In a rare private gathering on Harvard’s campus, members of the Cambridge City Council and the new Cambridge City Manager Yi-An Huang ’05 attended a full-day training earlier this month to begin fostering a stronger working relationship.
During the event — which was held Oct. 6 at the Harvard Faculty Club — Huang, the Council, and several top city officials met to identify obstacles to effective communication and ways to improve the relationship between each side of city leadership.
The city considered the event exempt from Massachusetts’ Open Meeting Law, which requires nearly all meetings between members of a “public body” to be advertised at least two days in advance and open to all members of the public. Huang and several councilors said the Oct. 6 gathering did not fall under the law because it was considered a “training” that did not include any discussion of specific policy goals or agendas.
The Open Meeting Law includes carve-outs for a “conference, training program, or event,” provided the participants do not deliberate on “any matter within the body’s jurisdiction.”
Under its charter, Cambridge’s government is run by a city manager who oversees day-to-day city operations, including the city budget, and implements policy goals set by a democratically elected City Council. The relationship between the Council and the city manager has been tense in years past, with some councilors expressing dissatisfaction over the level of transparency and communication between the two branches.
Huang, who officially began as city manager in early September, said in an interview he and Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui arranged the training to “create greater trust, greater collaboration, greater communication.”
“I am coming into the role new and with sort of fresh eyes,” Huang said. “This was a really great opportunity to look at what’s working, where there are pain points from the Council side, where there are pain points from city leaders, and to talk about some of the deeper values and norms that we want in the relationship.”
Councilor Marc C. McGovern said City Solicitor Nancy E. Glowa, who attended the training, intervened if any attendee said something that might “veer in the wrong direction” and potentially violate the Open Meeting Law.
“There was no deliberation about policy, there was no talk about goals, it wasn’t about what direction we want to take the city in,” McGovern said. “Nothing like that.”
Huang said councilors expressed concerns during the training about a lack of responsiveness from city staff, while staffers said they felt “stretched” thin between day-to-day operational work and requests from the Council.
“I think councilors feel like they aren’t heard, and that they’re passing policy orders, and that they really want to say, ‘the city should consider doing X, Y, Z,’ and it feels like the city can be a black box,” Huang said.
“On the flip side,” he added, city staff receive “all these new requests coming through from the Council that need to be responded to, and I think sometimes they feel like it’s not possible to get it all done, and they don’t feel appreciated for the good work that actually has been accomplished.”
Huang said city staff and the Council are working to establish a written “concrete set of communication protocols or practices.”
He added that a new chief of staff position in the City Manager’s office will “create more engagement” between the Council and city staff.
“This definitely all feeds into the need for there to be a bit more staffing to manage what is a really important relationship,” he said.
In an interview, Siddiqui said she is working with Huang to arrange a public roundtable to discuss policy priorities. She also said she hopes to plan a separate retreat for councilors to discuss communication among themselves.
—Staff writer Elias J. Schisgall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @eschisgall.