Longtime deputy chosen as city manager in Cambridge, to cheers and complaints

Selection is praised and panned in Cambridge

handout-- Richard Rossi being named city manager of Cambridge effective July 1, 2013
Cambridge native Richard Rossi rose through the city’s ranks beginning with an internship with the water department decades ago.

The selection of the deputy city manager to replace long-time city manager Robert Healy has drawn a mix of praise and dismay in Cambridge, with some residents sharply criticizing the city council for failing to conduct a broader search.

“I’ve never been so angry about something the council has done,” said Carolyn Mieth, a former Planning Board member who is active in city affairs. “They’ve known for years the public wanted a broad search, but they just chose the easiest thing for them.”

The City Council voted, 8 to 1, this month to appoint Richard Rossi, the city’s deputy manager for three decades, to the head post. In July, he will succeed Healy, who announced his retirement in March.

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The move surprised residents who had called for an extensive search for Healy’s replacement, and drew criticism as hasty and irresponsible.

Craig Kelley, the lone city councilor to vote against the appointment, said the council had clearly neglected its duty to conduct a proper search.

“We absolutely decided, as a body, that we as a city council did not want to do what many expected us to do,” he said.

Cambridge has a strong city manager, who is chosen and overseen by the City Council. The mayor chairs the council and the School Committee and is the head of the city for ceremonial purposes.

Henrietta Davis, the mayor and a City Council member, acknowledged the criticism but defended the choice as best for the city, citing Rossi’s decades of municipal experience.

“You’ll find people who complain about the process, but you won’t hear a bad word about Richard Rossi,” she said. “He’s uniquely qualified, and is the right person to lead the city forward.”

Rossi is a proven problem solver who “knows every corner of the city,” she added.

Davis said city councilors realized they could not conduct a full search involving public input before Healy departed, so they turned to an internal candidate to bridge the gap until a longer-term replacement can be found. Rossi will be under contract for three years.

“This will allow the team we have in place to keep going,” she said. “We’re not losing any time with a transition period. We don’t need a shake-up now.”

While growing up in Cambridge, Rossi worked for the city’s sanitation department during the summers and later managed the Brattle Theatre. From an internship in the water department he rose through the city’s ranks to become deputy city manager, where he has now worked for three decades.

Rossi said he first learned about the city manager post in eighth-grade civics class.

“It’s like a dream come true,” said Rossi, 66. His parents, were they alive, would be thrilled, he said.

Rossi currently earns $278,000 a year. He said he anticipates a pay increase but said he was not looking to “break any records.”

Healy, whose retirement package has been criticized as excessive, earns $347,000.

Leland Cheung, a city councilor, said Rossi is a well-respected figure in the community and part of a “deep bench of professional management” working in City Hall.

“He’s proven himself very capable,” he said.

Cheung said the council plans to survey the public about the qualities it wants in a city manager before beginning a search. In a series of meetings over the past few months, councilors realized that the process would take much longer than they initially thought, he said.

“We want to do this right,” he said.

But Heather Hoffman, a longtime resident and copresident of the Association of Cambridge Neighborhoods, said councilors have known for years that Healy would retire and should have been ready to conduct a search.

“They manufacture emergencies for themselves so they can avoid any process that would involve public participation,” she said. “I don’t think it’s cronyism, I think it’s out-and-out laziness.”

Hoffman said she did not question Rossi’s qualifications, but said the job is important enough to warrant an expansive search.

Robert Winters, who writes a blog about civic affairs, praised the choice, describing Rossi as a strong and responsive manager.

“I know that some people have this idea that there’s some magical candidate out there who would have been the more than perfect choice for city manager right now, but that’s more myth than reality,” he said. “There is tremendous value in having a city manager who understands Cambridge inside and out.”