(Submitted in advance of an April 12 Govt. Ops Committee hearing.)
Dear Members of the Government Operations Committee and Manager DePasquale,
Thank you for having your hearing tomorrow, we are grateful that our City’s approach to boards and commissions is being evaluated. A Better Cambridge believes that changing the way we make appointments can make our boards’ decisions better reflect the needs and values of our diverse population. We also believe that the Cambridge City Council should set clearer rules and guidance for casework, enabling boards to better act in accordance with a shared vision for Cambridge. These unrepresentative boards wield significant power in shaping our City, and we’re hopeful for a more democratic decision-making process.
Currently, all three of the major boards which make important land use decisions - the Planning Board, the Board of Zoning Appeals, and the Historical Commission - are dramatically unrepresentative of Cambridge’s diverse population, particularly in age and homeownership status, but also with regards to race and wealth. Therefore, these boards often fail to reflect the perspectives of our city as a whole. With housing unaffordability being the #1 issue facing Cambridge residents, and with land use decisions being so inextricably linked with its causes and solutions, it is critical that these land use boards include voices who experience, understand, and care about the housing crisis.
The City Manager can encourage a more diverse set of volunteers for boards and commissions by:
- Establishing stipends for service on high workload boards;
- Seeking out representatives from under-represented groups and making clear their applications will be taken seriously; and by
- Rotating board membership more often.
The City Council can reduce board workload and more closely align land use outcomes with Cambridge’s values by
- Adjusting our zoning, planning, and neighborhood conservation ordinances to better reflect principles for equitable, sustainable development, and to reduce the number of project-by-project board approvals required to build in Cambridge.
Stipends could cover the cost of childcare during long evening meetings, or help cover lost income for board members earning an hourly wage. Making more people feel welcome on these boards can help increase their diversity. Reducing the number of reappointments will give more people an opportunity to serve and ensure the boards have fresh faces.
Codifying our laws and providing clear guidelines to boards reflecting Cambridge’s current desires for land use will make it easier for boards to make decisions and more likely they’ll make decisions that align with Cambridge’s values. Reducing the number of discretionary approvals in our land use system will not only allow boards to be more thorough in the cases they do take on, it will make serving on boards more attractive by reducing the need to spend large amounts of time preparing for meetings that run late into the night.
As an all-volunteer organization ourselves, we know how important it is to proactively work to avoid the blind spots, biases, and burnout that can emerge in a volunteer-dependent system. Applicants and selected Board members - and, of course, the people of Cambridge served by these boards - deserve a process that works better for everyone.
The A Better Cambridge Board