Cambridge’s new City Manager, Yi-An Huang ’05, began his term in September pledging to improve the working relationship between his office and the Cambridge City Council. Three months in, he knows the city has a ways to go.
In an interview last week, Huang touted improving the dynamic between the council and city staff and reemphasized his commitment to increasing accountability and transparency around government decision-making.
Cambridge’s government features both a democratically-elected city council, which sets policy goals and priorities, and a city manager, who oversees daily government operations, creates the nearly-billion-dollar city budget, and implements the council’s policy goals. The relationship between the two government bodies has been a source of tension in years past.
Huang, who was selected from four finalists for the position following a months-long search to replace former city manager Louis A. DePasquale, said that though he feels “the what of what the city does is fairly visible,” the same is less true for government decision-making.
Last week, Huang sent the Council an eight-page 90-day report, detailing “strengths and areas for growth” and “early thoughts on the direction and the important work ahead,” especially around themes of transparency and process.
“The decisions [city staff] make are public. We have discussions about what we’re going to do; people experience it as they live in the city,” Huang said in the interview. “I think this 90-day report was really a bit about how we show the how we do the work and the why we make decisions.”
Huang said that following a rare private summit between city staff and councilors in early October to improve communication and collaboration between the two government bodies, he felt a “renewed push” from councilors to further develop their working relationship together.
“There’s a desire to create the communication channels and trust that let us work together and collaborate — and also disagree on things yet still make decisions together,” Huang said. “That’s been really exciting.”
But the Council’s relationship with Huang has not been entirely without problems.
At a Dec. 5 meeting of the Council, some councilors said they felt blindsided by a late addition to the agenda from Huang asking the state Department of Conservation and Recreation to reopen Memorial Drive to vehicular traffic on Dec. 10 and 17. The closure of Memorial Drive for open space and recreation on Saturdays as well as Sundays has been a source of division among residents.
“I think the process by which is before us tonight is really broken, and it’s not a transparent way to communicate with the Council and the public,” Councilor Quinton Y. Zondervan said in the meeting. “It’s not a democratic way to move forward.”
Huang said in the interview that the closure was a “small accommodation” to address concerns of negative impacts from some residents along Memorial Drive, but its status in the new year would be a “separate conversation.”
“There’s definitely evidence from even [the Dec. 5 council meeting] where I think we weren’t able to provide the kind of advance notice on certain items that we are bringing to the Council that we would like to do in the longer term,” Huang said.
Huang said he hopes to deal with situations that tend to elicit resident disagreement, such as Memorial Drive closures or bike lane construction projects, by trying to “be okay sitting in that messiness” of diverse viewpoints.
“That’s actually the tension: how are we, a diverse community that isn’t going to agree on everything, going to stay unified as a community and believing that we are in this together?” Huang said. “How do we do that in the thick of actual issues?”
In the report, Huang committed to undergoing a yearly performance review, which he described as an “opportunity to learn and to grow and to get feedback.” He said his office would work with the Council in mid-February to set clear goals and measures for a review, which would be periodically revisited through the year and evaluated in a “more objective process” at the end of 2023.
“I think it’s actually a way to better clarify, ‘these are the really important things that we want to get done,’ and that I’ll be accountable to work with the Council on and work with the city leaders and staff on,” Huang said.
—Staff writer Elias J. Schisgall can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @eschisgall.