Funding our community, Transforming our policing

Note: I submitted this Communication for the June 8, 2020 council meeting.

To the Honorable, the City Council:

Policing as we know it evolved from slave patrols and is a fundamentally racist institution. The tragic murder of George Floyd and the resulting protests across the country serve as another reminder that we need to fundamentally rethink the role of policing in our society. As Chair of the Public Safety Committee, it is my intent to hold hearings that center Black voices and chart a course to transformative change. This Communication lays out some of the steps and approaches that could be taken at the municipal level.

Re-allocation of Funding

The FY21 proposed Police Department budget totals $62 million, including a $4.1 million increase from FY20. This means the Police Department makes up almost 9% of our operating budget, the largest department outside of Education. While the proposed budget does include several initiatives aimed at reducing gun violence and preventing criminal behavior among young people, it also contains many millions of dollars for traditional violent policing and equipment including a $1 million cost center for a tactical operations unit, which is generally the most militarized component of a police force.

Traditionally, we have responded to criminal activity among young men by increasing the policing of them. Often, these young men are left behind in our traditional education, artistic, and athletic pathways to economic opportunity, creating immense pressure for them to fall into a potentially violent and deadly criminal lifestyle. While the Department has implemented some programs in an attempt to disrupt this cycle, including even some that have been moderately successful, not enough is being done and we continue to lose too many of our youth to violent crime and incarceration. Police-centric programs also come with their own inherent limits, since once down a criminal path a certain distance, the individual becomes potentially unreachable this way. The response of adding more and more violent policing into the mix through reflexive annual police budget increases, without sufficiently addressing the underlying socio-economic risk factors, has allowed generations of young men (often Black) to fall into a life of crime that becomes difficult to rescue them and society from.

Meanwhile, our very successful youth programs like the King Open Extended Day program remain shockingly underfunded and limited in scope, despite their demonstrated success and potential for assisting in the education and wellness of our youth. Many opportunities remain in our budget to better support young people, especially Black youth. With the final budget vote coming up on June 15, it is not too late for the council to call on the City Manager to better fund these programs and to reduce the police budget correspondingly. Specific areas to consider for increased funding include the many initiatives in the Human Services Department, our summer youth programs, the RSTA program at CRLS, Project Elevate and other efforts to recruit more teachers of color, providing better mental health services for young people, and many other ideas that can and should be sourced from the community and those who have been historically most impacted by our racist and anti-Black approach to education and economic opportunity.

Body Cameras

The Cambridge Police Department does not currently use body cameras, although they have done other things to reduce incidents of excessive force. Body cameras can increase accountability by creating an objective video record of an incident from the perspective of the officer. While cell phone recordings of incidents have become prolific, body cameras can provide consistent footage that is more credible in a courtroom. They do come with significant privacy concerns, however, which must be addressed as part of any policy and implementation. 

I support the effort of my colleagues to move forward with a body camera program in the Cambridge Police Department. However, we should be cognizant of the fact that such a program will ultimately have a limited impact, and to the extent that body cameras give us comfort in continuing to fund and expand traditional policing methods, they will be counterproductive to efforts of deeper and more transformative solutions.

The ACLU and the ACLU of Massachusetts have provided extensive guidance on how to craft an effective body camera policy. Key considerations from this guidance include:

  • The need to avoid continuous recording while at the same time blocking officers from selectively determining which encounters are filmed. Body cameras should not be used as general surveillance tools, but allowing for officer discretion undermines any benefit that the cameras might bring. Special consideration should also be given to encounters involving domestic violence and rape in order to protect the identity of the survivor.
  • The need to create consequences for noncompliance with body camera recording, including direct disciplinary action against the officer and the disallowment of verbal evidence in favor of the officer that otherwise could have been verified if the camera had been turned on, except in situations where the officer couldn’t reasonably have turned on the camera or where other verifiable forms of evidence exist.
  • The need to implement privacy considerations at the point of recording. The ACLU recommends limiting cameras to uniformed police officers and marked vehicles only, and requiring that officers notify people that they are being recorded. Additional consideration should be given to instances in which police officers enter someone’s home, particularly in non-exigent circumstances.
  • The need to incorporate policies related to retention and use. The ACLU recommends that retention periods should be measured in weeks not years, and policies should be clearly posted online. Careful thought should be given to who can flag a recording for further retention, and when they can do so. 
  • The need to ensure that anyone recorded by a body camera can access and make copies of said recording for as long as it is retained by the department.
  • The need to regulate public disclosure, including redacting information to protect identities when possible.
  • The need to implement protocols and technological controls that prevent tampering or destruction of evidence by the department.
  • The need for explicit forbiddance of body camera use by government officials who do not have the authority to conduct searches and make arrests.

Use of body cameras would fall under the Surveillance Ordinance, which was used by the Council to rubber stamp massive amounts of police surveillance the first time we had an opportunity to review these technologies earlier this term.

Use of Force Policy

The version of the Use of Force Policy available online took effect in 2011 and was publicly released in 2015. The Police Use of Force Project is a helpful resource that the council can use as a starting point when analyzing our Use of Force Policy. This tool analyzes use of force policies from 91 of the hundred largest cities in the country, evaluating them across eight different metrics. As of 2016, none of the 91 cities had a policy that satisfied all eight of the criteria put forward by the project. The criteria are listed below, along with my analysis of how Cambridge’s policy measures up. I want to be clear that these eight criteria are by no means sufficient in my mind, and that a deeper and more radical analysis of the use of force policy is warranted in order to arrive at a satisfactory place. 

1. Does the policy require officers to de-escalate situations, when possible, before using force?

No. Cambridge’s policy does not even reference de-escalation. The policy only stipulates that the force must be immediately necessary. That wording gives an uncomfortable amount of discretion to officers, and the policy should be modified to explicitly require de-escalation before using force whenever possible.

2. Does the policy use a force continuum/matrix that defines/limits the type of force and/or weapons that can be used to respond to specific types of resistance?

No. The policy does not contain such a thing. It does define “lethal” and “less-than-lethal” weapons, but it doesn’t make it clear how and when to choose between them. Such a force continuum/matrix would clarify expectations for each type of interaction, and it would create more clear boundaries around when “lethal” and “less-than-lethal” weapons can be used.

3. Does the policy restrict chokeholds and strangleholds (including carotid restraints) to situations where deadly force is authorized or prohibit them altogether?

Yes, mostly. The policy does explicitly ban “carotid control or chokeholds”. Strangleholds are not explicitly mentioned. However, it also includes a giant loophole, exempting “those types of manual holds for which a police officer has been specifically trained in gaining control or maintaining control of a detainee”. We need to better understand exactly which manual holds are currently considered permissible. Also, while it does say “Officers will not use any other type of manual holds that are intended or designed to inflict pain or injury”, I would prefer something more like “Officers shall not use any maneuver whatsoever that is intended or designed to inflict pain or injury”. Manual holds seems to refer specifically to the use of hands, which as we saw in the George Floyd case, can be subverted by using other body parts like knees and full body weight to hold down, asphyxiate and kill someone.

4. Does the policy require officers to give a verbal warning, when possible, before using deadly force?

No. The policy states that “Where practical prior to discharging a firearm, officers shall identify themselves as law enforcement officers and state their intent to shoot.” As we saw in the recent deadly shooting of a suspected looter in Los Angeles, this type of guidance does almost nothing at all. The officer pulled up in his vehicle and fired 5 shots through the windshield, striking and killing the suspect who was kneeling on the ground with his hands in the air. The officer had seen what looked like a possible butt of a handgun sticking out, which turned out to be a hammer. Presumably the officer in that situation did not think it was practical to announce his intent to shoot, and so he didn’t. Furthermore, deadly force is not limited to discharging a firearm, as we saw tragically in the cases of Eric Garner, George Floyd, and many other police killings that did not involve firing a weapon.

5. Does the policy prohibit officers from shooting at people in moving vehicles, unless the person poses a deadly threat by means other than the vehicle (for example, shooting at people from the vehicle)?

Yes. The policy clearly states that “Officers are also prohibited from discharging a firearm at a moving vehicle, except when the occupants of the vehicle are using it to employ/exert deadly force against the officer or another victim…”

6. Does the policy require officers to exhaust all other reasonable alternatives before resorting to using deadly force?

No. The policy states “Whether the degree of force used is reasonable depends upon the specific facts surrounding the situation. Only a reasonable and necessary amount of force may be used. The degree of force that the officer may reasonably be expected to use depends upon the amount of resistance, or the threat to safety that the situation presents.” None of this indicates that other alternatives must be exhausted; rather, it reads more like support for a post-hoc analysis justifying the amount of force that was used.

7. Does the policy require officers to intervene to stop another officer from using excessive force?

No. The policy appears to be silent on this issue.

Does the policy require comprehensive reporting that includes both uses of force and threats of force (for example, reporting instances where an officer threatens a civilian with a firearm)?

Yes. The policy clearly states that “…any officer who points a firearm at another individual shall be required to fully document the incident in a Use of Force Report…”

Police Review Advisory Board (PRAB)

From the PRAB website:

 “The Police Review & Advisory Board was established by City Ordinance in 1984 to: 

  • Provide for citizen participation in reviewing Police Department policies, practices, and procedures;
  • Provide a prompt, impartial and fair investigation of complaints brought by individuals against members of the Cambridge Police Department;
  • Develop programs and strategies to promote positive police/community relations and to provide opportunities for expanded discussions, improved understanding, and innovative ways of resolving differences.

Membership includes 5 civilians who are representative the [sic] City’s racial, social and economic composition.”

At the June 2, 2020 meeting of the Finance Committee, staff indicated that the PRAB currently has one unfilled vacancy. While the biographies of the current members are empty on the website, the four current non-staff members all appear to be White professionals, with the only male member also being the current PRAB chair. The vacancy represents an opportunity to make the PRAB more representative.

In addition, the PRAB has many procedural and transparency limitations that render it largely ineffective as a police oversight body. While the secretary reported to the Council that only 10 complaints have been filed in each of the past two years, it is unclear how many complaints are not filed because of a lack of faith in the process. Significant reform of how this body operates should be considered, including greater independence from the police department, and greater transparency.

6/1/2020 Agenda summary (COVID Special Edition #10)

We’re back to regular Monday night meetings after a week off due to Memorial Day. It is difficult to focus on much besides the murder of George Floyd and the deep pain that has been exposed in our country. Modern policing is a fundamentally racist institution that evolved from slave patrols. The City Council will have several opportunities to confront these issues, including through policy and during our budget discussions. We need a radical restructuring of our budget to truly prioritize the needs of the people.

City Manager’s Agenda

CMA #1: City Manager’s update on COVID-19

I have grown tired of the City Manager’s refusal to publish COVID-19 updates in writing. It is challenging to prepare thoughtful questions when we can’t review the information before the meeting, and there is no reason for it most of the time.

CMA #3: Funding for bike & pedestrian safety enforcement

This is a $6,000 grant for “initiatives that address pedestrian and bicycle issues, coupling educational projects with enforcement of laws to reduce pedestrian and bicycle injuries and crashes”. I would like to know more about which laws will see increased enforcement because even though this isn’t very much money, it is important we don’t do more harm than good.

CMA #4: Funding for reducing gang-related violence

This is $100,000 from Free Cash to be put towards a new partnership with Roca Inc, a nonprofit based in Chelsea that is committed to “disrupting the cycle of incarceration and poverty by helping young people transform their lives”. The funds will be used to hire an outreach worker dedicated to Cambridge, and other related programming as part of the Police Department’s Focused Deterrence Initiative. It is good to see this funding on the agenda. How many more young men are we going to lose before we address the problem in a transformative way?

CMA #5: Funding for COVID-19 materials & supplies

This is $677,300 to cover the projected costs of PPE and other materials that will be needed to keep city employees safe once they return to the workplace. This funding will be used to purchase things like masks, gloves, hand sanitizer, cleaning materials, and spray sanitizer. It will also go towards additional emergency communication costs.

CMA #6: Funding for the homeless shelter & local restaurant community meals program

This is $60,000 that will keep the restaurant/homeless shelter community meals program operating until the end of the year. This program contracts with local restaurants to provide meals to homeless residents through area shelters. So far, 2,750 meals have been provided across 12 different shelters in Cambridge.

CMA #7: Funding for the War Memorial emergency shelter

This is $2.175 million to fund the continued operation of the War Memorial emergency shelter. This is on top of the initial $500,000 donation from MIT & Harvard. Something doesn’t quite add up because the announcement of the original donation from the universities said that money would be put towards “construction, primarily for a new quarantine area located in the garage, as well as costs and maintenance for 3 months of operation (starting March 27, 2020), furnishing and supplies, and demolition and deep cleaning at closeout”. However, this new appropriation notes that money was used entirely for construction of the facility.

The shelter averages 60 guests per night. At a rate of $100 per person per night, it would cost just over $500,000 to house that many people in hotel rooms for three months. Even factoring in additional costs such as meals and security, it is clear that such an approach would not only have been more humane and safe, but also much more cost-effective.

CMA #8: Funding for COVID-19 testing kits

This is $150,000 from Free Cash to fund COVID-19 testing kits. 4,000 kits were purchased at $100 each, and MIT kicked in $250,000. I am proud of the extensive testing our city is doing, and I am glad to see a focus on the most vulnerable populations including residents of nursing homes, unhoused people, and communities of color. It’s still not enough, but it’s a start.

Applications & Petitions

Applications & Petitions #1: Domestic Violence Awareness Month

I’m assuming this petition is requesting banners for Domestic Violence Awareness Month, but clarity is needed.

Applications & Petitions #2: curb cut at 56 Creighton Street

I will be checking with the neighborhood association before making a decision on this curb cut, since the application does not include any feedback from them.

Resolutions

Resolution #5: Observation of Juneteenth

June 19, 1865 is regarded as the day in which slavery was finally and completely abolished in the United States. This Resolution urges all residents to reflect on the meaning of this important day.

Resolution #8: Congrats to the Class of 2020

Graduation won’t look the same this year, but the class of 2020 has persevered through this difficult time to make the best of it. Congrats to all the graduates!

Policy Orders

PO #1: Painting benches and crosswalks in recognition of Pride Month

I am a cosponsor of this order from the Mayor, which requests a refreshing of the rainbow-painted sidewalks & benches in front of city hall in recognition of Pride Month. It specifically asks for colors that represent the Trans flag, the Pride Flag, the Bi Flag, and the People of Color Pride Flag. It also asks to light up city hall in rainbows.

PO #2: Public building for cooling this summer

This order asks for the city to designate an accessible public building as a cooling center for this summer, including all necessary social distancing measures. I strongly support this order as a way to mitigate the impacts of the Urban Heat Island Effect in our city as climate change brings increasingly unbearable heat waves.

PO #3: Repealing the ban on our single use plastic ban

Governor Baker’s emergency order temporarily nullifies the city’s Bring Your Own Bag Ordinance, also known as the plastic bag ban. I am a cosponsor of this order, which calls on the Governor to remove that stipulation and allow us to continue banning single use plastic. It is clear at this point that reusable bags do not pose a real public health risk.

PO #4: North Cambridge COVID testing site

I am a cosponsor of this order from the Mayor, which calls for an additional COVID testing site in North Cambridge near the Fresh Pond Apartments. It is important to address the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on communities of color, and that begins with making testing more easily available!

PO #5: Renaming the Mass Ave & Churchill Ave bus stop

This bizarre order from Councillor Toomey asks to change the name of the bus stop outside Matignon High School from “Massachusetts Avenue at Churchill Avenue” to “Matignon High School at Churchill Avenue”. Personally, I’m more concerned with the safety of our public transit system as we reopen than I am with the names of the stops.

PO #6: Recognizing Caribbean-American Heritage Month

I submitted this Resolution, which recognizes June as Caribbean-American Heritage Month in Cambridge. We had our first ever celebration of Caribbean-American Heritage Month in Cambridge last year, and it was wonderful. Things will unfortunately look very different this year, of course, but I am hopeful that we will be able to celebrate regardless. More to come soon!

Communications & Reports from Other City Officers

COF #1: Communication from Mayor Siddiqui on updates from the School Committee

The School Committee voted unanimously to recommend the budget, but reservations clearly remain. There are lots of open questions around the Fall and many concerns from parents that online learning isn’t going so well. It will surely be a challenging year, but I don’t see how I can support this school budget as it continues to fail to address the systemic racism that pervades our school system, and the convulsive changes that our society is clearly undergoing that require a different approach to education and creating economic opportunity for those who have historically been excluded.

Update on shared streets & bike lanes

Back at the March 30 council meeting, Councillor Nolan and I introduced a pair of policy orders asking for street closures throughout the city due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Our intent was to make more space for pedestrians and cyclists to spread out, because it was very apparent even at that point that there was not enough space outside for people to safely practice social distancing. Unfortunately, the City Manager declined to move forward even after the council passed both orders and other cities around the country began moving ahead with plans of their own.

Finally, in just this last week, we have begun to see movement and progress. We have also been discussing next year’s budget, including plans for the future buildout of the bike network. This post will get you caught up on both conversations.

Shared Streets Pilot

The long-awaited Shared Streets Pilot proposal, presented to the Council at the May 28 special meeting, looks good as an initial response to the Council’s request. Starting on June 15, Garden Street, Magazine Street, and Harvard Street will close 24/7 to most vehicular traffic except for residents, deliveries, local business access, emergency vehicles, and public transit. This pilot will connect key locations across the city and provide safe recreation and non-vehicular transportation space for residents.

Map showing the upcoming street closures. The city will limit Garden Street, Magazine Street, and Harvard Street to most vehicular traffic except for residents, deliveries, local business access, emergency vehicles, and public transit.

The City Manager was clear that he will look to expand this network as quickly as possible, based on community input. I hope that the program will expand quickly to more neighborhoods including East Cambridge and Wellington-Harrington. It was also encouraging to hear that there is no explicit end date set for these changes. During the meeting, staff implied that the restrictions would remain in place at least until next winter, and possibly longer. These three streets are all part of the planned bike network, so hopefully they will never “go back” to what they were. Instead, we would ideally see a transition to the permanently protected layout, including further reductions in on-street car storage.

Memorial Drive Closure

Many of us were calling for Memorial Drive to close to vehicular traffic long before the pandemic came, since the multi-use paths along the river are treacherous despite being a major commuting route to Longwood and a center of recreation for the whole city. It is impossible to practice social distancing while using these narrow paths, and one routinely sees cyclists and pedestrians dangerously veering into the highway to try and maintain a proper distance.

A cycling family rides by a sycamore tree during the City’s pilot closure of Riverbend Park on May 24.

DCR closed parkways in Watertown and Boston back in early April, and their spokesperson told me they were all set to include Memorial Drive at that time, but that the City Manager and State Rep Decker had objected strongly. The final Sunday in April came and went without Riverbend Park (a portion of the parkway) closing for the day, as it normally does during this time of year, when we typically have nice weather. Despite the clear need for more space, the City Manager maintained his position that closing additional streets could create “flocking” or “block party” behavior, and would send mixed signals during a time when people were supposed to be at home in isolation.

Finally on May 20, the City Manager announced that as a trial, Riverbend Park would close on May 24 & 31 from 11-7 PM. The scope of this pilot fell far short of what the Council had asked for months prior: the complete closure of Memorial Drive, 24/7. It also seemed to defy the City Manager’s own logic: wouldn’t closing the parkway for just a few hours encourage the type of “flocking” event that he had been trying to avoid the whole time? Despite all this, I remained optimistic that a successful pilot could lead to the more extensive closures that are so sorely needed.

Both closures were, by all accounts, hugely successful. There were no unruly crowds and people finally had space to recreate safely. The closures were an oasis of comfort that eliminated the tense conflicts normally seen between bikes, pedestrians, and speeding cars. However, residents reported significant challenges actually getting to the park, since other streets were not closed (including the dangerous stretch of Memorial Drive leading up to the closed part). Additionally, there are significant equity concerns about the stretch that was chosen for closure. Someone coming from Central Square, for instance, would have to walk a mile just to get to the closed portion, and then the closed portion would take them away from where they came from. It seems like that is a level of commitment most folks will not be looking to make just to get some safe recreation. Additionally, the seniors and other residents who live in public housing on the corner of River Street would greatly benefit from a closure of the segment in front of their building.

The obvious solution is to close all of Memorial Drive, 24/7, or at least one lane in each direction throughout the entirety. It is my hope that after the success of the initial pilot, the City Manager will recognize that and expand the closure program as soon as possible. Watch the video below to see why it’s important to expand the scope:

Dangerous conflicts between vehicles and bikers at the entrance to Riverbend Park (at Western Ave) during the May 24 closure pilot. Video filmed by my council aide.

Budget & future buildouts

The May 26 Finance Committee hearing included a discussion of the proposed budget for the Traffic, Parking, and Transportation Department. I was concerned and frankly a little baffled by the City Manager’s response to questions from Councillor Sobrinho-Wheeler and myself about planned bike infrastructure projects and the proposed update to the Bike Safety Ordinance, which would mandate a complete buildout of the network within a certain timeframe.

City Manager DePasquale said “we may have to look at a slowdown of some of the infrastructure that we were talking about, and I know that’s going to be difficult, especially with the discussion of a bike ordinance”. He and the department head Joe Barr brought up Parking Fund revenue losses as a reason why infrastructure projects may need to be on hold. They aren’t making as much money from ticketing and meters as they were, and that deficit would only worsen if more parking spaces were removed for infrastructure, so for that reason things will slow down, they said.

That is obviously unacceptable! What good are AAA bond ratings if we are not going to use them to build critical infrastructure like protected bike lanes, which are more critical than ever? Yes, financially we are going into a difficult time, but that doesn’t mean safe streets should be first on the chopping block, and these projects aren’t even very expensive. It’s more important than ever that we move our cities away from cars and reclaim more space, yes, permanently, for safe distancing and transportation.

Watch the video below to hear from Joe Barr and the City Manager directly:

Eversource & the Fulkerson Street substation proposal, part 2

Note from Q: This is the first in a series of progress updates that my office had begun preparing before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. While these updates document progress on non-COVID issues in anticipation of getting back to work on them, my office remains extensively focused on the emergency response at this time.

After almost a year of opposition, negotiation, and suspense, we finally have some clarity on the future of the proposed Fulkerson Street substation. Part 1 (from last November) is a quick read with key background information if you need to get caught up.

In response to growing electricity demand created by all the growth in Kendall Square, Eversource proposed a massive substation on Fulkerson Street in East Cambridge. With 34 building projects already permitted or under construction in Kendall Square, and electric load already reaching 98% of capacity at peak usage times during Summer 2018, there was complete agreement that something had to be done. But powering our commercial real estate growth in Kendall Square with a substation situated in the adjacent residential neighborhood of East Cambridge, directly across from the Kennedy-Longfellow school and a playing field, is simply unacceptable, particularly as the site was originally intended to be housing.

It just so happened that Alexandria Real Estate had already submitted a zoning petition for the neighboring parcel, the former site of the Metropolitan Pipe Company at the corner of Fulkerson and Binney. Alexandria sought significant zoning relief, asking for almost twice the amount of square footage allowable under the existing zoning, exclusively for biotech & lab space. Recognizing the leverage this created, I urged my colleagues to hold off on approving Alexandria’s upzoning unless and until Eversource agreed to put the substation elsewhere.

Alexandria’s parcel (the former Metropolitan Pipe Company site) is outlined in red. The Eversource parcel is shaded in orange. Across from the Eversource parcel is a playing field and the Kennedy-Longfellow school.

The council’s willingness to hold out created an opening for the city to broker a negotiation between Eversource, Alexandria, and other developers in the Kendall Square area.

The council was finally presented with some details of a negotiated deal at a March 2, 2020 hearing. Boston Properties has agreed in principle to incorporate the substation into an already-planned development at the site of the Blue Garage (290 Binney). In exchange, they will be asking to construct an additional 800,000 square feet of commercial space at the site, through a future upzoning. The existing garage will be knocked down and moved underground. The Cambridge Redevelopment Authority (CRA) is leading the process and design of the new development at 290 Binney, which will ultimately require council approval. 

The new location for the substation is much more suitable, and this plan frees up the Fulkerson Street parcel for affordable housing & open space. An excessive amount of commercial space was already in the cards at 290 Binney Street, but the new proposal consolidates the housing component into a single phase, from two, thereby reducing uncertainty around its completion. 25% of the housing will be income-restricted, and the new proposal eliminates a provision that would have required 20% to be condo units. This keeps the focus on adding to our rental housing stock, which is a higher priority.

Slide from a Boston Properties presentation to the Cambridge Redevelopment Authority from April 2020. The new proposal (right) shows the proposed substation site outlined in red. Proposed housing is outlined in yellow, and commercial space is outlined in blue. The solid blue lines on the new proposal show where the additional commercial space would go.
Slide from a Boston Properties presentation to the Cambridge Redevelopment Authority from April 2020. The new proposal (right) consolidates the housing into a single phase, retains the affordability stipulations, and eliminates the 20% condo requirement.

I generally vote against entirely commercial, non-net zero upzonings like the one proposed by Alexandria for the former Met Pipe site.

The additional 800,000 square feet is a steep tradeoff. The Alexandria and Blue Garage projects combined will add more than three million square feet of commercial space, in addition to the nearly two million coming next door at the Volpe parcel.

This astronomical commercial growth exacerbates our city’s housing affordability crisis and accelerates the need for even more grid infrastructure. We got into this mess because we didn’t have a plan, yet we just keep barrelling ahead. And on top of it all, the language in the Eversource letter is very tentative. Should the deal fall through for any reason, the utility would almost certainly go back to their original plan to build on Fulkerson Street.

In order to complete the Grand Junction multi-use path all the way from Binney Street to Cambridge Street, Alexandria purchased the remaining land alongside the railroad tracks and offered it to the city. This is the primary community benefit offered in exchange for their zoning relief. It shouldn’t have taken a massive upzoning to complete this path, but I am excited about the safe connectivity that it will bring to our neighborhood and our city.

For these reasons, despite my significant reservations, this ended up being an offer the council could not refuse. In particular, I considered:

  • the extraordinary circumstances around the negotiation
  • the clear consensus within the neighborhood in support of this deal
  • Our likely inability to block Eversource from moving ahead with a substation on Fulkerson Street if they went for state approval.
View of the proposed Grand Junction Path (in green) from Cambridge Street. Alexandria will complete the path from Cambridge Street to Binney as part of their development on the former Met Pipe site.

By the time Boston Properties made their offer, we really had no other choice.

But it didn’t have to be that way: early on in the discussions, I urged the city and the utility to consider non-wires alternatives instead of building a massive substation. The Brooklyn-Queens Demand Management Project allowed New York’s ConEdison to avoid building a 1.2 billion dollar substation a few years ago through a combination of solar, batteries, and better demand management. If New York can avoid building this infrastructure, why can’t we even consider it? But Eversource was never really interested in that approach, and I never got a straight answer to my questions about alternatives.

Even if we were to build these many millions of square feet all-electric, which may yet happen given the rapid evolution in building technology & codes, it would still require additional grid electricity. Tall buildings in northern climates cannot generate enough solar energy to offset consumption without it. So, we still don’t have a plan for how to build all these buildings without adding to our climate emissions, and we seem to be unwilling to consider alternative approaches that have been demonstrably successful in cities much larger than our own. Meanwhile, Eversource continues to impose unwelcome substations on neighborhoods all over the region, including right now in East Boston.

Neighbors and cycling activists remained united throughout the process, despite much excitement over the prospect of completing the Grand Junction path between Binney and Cambridge Street.

I want to thank everyone who recognized that by standing together, we could get both the Grand Junction AND an alternative site for the substation. Councillor Carlone was instrumental in facilitating dialogue between all of these parties, especially between Alexandria and the neighbors. Former Vice Mayor Jan Devereux called the series of committee hearings that made space for this conversation to take shape. The City Manager deserves credit for hearing the Council and putting a top negotiator in charge of quickly finding a suitable parcel within the load pocket that checks Eversource’s many boxes. (Bob Reardon, the former city assessor, was brought out of retirement to get the job done!)

Despite the steep price and my lingering concerns about this deal, it is a great and rare victory for the residents of East Cambridge and Wellington-Harrington. I live in this neighborhood, and I want to thank my neighbors for their tireless and excellent advocacy. They and cycling advocates remained united in asking for more throughout the process, despite immense excitement over the prospect of completing the Grand Junction path between Binney and Cambridge Street. I don’t know that this has ever been done before in the history of modern utility construction; certainly Eversource couldn’t think of a precedent where they moved a substation in response to local opposition.

Going forward, I will insist that neighbors remain involved as this process continues to unfold, and I will do everything possible to minimize the impact of the Blue Garage development on our community. I will work with Eversource and the city on more proactive planning of our electrical needs, including the consideration of non-wires alternatives that may accommodate additional growth without creating more demand on the grid. A strict limit on demand growth would encourage the uptake of such strategies. We can’t forget about this now that the proposed substation has a new home, or else we will be right back in this difficult position in another few short years. Finally, we need to stand in solidarity with neighboring communities that are also fighting unwelcome substations, especially working-class communities like East Boston. Check out the excellent op-ed from Boston City Councilor Lydia Edwards that has more information about that situation.

5 trends & the need for more COVID data

I’ve been carefully tracking and analyzing the data put out by the City of Cambridge related to the COVID-19 pandemic. The information and graphs in this post are snapshots taken on May 22, but you can view up to date versions of all the graphs I’ve created here. As always, if you have questions or want to discuss this further, please don’t hesitate to reach out.

The quick takeaway is that we should be far more cautious about when and how we reopen than we are currently being, and more & better quality data is needed to make informed decisions about our course forward. A few things of note:

  • The city began releasing racially-stratified data and nursing home data on April 27.
  • The race/ethnicity data is incomplete: 14% of positive cases are marked as an “unknown” race/ethnicity, and 11% are marked as “other”.

Takeaway 1: Black people in Cambridge are testing positive at least 2.6x more often than white people.

And it could be even worse than that, given the incomplete dataset. This finding echoes trends from cities around the country and is unsurprising given the racial disparities that impact Black Americans across almost all public health outcomes. Figure 1 below shows the percentage of people in Cambridge within each race/ethnicity who tested positive for COVID-19. So, for example, based on the 2020 census estimates, 0.5% of the white population, and 1.4% of the black population in Cambridge thus far have tested positive for COVID-19. This is despite there being six times as many white people as there are Black people in Cambridge.

Figure 1. Comparison of COVID-19 positive tests by race/ethnicity.

Outside of nursing homes the contrast is even starker: Black people test positive 4.2x as often as white people in Cambridge, and Hispanic people nearly twice as often (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Comparison of COVID-19 positive tests by race/ethnicity, excluding test results obtained in nursing homes and long term care facilities.

The City has not released data on deaths by race & ethnicity, but it is reasonable to assume that Black people are disproportionately dying from COVID-19, as well. I asked for more testing & resources for Black and brown people in Cambridge through a policy order on May 4, an effort that was joined by Councillor Simmons’ more direct request for testing in the Port. The localized testing is now happening, but there is essentially no other effort by the City to directly counteract these disparate racial impacts.

Takeaway 2: The case fatality rate in Cambridge nursing homes is alarmingly high: 24% as of May 22.

The case fatality rate is the number of people who ultimately died after testing positive, expressed as a percent of the total number of positive tests within the population. Nearly a quarter of those who tested positive in Cambridge nursing homes and long term care facilities have passed away, as of late May. For comparison, the case fatality rate for Cambridge residents outside of these facilities is 3%. Figure 3 shows deaths over time as reported by the city (we didn’t get data specific to nursing homes until April 27). It is great that we’ve done so much testing in our nursing homes, but a case fatality rate this high needs more scrutiny. We need to better understand what happened and how it could have been prevented or mitigated so that we are better prepared next time.

Figure 3. COVID-19 positive deaths over time, as reported by the City. The black line is total COVID-19 positive deaths, orange is the subset inside nursing homes, and blue is the subset in the broader community, outside nursing homes.

Takeaway 3: The number of new cases per day declined steadily in the second half of April, but there was a slight uptick in early May.

Figure 4. New cases per day, for the day the test was taken, in blue. The red line shows the 7-day average which is calculated as the average of the preceding 7 days. Test results are reported at least 5 days after taken, so recent dates may not show the correct final count yet.

The City’s testing facility in East Cambridge, which allows any Cambridge resident to get tested, did not open until May 8. The Public Health Department says the uptick is correlated with increased outreach about testing availability. Either way, more positive tests mean the virus remains out there and is still spreading within the community. The uptick could also be due in part to generally improving weather over the course of April, leading to more people leaving their homes.

Takeaway 4: The active caseload is still steadily increasing.

Active caseload is the total number of positive tests, minus recoveries and deaths. Deaths are not necessarily reported on the date they happen, but recoveries and positive tests are. So the active caseload is a reasonable approximation of how many people have yet to recover (or perish) from the virus.

This figure is, of course, correlated with demand on our healthcare system. We want to see an active caseload that is declining despite the inevitable new cases added every day, which would mean recoveries are beginning to outnumber new cases. The brief peak you see around April 19 reflects nursing home testing. The city officially shut down on March 19.

Until we see a steady decline in the active caseload, it doesn’t seem prudent to begin re-opening our economy. Unless we’re just not properly recording deaths and recoveries, an increasing caseload means we’re still seeing community spreading of the virus, and reopening the economy would only make that worse!

Also, clearly, we need to know how many people were tested on each day, not just how many tested positive. Without the total number of daily tests, we can’t determine whether the new cases are simply the result of more testing, or actually a signal that the infection rate is increasing again.

Figure 5. The active caseload in Cambridge over time.

Takeaway 5: Cambridge’s death rate is much lower than New York City’s, but San Francisco’s is much much lower than ours.

The death rate is the number of people who died from COVID, divided by the total population. It is more useful than the case fatality rate for making comparisons between cities because it is less affected by differences in how many people were tested within each city since we are comparing across the entire population, not just those who tested positive.

It still isn’t perfect, because not every cause of death is known, and the number of deaths attributed to COVID-19 is almost certainly higher than what we see in this data. But presumably, excess un-reported deaths from COVID-19 are roughly proportional to COVID-19 reported deaths in each city. NYC provides the number of reported deaths from COVID-19 that were not confirmed with a positive COVID-19 test. That number is included in this graph and contributes about 20% of the COVID-19 deaths in NYC. Similar adjustments in the other cities would not make a huge difference to this graph or the conclusions drawn from it, however.

Figure 6. The death rate (per 10,000) from COVID-19 by city, as of May 17. This is the only graph that doesn’t update every day on the website, because the data from each city has to be entered manually, and I’m only doing that on a daily basis for Cambridge.

San Francisco was the first to do shelter in place, and its public transit system is much less robust than ours is. They were also out front on critical public health policies like street closures and providing hotel rooms for unhoused people. Creating space for people to safely social distance outdoors and providing safe isolation space for those with nowhere to go has likely played a role in San Francisco’s low death rate.

California overall has a similarly low death rate, while New York and Massachusetts were hit hard. So it is possible that the pandemic was seeded more robustly on the east coast, via European travel, than it was on the west coast. If so, blame for that falls squarely on Federal authorities for not more immediately shutting down international travel upon learning of the virus.

Takeaway 6: Women represent almost 60% of cases in Cambridge.

Figure 7. Positive tests in Cambridge by gender.

There is no clear explanation for why this is, but one possible explanation is that COVID-19 has a high prevalence among the elderly, and women are slightly longer-lived than men. Therefore, women may be overrepresented slightly in positive tests for COVID-19. This trend mirrors the statewide trend as well.

5/18/2020 Agenda summary (COVID Special Edition #9)

The last tulip!

COVID-19 Special Edition #9

We are still seeing new cases of COVID-19 in our community every single day, and disproportionate impacts in black and brown communities in our city, as is the case throughout the country. Now is not the time to re-open our economy, but it looks like Governor Baker is hell bent on doing so anyway. Somerville and Boston are staying closed, and I hope our city manager will choose the same path. Don’t get me wrong, we need to start thinking and planning around re-opening for sure, but we need to do so carefully, thoughtfully, and equitably.

Wearing a face covering is now mandatory in Cambridge. Read the official policy here and make sure you mask up when you go outside for any reason.

Please consider signing our petition that calls on Harvard and MIT to do more for our community in this time of crisis. You can sign here or read my op-ed on why MIT and Harvard need to step it up.

You can still give public comment virtually at council meetings by signing up here. Once you sign up, you will receive instructions on how to enter the Zoom meeting on Monday night.

This week we will publish revamped “how to help” and “how to get help” lists, and they will be included in next week’s email blast. As always, you can contact my office directly: qzondervan@cambridgema.gov, 617-901-2006 (leave a message and Dan or I will get back to you).

City Manager’s Agenda

Note: Most of these items are bond issues to fund the Fiscal Year 2021 (FY21) capital budget. These need to be passed to a second reading on Monday so they can be approved as part of the overall budget in June, but I don’t expect we will discuss them extensively on Monday night. The full proposed budget for FY21 is available online.

CMA #1: Funding the continued operation of Food For Free

Food For Free does immensely important work to keep people in our community fed, and they are continuing that work during the COVID-19 pandemic. With record unemployment across the state, the nonprofit went from feeding 160 households every two weeks to more than 1,900 every week, according to the Executive Director. This unprecedented demand has been overwhelming for Food For Free, hence this appropriation of $150,000 to support their continued operation through June 30.

We have major food supply issues, and that’s likely to get worse. Food For Free is doing the best they can, but this can’t all fall on them, and $150K is not going to solve the problem. We need to put far more resources into addressing the food supply issue. When we are hearing reports of diabetic low-income seniors receiving boxes of high-fructose corn syrup-laced foods that don’t meet their dietary needs, it is clear that more needs to be done. But most of all, we need a plan. Thus far we haven’t had one, so I’m calling for one right now.

CMA #2: Funding for new plug-in hybrid rubbish packers

This is an appropriation of $879,000 to purchase three plug-in hybrid rubbish packers, which will replace three diesel-powered rubbish packers in the existing fleet. It is wonderful to see the city transition the municipal fleet away from diesel-powered engines, but it definitely feels weird to be spending this kind of money on new garbage trucks in the middle of a pandemic we are struggling to respond to. What’s important to recognize about this appropriation is that most of this money comes from a grant that MassDEP awarded to the city back in January, which was designated for this specific purpose. So it isn’t as if we could take the grant and spend it on something else. In the past when I have asked about transitioning the municipal fleet, the city has identified heavier-duty vehicles like garbage trucks as a particular challenge. Moving ahead with this indicates the technology has improved to a level where they are willing to give it a shot, which is encouraging. I would like to see the entire municipal fleet replaced as soon as possible!

CMA #3: Funding for sewer separation projects

This is an appropriation of 6.5 million to fund various sewer separation projects. 6 million will go towards repairing aging pipes in areas where more significant work is not planned anytime soon, and 500K will be used to implement mitigation efforts identified through the Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment, something I pushed for as chair of the city’s Climate Protection Action Committee before I took office.

Sewer separation may not be very fun to talk about (much less live through), but it is critical in our fight against climate change. Much of Cambridge’s aging sewer infrastructure combines sewage and rainwater runoff into a single pipe, in what’s known as a combined sewer overflow system (CSO). Normally, the system works fine and everything is sent to the Deer Island wastewater treatment facility. But during heavy rainstorms or periods of snowmelt, the amount of water can overwhelm the system. When this happens, some water mixed with raw sewage is discharged into a nearby body of water, such as the Charles River or Alewife Brook. Despite all of Cambridge’s efforts to separate the two systems, more than 29 million gallons of raw sewage entered the Charles River in 2017!

This has a profoundly negative impact on a major ally in our fight against climate change: seagrass. The grass is threatened by the clouding of the water (turbidity) which blocks needed sunlight. The clouding is caused by tiny plants and animals that get fertilized by our sewage.

CMA #4: Funding for street & sidewalk reconstruction

This is $5 million for various street & sidewalk repairs. Pretty self-explanatory, but still makes you wonder why we can’t spend this money to make the city more bike and pedestrian-friendly even faster? When will we get bold about abandoning car culture and fully embracing walkability? There isn’t enough bike and pedestrian infrastructure being built fast enough. The City Manager continues to ignore the mandate from the Council to move faster on this. Here is a list of the projects slated to be worked on in FY21:

A list of street & sidewalk projects that will be undertaken in FY21.

CMA #5: Funding for improvements to municipal buildings

This is $16 million for repairs to municipal buildings. The focus is on the DPW complex on Hampshire Street and the firehouse in Central Square. “The improvements include but are not limited to accessibility, envelope – windows work, upgrades to the HVAC, plumbing-piping, electrical and lighting.”

CMA #6: Funding for improvements to firehouses

This is $9 million for improvements to the Lexington Ave and River Street firehouses. “These improvements include but are not limited to interior and building system upgrades, HVAC replacement, and envelope repair.

CMA #7: Funding for the design and construction of the Tobin Montessori and Vassal Lane Upper School

This is $237 million for the design and construction of the Tobin Montessori and Vassal Lane Upper School. Quite a bit of money! The school will be net-zero emissions ready. I hope the school will be re-named as part of our efforts to eliminate anti-black racism from our school system. Henry Vassall [sic] was a notorious slaveowner.

CMA #8: Funding for repairs to schools

This is $1.8 million for repairs to various schools. Repairs include “electrical service, roof replacement, chiller replacement, floor replacement and replacement of bi-directional amplifier and antenna in various school buildings”.

CMA #9: City Manager’s update on COVID-19

Another placeholder. Apparently we STILL cannot get any part of these updates in writing? :-/

Calendar

Charter Right #1: More information about the Police Department’s Twitter incident

Councillor Simmons exercised her charter right last week on this order from Councillor Sobrinho-Wheeler and myself, asking for more information about the recent scandal where Police Superintendent Jack Albert tweeted a political statement, vulgarly disparaging two elected officials from the Commonwealth, using the official Cambridge Police Department Twitter account.

While Superintendent Albert has apologized for “accidentally” using the official police account instead of his personal account, the sentiments he expressed in the tweet are disturbing, coming from a high-level police official. This is a clear bias incident, and the Policy Order asks for details on what disciplinary action has been taken. It also asks for a report on how protocols have been revised to avoid future issues on social media. I don’t know what the outcome of this Policy Order will be, but it seems clear to me that the City Council has a right to know this information either way.

It was disappointing to see this not get brought to a vote last week. To blatantly roadblock the simplest attempt at ensuring accountability for our police and city management, in general, is shameful.

Resolutions

Resolution #1: Memorial Day Observance

Memorial Day is next week. There will be a virtual observance, and City Staff will place flags on the graves of our fallen due to the closure of Mount Auburn Cemetery. If you need more information, reply to this email and I will get your questions answered.

Policy Orders

PO #1: Council support for providing equal stimulus checks to immigrant taxpayers

This order puts the Council on record in support of HD.5036/S.2659, a statehouse bill that would provide stimulus checks to immigrants who were excluded from the Federal stimulus. Our economic system is so unfair and so blatantly exploitative that even the scraps of federal support being provided during this pandemic are unavailable to immigrants. Immigrant workers are the backbone of our economy, often working for sub-living wages, and ineligible for social security & other benefits, as I experienced myself when my family immigrated to the U.S. The least we can do is provide financial support, and I appreciate that Councillor Toomey brought this Resolution forward.

PO #2: Creating an Arts Recovery Advisory Committee

This order asks for the creation of an Arts Recovery Advisory Committee. I support this, but how many committees will it take before we actually help the artists in our city? The Cultural District was facing the loss of anchor institutions like the Middle East and Green Street Studios before the pandemic even hit. If we’re serious about keeping the arts alive we will have to dig deep and come up with creative solutions, before it is too late.

PO #3: Council support for regulating third party delivery fees

This order puts the Council on record in support of HD.5054, a statehouse bill that would restrict third-party delivery fees. Services like Uber Eats and Grubhub aren’t giving restaurants a fair deal, and now the restaurants are relying on those services for a significant percentage of their revenue. Things are unbearable as these services act as parasites on the local restaurants and their workers as well as the underpaid delivery workers themselves. This is all brought to you by the unfair “gig economy”, in an effort to further enrich Silicon Valley capitalists at everyone else’s expense. This nonsense has got to stop, and state-level action will be required. Somerville is also considering a similar resolution this week.

PO #4: Request for update on digital equity initiatives

The City should have created a municipal broadband system years ago. Those of us who are fortunate enough to be able to work from home during the pandemic are needlessly sipping the internet through a Comcast straw. The next time your Zoom gets stuck, remember that this is with Comcast temporarily removing some of their data throttling! Can we once and for all agree to treat the internet like our roads, instead of nickel-and-diming people over it? We are approving a $5M bond to *repair* roads and sidewalks, but we won’t spend $1M to study the feasibility of a municipal broadband system? What is wrong with this picture?

This order needs to be amended to make it clear that the Council is also looking for an update on the digital equity research initiative and the Digital Equity Advisory Board. Both of these were announced in November 2018 and funded with $150,000 after I successfully lobbied the city manager, but an update has not been provided since.

PO #5: Universal vote-by-mail

This order from Councillor Nolan asks the City Manager to work with the Election Commission to determine the feasibility of vote-by-mail. I strongly support this! We need to prepare for safe elections in the fall, and it will take some time to figure out the logistics. So we need to get this done soon.

PO #6: Proposed amendment to the mandatory mask order

This order from Councillor Nolan makes a further amendment to the mandatory mask order.

PO #7: Request for a comprehensive, equitable plan for reopening the city

I submitted this order, which asks for a comprehensive plan for how we are going to come out of the current situation. This will take months, if not years. We know that black people and poor people are being disproportionately impacted, and that needs to be addressed in our plan. Governor Baker’s advisory panel does not include any frontline workers or labor leaders, and I am concerned he will move too quickly, which would be catastrophic. I’d like to see some movement from the City Manager on planning for this instead of just waiting for Governor Baker to tell us what to do.

PO #8: Request for DPW to begin distributing Gator Bags

I submitted this order which asks for DPW to install gator bags on trees that need them, or offer them by request, so residents can help water trees. Next time you go for a walk, take a look at some of the younger trees in your neighborhood. Are they leafing out? If only some or none of the branches have leaves, the tree isn’t doing well. There are many reasons why a new tree might not make it, but under-watering is common even when we aren’t in a pandemic. New trees cost more than $1000 each to plant, and our city’s canopy has declined by nearly 20% in 10 years. Plus, we need them to protect us against future disasters that climate change will bring. So it makes sense to get these bags out so residents can lend a hand in keeping the trees alive.

PO #9: Proposed amendments to Chapter 2.108, which governs emergency preparedness

I submitted this order, which proposes amendments to the city’s Ordinance that governs emergency preparedness. The language I want to add concerns shelter, testing, and data reporting during a pandemic. Here is my proposed language:

My proposed amendments to the city’s Ordinance that governs emergency preparedness.

Communications & Reports from Other City Officers

COF #1: Report from Mayor Siddiqui on the May 7 meeting of the School Committee

Another helpful report from Mayor Siddiqui and her staff on the School Committee budget proceedings, this time recapping the May 7, 2020 meeting. The final vote will be on Tuesday, May 19, and I will be watching very closely.

5/11/2020 Agenda summary (COVID Special Edition #8)

Wearing a face covering is now mandatory in Cambridge. Read the official policy here and make sure you mask up when you go outside for any reason.

Please consider signing our petition that calls on Harvard and MIT to do more for our community in this time of crisis, and read my op-ed on why MIT and Harvard need to step it up.

We continue to be vexed by the pandemic. Some states are beginning to reopen, but many think this is a mistake. We should be very cautious in how we proceed because the damage of a major rebound in cases and another shutdown would be unbearable. We are much better off coming out of this slowly and carefully, putting in place good strategies for suppressing flare-ups of the virus, and planning for the long haul, because COVID-19 looks to be with us for years to come. The choices we make, and the way we proceed, will say a lot about what we value as a society.

You can still give public comment virtually at council meetings by signing up here. Once you sign up, you will receive instructions on how to enter the Zoom meeting on Monday night. For assistance with this, please contact my office directly: qzondervan@cambridgema.gov, 617-901-2006 (leave a message and Dan or I will get back to you).

City Manager’s Agenda

CMA #1: City Manager’s update on COVID-19

This is another placeholder because the City Manager prefers to deliver his update in person on Monday night. But I would prefer to receive something in writing ahead of time.

CMA #2: FY21 Budget Appropriation Orders

Budget season is upon us, and here is a list of the FY21 Budget Appropriation Orders, broken down by city department. Customarily we don’t vote on these until after the budget hearings, so there is plenty of time to go through the budget and make sense of everything. It looks like there were no reductions in the operating budget, which is in fact slightly larger ($702.4 million) than last year’s budget ($678.4 million). The public investments portion of the capital budget ($37 million, not including bond proceeds) also seems higher than last year’s ($27 million). We will have to wait for the manager’s explanation, but presumably, these numbers are less than they would have been if COVID-19 had not hit. We may see much deeper impacts on subsequent budgets because property taxes are based on the market of 1.5 years ago.

Calendar

Charter Right #1: Revisions to the mandatory mask order

The debate continues over this policy order from Councillor Nolan that proposes changes to the city’s mandatory mask order. The Governor’s order is now in effect but differs from the city in several ways, and clarification is needed. I also want to see a reduced fine, particularly on the first offense, and data on any enforcement that occurs by race, age, and gender. You can read a detailed breakdown of the differences between the city and state orders, plus my rationale for seeking these changes, in this thread. If you missed it, start with my thread from last week first to get caught up on the situation.

Tabled #4: Summer camp operations

This late addition to last week’s agenda from Councillor Simmons asks for clarity on whether summer camps and other youth programming will proceed. It also asks for contingency plans for Cambridge youth in the event programming needs to be canceled or scaled back. The order was tabled last week after it was pointed out that the language might not cover everything we want to ask about. I anticipate Councillor Simmons will bring forward amendments and we will pass this order on Monday night.

Resolutions

Resolution #5: Congratulating Karen Chen

I submitted this Resolution along with Councillor Sobrinho-Wheeler to congratulate Karen Chen on her recent inclusion in the Boston Magazine list of “The 100 Most Influential People in Boston Right Now”. Karen is the Executive Director of the Chinese Progressive Association (CPA) and an East Cambridge resident. Under her leadership, the CPA has become a leading voice in the struggle for tenant protections including rent control, against wage theft & other unfair labor practices, and in combating racism against all Asian Americans during the COVID-19 pandemic. I have had many opportunities to work with Karen, including last year’s successful push for better working conditions at the Happy Lamb Hot Pot in Central Square. There are many excellent choices on the Boston Magazine list, but Karen’s inclusion is a refreshing reminder of the important and underappreciated role played by women of color in the movement for greater justice in our society.

Policy Orders

PO #1: Curbside textile recycling program

This Policy Order from Councillor Toomey asks for the city to implement Simple Recycling’s curbside textile recycling program. In fact, the city’s Zero Waste Master Plan (released in October 2019) specifically mentions the Simple Recycling program as one way that the city could implement a textile recycling program and it recommends doing so in 2020 or 2021. I chaired a hearing on the city’s plan last term, and this was discussed. This is one of many environmental initiatives that I would like to see move forward this year, once we are through this period of emergency. I will ask to be added as a cosponsor to this order in acknowledgment of my previous work on the issue, and hopefully, this will move ahead as close to on schedule as possible.

PO #2: Update on the Small Business Advisory Group

This policy order from Councillor Nolan asks for an update on what recommendations are being discussed by the Small Business Advisory Group that was appointed by the City Manager. I support the calls for more information on what the group has been discussing.

PO #3: Recycling Accessibility

This Policy Order from Councillor Toomey aims to improve accessibility to recycling for residents by reopening the Recycling Center for a limited time and strategically placing recycling bins across the city for residents who are unable to reach the Recycling Center. The order fixates on plastic bags, which many retailers have begun using again during the COVID-19 pandemic. Neither of these ideas strike me as terribly practical solutions to the supposed problem, but I will ask DPW to get some clarification on that.

PO #4: More information about the Police Department Twitter incident

I signed onto this Policy Order from Councillor Sobrinho-Wheeler, which asks for more information about a very unfortunate incident that took place on Twitter last week, where Police Superintendent Jack Albert tweeted a political statement vulgarly disparaging two elected officials from the Commonwealth while logged into the official Cambridge Police Department Twitter account. While he has apologized for “accidentally” using the official police account, the sentiments he expressed are disturbing nonetheless, coming from a high-level police official.

The issue of police bias continues to remain a problem and is reflected in this incident: by expressing vulgar distaste for “liberal” politicians, who tend to advocate for the poor, and routinely receive a majority of the black vote, this tweet can easily be interpreted as bias against poor people and black people in our city.

This Policy Order asks for details on what disciplinary action has been taken, and for a report on how protocols have been revised to avoid future issues on social media. The Council may have to go into executive session to hear about the disciplinary action.

PO #5: Solidarity with the workers of Lesley University

I submitted this Resolution, which puts the Council on record in support of better conditions for contracted workers at Lesley. The petition from students and faculty calls for continuity of wages and benefits for all food service, custodial, and public safety workers on campus, among other things. Local 26 was able to secure benefits for the dining hall workers, but not wages, and the union doesn’t represent other workers on campus.

Communications & Reports from Other City Officers

COF #1: Update from the May 5 School Committee meeting

This is an update from Mayor Siddiqui on the recent School Committee meeting about the upcoming budget. Once again, I appreciate the swift and informative writeup from Mayor Siddiqui and her staff. It is clear she understands how important this conversation is to many of us on the council, and I’ve kept a close eye on things as they’ve unfolded, in the hopes that the next budget will actually take significant steps towards addressing racial inequity in our schools. Hopefully, the Committee’s decision to table a final vote on their budget means that things will improve before the budget comes to the Council for final approval.

COF #2: Update on food insecurity work & resources

This is a helpful update on the work Vice Mayor Mallon and Food For Free have been doing around food insecurity. COVID-19 has certainly presented us with significant additional food insecurity challenges and I’m actively working with the Vice Mayor on policy design to get ahead of this challenge as much as possible. I appreciate her leadership on this issue as always, and the important work that Food For Free and other community partners are doing to help combat hunger during this terrible pandemic. Hopefully we can learn from this to combat hunger more effectively after the pandemic is over.

5/6 Post-meeting update

After Monday night’s meeting, here’s the latest on the effort to get better conditions for Cambridge’s unhoused community, the mandatory mask order, and some thoughts on the need for more accountable policymaking.

Last Friday, there was a second phone call between members of the unhoused community, city management, MAAP leadership, Councillor McGovern, Councillor Sobrinho-Wheeler, and myself. We again heard directly from some of our most vulnerable community members about how their basic needs are not being met. I want to be clear that some immediate concerns raised by unhoused people on the two calls have begun to be addressed: more meals & electrical outlets, temporary toilets & handwashing stations, and the ability to access their mail, thanks to a partnership with the Central Square BID.

This is welcome, but not nearly enough. The city continues to insist that the emergency shelter is adequate and that things are operating smoothly within. This is despite hearing clearly from unhoused people that the facility isn’t meeting their needs and they don’t feel safe. We also heard from unhoused people that unpleasant interactions with the police have led to distrust within the community, comments that are especially concerning in light of the city’s new mandatory mask policy, which carries a $300 fine on the first offense.

Unhoused people don’t have the luxury of going home to take off their masks. And a cloth barrier is only useful for so long before it needs cleaning. Where are they supposed to wash their coverings, or are we planning to provide enough masks for them to be treated as single-use? Point is, even the mere possibility of a $300 fine is oppressive to poor and unhoused people who are already struggling so much. As a city, we claim to care about our vulnerable residents, but this policy is tone-deaf.

Worse, the policy was rolled out by the City Manager mere minutes before a council meeting on the matter was about to begin, sidelining the council, and an important discussion around how to mitigate the potential the order has for disproportionate impact and enforcement bias. For this reason, I cosponsored an order on last Monday night’s agenda which proposes amendments to strengthen the order and improve accountability. My priorities are a more compassionate fine schedule and weekly reports on any enforcement, broken down by race, age, and gender.

As it stands, the City’s order is awfully weak on protecting essential workers (Figure A). It reads: “employees shall wear a mask…except where a distance of six feet can be maintained at all times”. Councillor Nolan sought to fix this in the Policy Order that is before us.

Figure A: The City’s order is awfully weak on protecting essential workers. Councillor Nolan sought to fix this in the Policy Order that is before us.

The Governor says in his order that anyone ages 2+ must cover up outside whenever unable to maintain a distance of 6 ft from “every other person” (Figure B). But the City says ages 5+ must wear a covering at all times when outside, period (Figure C). The applicability difference here seems substantial, but the city hasn’t explicitly clarified.

Figure B: The Governor’s order says that anyone ages 2+ must cover up outside whenever unable to maintain a distance of 6 ft from “every other person”.
Figure C: The City’s order says that anyone ages 5+ must wear a face covering at all times when outside, period.

My take: aside from the age discrepancy, these wordings are equivalent in their applicability to Cambridge because city streets are unpredictable, and it’s impossible to guarantee that you will maintain a 6 ft distance from “every other person” as the Governor’s order decries. The State allows cities to levy a fine of “up to $300”, which implies that a lesser or no fine would be permissible. Cambridge’s fine is $300, but given the potential for disproportionate impact, I would like to see that reduced or eliminated entirely, especially for a first offense.

Reasonable minds can disagree, but it was disappointing to see the way one of my colleagues portrayed things in an email to constituents (Figure D). The email seems to be designed to rile people up without presenting an accurate summary of the order, or even a link to the full language. When I pointed this out, my colleague called our effort disingenuous. I have great respect for my colleague, and he has every right to disagree, but the deception in the email was unhelpful at a time when so many are feeling the stress and sadness of this pandemic.

Figure D: Councillor McGovern’s email blast about our Policy Order.

We need to make sure all perspectives are at the table, especially our most vulnerable residents. Figure E is a response I received to my weekly agenda summary (I clarified that the “up to” language is not currently applicable in Cambridge).

Figure E: A response to my weekly update, from a constituent. I clarified that the “up to” language is not currently applicable in Cambridge.

The potential for bias is real: on Sunday a CPD Superintendent mistakenly tweeted a statement from the official Cambridge Police Department Twitter account that can easily be interpreted as bias against the poor, reflected in vulgar distaste for politicians who aim to represent them (Figure F). This very unfortunate incident highlights the pernicious presence of bias in our society. Leaving the fine at $300 unnecessarily creates an opportunity for abuse of power and as a policymaker, it is my job to protect our vulnerable residents against that.

Figure F: On Sunday, a CPD Superintendent mistakenly tweeted a statement from the official Cambridge Police Department Twitter account that can easily be interpreted as bias against the poor, reflected in vulgar distaste for politicians who aim to represent them.

5/4/2020 Agenda summary (COVID Special Edition #7)

Wearing a face covering is now mandatory in Cambridge. Read the official policy here or jump to Policy Order #10 to review some reasonable changes that I support to reduce the potential for disproportionate impact as we implement this policy.

The good news is that our suppression efforts are working, and we seem to be peaking in terms of the active caseload in Cambridge. The not-so-good news is that we’re still seeing new cases, and the terrible news is that we’re still losing neighbors and loved ones to this horrible disease and the disruption it has caused. This week we’ve started receiving some data about the race/ethnicity of people testing positive, and even though the data is very incomplete, we are already seeing disparate impacts on black and brown communities in Cambridge that mirror national trends. That’s why I’ve put in an order for Monday asking for more data, and for more resources to be directed towards these vulnerable communities. Our nursing homes and long term care facilities are also being severely impacted, and the vast majority of deaths in Cambridge from COVID-19 are in these facilities.

Memorial Drive and all city streets remain open to vehicular traffic despite two separate orders passed by the council asking the Manager to close some streets and Memorial Drive to traffic to allow more space for social distancing. As the weather warms and the virus wanes, we don’t need more policing, we need more space.

Last but not least, Harvard made use of the pandemic to cover its confession to accepting $9 million from Jeffrey Epstein and giving him undue influence and inappropriate access to their campus. Like MIT, Harvard grossly mishandled this situation, and needs to atone for their transgression.

Please consider signing our petition that calls on Harvard and MIT to do more for our community in this time of crisis. You can sign here or read my just-released op-ed on why MIT and Harvard need to step it up.

You can still give public comment virtually at council meetings by signing up here. Once you sign up, you will receive instructions on how to enter the Zoom meeting on Monday night. For assistance with this, please contact my office directly: qzondervan@cambridgema.gov, 617-901-2006 (leave a message and Dan or I will get back to you).

City Manager’s Agenda

CMA #1: Funding for domestic violence prevention initiatives

 This appropriation of $20,000 will support additional services related to domestic violence prevention during the COVID-19 pandemic, in partnership with Transition House. This is a hugely important part of our response to help protect those experiencing increased trauma as a result of being stuck at home with their abuser during the pandemic.

CMA #2: Reappointment of Larry Ward as an Election Commissioner

The Election Commission runs our elections every year, and they are critical to the functioning of our democracy. The Commission consists of two Democrats and two Republicans, each appointed to staggered four-year terms by the City Manager. The City Manager chooses appointments from a list of candidates submitted by the City Committees of each party. Larry Ward, who was first appointed in 2012, has been re-appointed to one of the Democratic seats. You can read his responses to the Cambridge Democrats questionnaire, here.

From the official website“The Board’s responsibilities include certifying nomination papers & petitions, registering voters, administering election recounts and preserving the integrity of the database for the street and voting lists by personally verifying the existence or nonexistence of questionable addresses within the City. In addition, prior to each election, approximately 260 additional election personnel are recruited, trained and supervised by the Board to staff each of the polling locations within the City. They work with the office staff to ensure that elections are managed in accordance with local, state and federal laws”.

CMA #3: City Manager update on COVID-19

This is yet another placeholder, and we will undoubtedly receive an actual update in person on Monday night. Why are we not receiving these updates in writing?

Resolutions

Resolution #2: Supporting asks from MIT graduate students

 MIT has not treated anybody right during this pandemic, including their own students. As a former MIT graduate student myself, I stand in solidarity with their very reasonable requests. I will ask to be added as a cosponsor on the floor, to give this resolution even more weight. Note: this item was placed incorrectly on the agenda in the Resolutions list. It should be on the Policy Order list, and will be taken up during the Policy Order part of the meeting.

Policy Orders

PO #1: Guidelines for re-opening construction

 This Policy Order was introduced last week as a very late addition to the agenda. I thought it would be best to exercise my charter right and give the council an additional week to consider it, given its immense detail.

It is, of course, important to carefully consider when and how construction projects will open back up. The safety of the workers and their families is of utmost concern. Special protocols will be needed to ensure workplace safety until the pandemic is over, especially at large worksites. But this Policy Order makes only passing reference to worker safety, and focuses instead on bureaucratic details aimed at restarting construction as quickly as possible. 

Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure these adjustments are well intended. But is it really appropriate for the City Council to decide right now that, and I quote, “The City should allow all paused projects to submit their covid-19 safety plans to the City now for review, to decrease the anticipated backlog; a lack of formal response from the City within 3 days should be considered an approval from the City“?

Much of this order is far too prescriptive. Demanding a five day response time from CDD for certain types of construction approval is an inappropriate level of specificity. No doubt the Community Development Department has many important priorities during this emergency. Where does one even come up with a figure like that?

I could continue but you really have to read this order for yourself to understand why it is so objectionable. So while I support having this conversation, I can’t support it as written. I will submit amendments that refocus this policy on workplace safety and public health.

#2: Small business recovery plan

This policy order asks for a plan to help small, local businesses recover from the economic impact of the pandemic. This is another important conversation we need to have about the coming “new normal”. 

#3: Making library materials available

This asks the City Manager to look into ways to provide library materials to students and others. This is a good idea, and I support the order. Our libraries are an important resource for students and the community, and we need to start thinking about how to make those resources available again while protecting everyone’s health and safety by maintaining social distancing. 

#4: COVID-19 public memorial

This asks the City Manager to work with the Cambridge Arts Council and others to create a public memorial for those who have been lost to COVID-19. We have lost many community members, and this is an important part of our response. We need a way to safely mourn their passing and celebrate their lives.

#5: 50th anniversary of Kent State and Jackson State shootings

I submitted this resolution to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the shootings at Kent State (on Monday) and Jackson (10 days later) State universities. At Kent State in Ohio, four unarmed students were killed and nine unarmed students were wounded by members of the Ohio National Guard while engaged in a largely peaceful protest of the continuing war in Vietnam, the invasion of Cambodia, and the presence of the National Guard on their campus. Ten days later, two African American young men were killed and twelve people were wounded by Mississippi State Police in protests at Jackson State in Mississippi, in a similarly inexcusable armed assault on unarmed students and bystanders.

Half a century later, not enough has changed. The United States has been at war overseas practically the entire time, and unarmed black men are still being shot in the streets by the police here at home in an endless war against our own people. It’s important to commemorate this moment in history as a reminder of how far we still have to go. I encourage you to read the full resolution, as well as this article in the New Yorker, to learn more about the incidents and their significant cultural impact.

#6: Request for more COVID-19 data

I submitted this order, which asks for additional enhancements to the city’s COVID-19 data center. We know that black and brown people in Cambridge are facing a disproportionate impact from COVID-19, but we need more information in order to respond. Specifically, we need information on deaths by age, race, and ethnicity, the total number of tests performed in facilities and in the community, and any other available data that can be safely reported. All the data should be downloadable so that anyone can easily access it and do their own analysis. The order also asks for the City Manager to immediately direct additional resources to mitigate the racial disparities already apparent in the data, because people’s lives are on the line.

#7: Restart Planning Board meetings

I submitted this order, which calls for the Planning Board to begin meeting again (virtually). In particular, I would like to see special permit applications from Economic Empowerment (EE) applicants move ahead. The lawsuit brought by Revolutionary Clinics against the City’s two-year exclusivity period for EE applicants has been struck down, in an important victory for racial justice. Since the exclusivity period expires in September 2021, it is important that these applicants are able to move ahead as quickly as possible, and right now the main obstacle is the Planning Board not conducting meetings.

#8: Universal COVID-19 testing

This order asks for free testing for all residents, like Somerville is already doing. It is critical to provide widespread testing in order to get this virus under control. All the countries and localities that have successfully reversed the course of this pandemic have done so with the help of widespread testing to identify the virus and quarantine the carriers to limit the spread of the virus. 

#9: Protections from Zoom-bombing

I submitted this order after our unfortunate encounter with the phenomenon known as “zoom bombing” during the public comment portion of last week’s meeting. During public comment, some people chose to make racist comments and display pornographic images. What’s frustrating about this incident is that it was largely preventable, and as an IT professional, I had been asking about these security concerns for several weeks now, and offered my assistance, to no avail. This order contains common-sense advice to allow us to run city council meetings via Zoom.

#10: Revisions to the mandatory mask order

I co-sponsored this order by Councillor Nolan based on what happened last week. The City Manager implemented a mandatory mask policy just hours before the City Council meeting last Monday, which had the matter on the agenda. This preemption sidelined the voice of the Council and our democratic process, which would only have improved the policy. As a result, there hasn’t been a discussion of the immense potential for disproportionate impact and bias in enforcement, especially given the announced $300 fine. You can read my summary of what happened at last week’s meeting here.

Requiring everyone to wear a mask makes perfect sense, but threatening poor and unhoused people with a $300 fine does not. I joined a recent (virtual) meeting between members of the unhoused community and the City Manager, in which one young man stated plainly that there is not a lot of trust between the unhoused and the police right now, and that some people are being treated very roughly by some of the officers. The city claims the fine will only be a last resort, but if you’re not planning to fine people $300, then why attach a $300 fine at all?

As someone at the meeting carefully explained, those who do not have shelter don’t have a “home” to go to and take off their mask! So while some wealthy privileged people may not be deterred by anything less than $300, even the mere possibility of a $300 fine is oppressive to poor and unhoused people who are having an even harder time than usual meeting their most basic needs of food, shelter, and personal hygiene. It is tone-deaf to insist that we can’t have a mandate for wearing a mask without a $300 fine. It’s shocking that the city insists on that posture despite hearing clearly from the unhoused community that it is disrespectful and threatening to them.

A few days after last week’s meeting, the City amended the order and announced an effort to hand out compliant masks to anyone who needs them, something I had been calling for since before the policy was announced. Meanwhile, the Governor issued an emergency order that supersedes the city’s and allows for a fine of “up to $300”, but does not require it. We could levy a lower fine, or even no fine at all, based on the language of the order and guidance from our Attorney General.

The order on Monday’s agenda is not an attempt to “weaken” the mandatory mask order, as some of my colleagues have suggested, but rather a necessary attempt to improve it. Given the immense potential for disproportionate impact and enforcement bias, it is critical that the council has an opportunity to discuss and express its opinion on this matter.

Bonus: Spring has sprung and the garden is planted! Vegetables planted: eggplant, tomatoes, beets, spinach, lettuce, kale, corn, beans, and zucchini (hopefully).

Mandatory mask policy: initial thoughts

Wearing a mask is now mandatory anytime you go outside. My thoughts on this policy (also available as a Twitter thread):

One of the most discussed agenda items leading up to Monday night’s City Council meeting was the proposal to make wearing a mask in public mandatory, but the City Manager preemptively announced such an order before the Council even had a chance to discuss it. The intent of this policy is right and I support it as one way to help prevent the spread of the virus during the peak we are currently experiencing. It is also important to recognize that this policy is largely in alignment with Somerville’s policy.

With that said, the City Manager’s preemption sidelined the voice of the Council and our democratic process, which would only have improved the policy. There wasn’t enough discussion of the immense potential for bias in enforcement, especially given the announced $300 fine. Context is important: the pandemic is having a disproportionate impact on Black Americans including here in Cambridge, there is record unemployment, and we are struggling to even provide enough masks for the clients of the War Memorial emergency shelter.

So while there is a need for stronger messaging, I am worried about our most vulnerable residents being issued fines that they cannot afford. I expect to not hear any horror stories stemming from this policy, and ideally, there will be no enforcement at all. My suggestion is to have the police actually hand out compliant masks, something present in the Somerville order but not in Cambridge’s. This is a more proactive approach that recognizes that not everybody has ready access to a face covering that is both clean and compliant.

While this would certainly not eliminate the potential for bias, it seems like it would lead to more positive, productive outcomes in these interactions. What we really need is more space, not more policing. I hope the City Manager will listen to the will of the Council and support the closure of some streets, including Memorial Drive, to car traffic. New York City just announced it will close up to 100 miles of streets to pedestrians.

While Plan E Government may have thwarted substantial discussion of this topic on Monday, I plan to continue asking questions both behind the scenes and at future meetings of the City Council in an effort to continue improving on the policy decisions being made.