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Council struggles to elect new mayor in Cambridge

The city councilors of Cambridge gathered again last night to take on the problem that has bedeviled them for weeks. Schools? Potholes? Salaries? No, something more personal.

Since the beginning of the year, the nine council members have struggled with the question of who among them should be named mayor. They have cast eight ballots over about a half-dozen meetings, but no council member has been able to muster the five-vote majority needed to be elected mayor.

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Last night the council failed to elect a mayor in its eighth round of voting, as Councilor Leland Cheung received three votes, Councilors Marjorie Decker and Craig Kelley received two votes, and Councilors Henrietta Davis and David Maher each received one vote.

Frustrated by the failure to elect a mayor, Decker raised a motion that was adopted last night calling for a special meeting next Wednesday in which the council will vote on the matter again.

“We’ve got to figure this out,’’ Decker said.

The failure to elect a mayor does not come close to shutting down the Cambridge city government. Cambridge uses a system in which City Manager Robert Healy’s office enforces laws, appoints department heads, and drafts the city budget, among other duties.

But Cambridge’s mayor chairs the policy-making City Council, makes the council’s subcommittee appointments, and appears at public events on behalf of the city throughout the two-year term. The mayor also makes about $105,000 a year, while the salary for a city councilor is about $70,000, according to city spokeswoman Ini Tomeu.

Another key role of the mayor is to chair the School Committee, which is working on a major reorganization of the school district by establishing “upper schools’’ for students in the sixth through eighth grades. In the absence of an elected mayor, Kenneth Reeves, the longest-serving city councilor, is filling in on an interim basis.

School Committee member Marc McGovern said the council needs to put an end to the voting by picking a mayor, but the way the city government is set up, he said, this could drag on for weeks.

“It just creates, I think, an unnecessarily awkward distraction,’’ McGovern said. “It would just be a heck of a lot more focused and easier if we knew who our chair was and what our team was going to be.’’

The inability of the council to elect a mayor is nothing new. At the start of the last term in 2010, the council took almost two months before electing Councilor David Maher.

This year, the struggle has led to wisecracks on Twitter, labeled #HowCambridgeShouldPickaMayor, created by David S. Bernstein, a writer for the Boston Phoenix. “Hide a ‘I’m the Mayor!’ T-shirt somewhere in the Buck a Pound bin at @GarmentDistrict,’’ read one tweet by a user called TomoPants.

The council’s deadlock began at the beginning of January, when the council failed to pick a mayor at its inauguration ceremonies. The next week, on Jan. 9, Cheung and Decker each received three votes and Councilors Tim Toomey, Craig Kelley, and Davis each voted for themselves.

Two weeks later, another round of voting on Jan. 23 reached the same totals with little discussion.

The council had a burst of balloting at its next meeting on Jan. 30, but failed to tip the scale in favor of any candidate despite three rounds of voting. The tally for the final round of voting that night had Cheung with three votes, Decker and Reeves receiving two votes, and Councilors Toomey and Davis garnering one vote each by voting for themselves.

After the voting that night, Decker said the council needed to hasten the election of a mayor so the School Committee and City Council subcommittees could get on with their business.

“I know that there’s some thought out there that we can sit for weeks and maybe a couple of months without electing a mayor, but I actually think there is a sense of urgency,’’ Decker said.

But a sense of urgency didn’t seem to set in at the council’s meeting last week, when another round of voting on Feb. 6 failed to pick a mayor.

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