administrative building.
The future is very uncertain right now, and spending an eye-popping sum on replacing a functional school building in West Cambridge makes no sense to me. We could easily have delayed this allocation by a year while some of the uncertainty around COVID-19 becomes more clear. We haven’t even figured out what will happen in September, and I am hearing loud and clear from teachers, parents, and scholars alike that remote learning simply does not work.
As my son wisely observed, we should “just take that money and pay the extended day teachers more!” I would add that we should pay all the hardworking paraprofessionals in our schools better and expand those programs, which greatly help our minority students succeed. Imagine how much of a difference we could make for Black and brown working class families by investing that kind of money in creating real economic opportunity, providing internet access, healthcare, including mental health services, housing and transportation, and the list goes on.
IT Department (municipal broadband)
By forwarding the IT Department’s budget to the Council with an unfavorable recommendation, we sent a strong message to the City Manager that moving forward on municipal broadband is a must, and he subsequently promised to conduct the feasibility study that he has resisted for years. He announced at the June 15 City Council meeting that staff would work on a scope over the summer, and that he plans to come before the council next Fall with an appropriation. We need to make sure we hold his administration to this promise.
Thanks to all the activists, residents, and experts who have been pushing on this for many years. This is an amazing victory for democracy! The feasibility study itself will build on the digital equity study which I secured last term, an effort that has been delayed by about three months. The lack of updates on that effort have been incredibly frustrating, but the city has promised to deliver the study by October 2020.
The COVID-19 pandemic has served as another reminder that addressing the digital divide in our city is a critical part of our work on racial equity.
When mom and dad can’t work from home, and students can’t access their schoolwork online, economic and educational disparities are worsened and those stressors once again fall disproportionately on members of the Black community in Cambridge.
A look ahead
The FY22 budget cycle starts now and should involve lots of community meetings that dig deep to better understand what needs to change in our budget and our government to make the next budget an anti-racist budget. This is the single most consequential decision the council makes each year, yet the budget process is too brief and devoid of opportunities for the community to weigh in. In addition to community meetings, the Finance Committee should schedule hearings now to begin discussing the FY22 budget priorities.
We also need to come together as a community and find immediate ways to spend some of our free cash to do justice and create economic opportunities for Black community members.
In addition to the budget and finance work, I’m also committed to working on dismantling our dangerous and racist system of policing as chair of the Public Safety Committee. My analysis of the CPD Use of Force Policy shows that it does not meet the basic policy recommendations of the 8 Can’t Wait campaign. There will be a hearing on Tuesday July 7 at 1 PM to discuss how we can improve this policy, which has not been comprehensively updated since 2011.
I’ve also requested a copy of the Police Department’s annual report to the City Manager, which contains an inventory of the department’s materials and equipment. Hopefully the City Manager will release this report by the July 27 summer meeting as requested, so we can have a conversation around disposing of any military or military-grade equipment that the department has. I don’t want to waste time splitting hairs over what something is classified as, we simply don’t need police armored vehicles driving around the streets of Cambridge. Finally, I am excited to work with my colleagues on exploring alternative approaches to responding to emergency calls, like the CAHOOTS program in Eugene, Oregon which responds to mental health 911 calls with specialized first responders, not armed police officers.
In addition to all of this my office will continue its ongoing work around housing justice, tenant protections, digital equity, and environmental justice which form essential components of an antiracist agenda. I genuinely look forward to this work and to building even stronger partnerships with Black leaders in our community as we move forward together. The world is very broken right now, and America is a deeply racist country. Those are depressing facts that cannot be easily fixed. Being entrusted with the responsibility of doing this important work is something I cherish every day as someone who came to the US as a teenager, escaping dictatorship and oppression in my home country. Thanks to all who are and have been doing this work and may we be ever more successful.