The Cambridge City Council’s Government Operations, Rules & Claims Committee began the process of hiring a new city manager at a meeting Tuesday morning.
During the meeting, councilors debated the initial steps for the city manager search, including soliciting candidates and hiring a search firm.
The City of Cambridge operates on a “council-manager” form of municipal government, also known as Plan E, in which executive power is invested in a city manager appointed by the City Council, which performs legislative and oversight functions.
The Council has had an up-and-down relationship with current city manager Louis A. DePasquale since appointing him to the role in 2016; his current contract expires in July 2022. In June, he controversially decided to ban remote public comment during in-person public meetings after more than a year of residents participating via Zoom, according to reporting by Cambridge Day.
Tuesday’s meeting began with testimony from Bernard F. Lynch, a former city manager in Lowell, Mass. who consults on hiring for municipal government positions, answering the committee’s questions about the search process.
Lynch shared that the undertaking will not be as simple as releasing a job posting. He said he expects up to a 20-week process between “information gathering, the actual recruitment and the interview process.”
Lynch and the councilors also discussed whether the search process should begin with screening deliberations in a smaller setting or before the full council.
Lynch said he would recommend against the latter because public records laws would mandate those conversations be on the record, noting the importance of confidentiality in protecting the integrity of the selection process.
On the other hand, Councilor Patricia “Patty” M. Nolan ’80, who attended the meeting but is not a member of the Government Ops committee, argued the entire City Council should be involved in the selection process.
“We would be missing an opportunity to involve the whole council in literally the most important job we have,” Nolan said. “Otherwise it doesn’t seem like the process is treating all the councilors equally.”
Committee members went on to debate the necessary qualifications for both a search firm — which has yet to be hired — and the city manager.
Councilor Jivan Sobrinho-Wheeler asserted the need for a diverse pool of candidates and to step away from city-manager-specific resume qualifications when reviewing finalists.
“We haven’t had candidates who are women or people of color as finalists or as city managers in the history of Cambridge,” Sobrinho-Wheeler said. “I do really want to make sure that with this process that we’re breaking out of that mold of how the city manager process has been traditionally done.”
Committee members also discussed considering internal candidates for city manager, budgeting the search, and setting term limits.
Near the meeting’s end, the committee unanimously passed two motions: for DePasquale to appropriate funds for a consulting search firm, and for Sobrinho-Wheeler and Councilor E. Denise Simmons, who chairs the committee, to review search processes to select the consultant.
Simmons said she believes the Government Ops committee should ultimately pick a screening committee who evaluates candidates.
She added that the process is a balancing act between the council’s and the public’s varied interests.
“I want diversity in the pool, I want the richness, I want the participation,” Simmons said. “But I don’t want us to tip it such that it contaminates ... the process so that some of the better candidates, particularly if they are coming from farther away, won’t come because they don’t want to be put out there.”
“I would recommend that we lean into the idea of having this screening committee that does that work with the proper training,” Simmons continued.
—Staff writer Simon J. Levien can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @simonjlevien.