Globe Editorial

Cambridge city manager’s pay shows lack of council oversight

February 16, 2011

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THE BEST thing that can be said about Cambridge city manager Robert W. Healy Jr.’s outsized compensation package is that his salary isn’t out of line for the private sector. But beyond his corporate-level salary of $327,091 a year, he’s also in line for a $259,245 annual retirement payout that is a caricature of public-sector pension excess. While he and some of his bosses on the City Council justify his salary and benefits as appropriate rewards for keeping property taxes low, the perks-laden package raises concerns about a lack of oversight by the council.

Healy’s supporters contend that Cambridge residents are comfortable with Healy’s leadership. But the essential drawback of a city-manager system of government is that a willful manager can gain so much leverage over the City Council that the government begins to resemble a fiefdom. After 30 years in office, Healy has assumed vast power in Cambridge. The council, which assigned two of its members to negotiate Healy’s latest pact and then approved it without discussing its costs, should take its oversight role more diligently.

According to a report in the online Cambridge Day by a group of Northeastern University students overseen by longtime Globe writer Walter Robinson, Healy’s salary is twice that of any municipal manager in the state. His pension is even further out of whack with other municipal employees. There’s also life insurance, very costly continuing-care insurance for both the 68-year-old Healy and his wife, and a $282,000 payout upon retirement for unused sick days and vacation.

Councilors maintain that Healy’s regular pay hikes — which have swelled his salary by 82 percent since 2002 — are a reward for excellent work. But those years also cover a period when Healy cost the city a $4.5 million jury award for having retaliated against a city employee who claimed racial discrimination. When the city asked the trial-court judge to toss out the $3.5 million in punitive damages, Judge Bonnie MacLeod-Mancuso refused, calling Healy’s testimony “incoherent’’ and declaring the jury had “adequate evidence before it to find Healy’s conduct reprehensible.’’

Cambridge is appealing the ruling. And in fairness, municipal managers face a wide variety of complaints. But the case calls into question the notion that Healy’s pay is based strictly on his performance.

Across the river, Mayor Menino manages a city six times Cambridge’s size and earns a salary of $175,000 a year. No doubt, some people in Cambridge feel they have a superior system, and that its executive salaries reflect its high standards. (Healy’s deputy pulls in $270,000.) But before burdening future taxpayers with more such deals, the City Council should make sure it’s getting its money’s worth.