July 1999

By David Trumbull

You can't get there from here


For the past months I have followed the career of a local comedy troupe--Cambridge City Council. Admission to their Monday evening revue is free, and for downright silly antics they are hard to beat.

Recent shows have featured hiring mimes to teach pedestrian safety and building a Cambridge monument to King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand. One two-part episode earlier this year had the councilors complaining to the U. S. Department of Justice about the term "paddy wagon" in a court filing. The laughs just kept on coming when the U.S. Attorney wrote back, suggesting the Council re-examine their priorities. Seems they got their knickers in a knot over a perceived ethnic slur, but expressed no outrage over the incidences of police brutality detailed in the original report.

Any objection?

While much of what goes on at City Hall is at best trivial, and at worst harmful, the council is its wackiest when is in unanimity.

Count on the council to be unanimous in supporting politically correct legislation, such as banning smoking out of doors in city parks. Yes, they actually did that! Recently they adopted a $10 per hour minimum wage for Cambridge. Now shall there be much rejoicing and dancing in the streets among the downtrodden workers. Or least there will be until low wage workers discover it applies only to city employees (typically paid more than $10 already) and to certain businesses that have city contracts (with many workers exempted). As it was unanimous, every councilor can boast of this vote for a just and living wage. Since most workers will not be covered by the ordinance, the councilors will not have to deal with the cost of their good intentions.

Like other long-running comedy programs, city council recycles plots. Here's a golden oldie that always plays well to the cameras in council chamber. Caught between pressure to do something about human rights abuses in Myanmar (formerly Burma), and legal constraints that prohibit a municipality from making foreign policy, the Council unanimously adopted an unenforceable--in fact unconstitutional--ban on trade with Myanmar. Once again, they could take the moral high ground, without actually doing anything of substance.

Unfortunately, the councilors' urge to act out costs the citizens, as our taxes pay legal costs of insupportable legislation. According to the mayor, it was important the recent city council vote banning trucks from city streets be unanimous. Why? Because the ban is of dubious legality and the council would likely have to defend it in court. "How are they going enforce that?" was the response of a state Highway Department official when told that the city council had chosen to ignore state and federal rules pre-empting the city from regulating interstate commerce.

Tellingly, some of the councilors doubted the wisdom of courting an expensive and likely unsuccessful legal battle. Members of the city's own truck advisory committee warned against the ban. But the councilors all fell in line to vote for something that sounded good and was wanted by neighborhood activists. Noise and dirt from truck traffic may be real problems. A responsible governing body would have sought a workable and legal solution to the problems. But this council voted for a simplistic and symbolic gesture.

Edmund Burke said that an elected representative owes his constituents his judgment. A representative fails his constituents when he grants their unjust, unreasonable, or impractical whims. Each time Cambridge City Council has trampled our rights--by trying to ban newspaper boxes, banning smoking, banning trucks, and so forth--it has done so because someone wanted the government to protect us from ourselves. A strong and serious council would have responded with leadership instead of following the masses.

We want more freedom. Good. We shall not get freedom by surrendering to a nanny state the liberties we now have. We want laws that make our city, state, and nation safer more just and more conducive to happiness. We shall not advance wholesome laws by passing symbolic gestures that undermine law.


David Trumbull is Chairman of the Cambridge Republican City Committee.