Longer mayoral terms and better-paid aldermen would strengthen government—or weaken democracy.
Such questions prompted a Federalist Papers-like debate among New Haveners conducting a decennial review of the city’s charter. They ended up killing one idea for changing government and putting another on a path toward voter ratification.
The debate took place Thursday night in City Hall’s Meeting Room 2 at the latest meeting of the Charter Revision Commission, which is vetting ideas to put on November’s ballot for revising the city charter, New Haven’s foundational document.
After the debate, the commissioners voted 9-2 to put a question on the ballot to give alderman a $1,000 annual raise plus subsequent biannual cost-of-living-pegged increases. If the Board of Aldermen seconds the vote, the question will appear on November’s general election ballot as part of a package of recommended charter changes.
The commission also voted 6-5 Thursday night not to advance a second long-debated proposal in New Haven: whether to give the mayor and aldermen four-year terms rather than their current two-year terms.
To get there, the commissioners explored larger questions about democracy and government.
Too Much Democracy?
The close vote over four-year terms followed a divided discussion that reflected a decades-old debate in New Haven over how to get the best possible people in government.
Assuming that the answer lies at least in part in the rules set for the jobs (as opposed to increased grassroots organizing or informed demands from voters), part of the debate has centered on how often elected officials have to run for reelection.
Does running every two years keep them on their toes by making them more accountable to voters, and enabling voters to throw out poor performers?
Or does the two-year cycle require them to keep running for reelection rather than settling down to learn their jobs better and govern?
First-term Bishop Woods Alderman Mark Stopa (pictured), a commission member, took the latter position during Thursday night’s debate.
“By the time somebody may come into office and get up to speed, it can take a year. The next thing you know, you’re campaigning” again, he said. Besides, he said, elections cost a lot of money. Why not hold fewer, and save the money?
Commissioner Elizabeth Torres cited her own example as a member of the Board of Education for the past four years. It has taken her much of that time to master the issues, she said. “The issues the city is facing are complex,” she said. “To get your arms around them takes years.”
She cautioned that elections can “distract” decision-makers in the meantime.
Commissioner Will Ginsberg, the CEO of the Community Foundation and a former city development chief, argued that four-year terms would “produce better government.”
Too often, he said, election campaigns “produce a political dialogue that focuses” on side issues rather than on pressing public needs. Campaigns are called “the silly season” for a reason, Ginsberg remarked.
Others argued that the more elections New Haven has, the better.
Commissioner Joelle Fishman, for instance, called the two-year term is part of an overall democratic set-up that works, including having 30 aldermen. (The commission has already shot down the idea of reducing the number of aldermen. Some say a smaller Board of Aldermen would give each alderman, and thus the legislative branch, more power. Others say the board’s large size makes it more democratic, because aldermen’s district are small enough that “you can walk to your alderperson’s house,” as Fishman put it.)
Fishman noted that state legislators and U.S. Congressmen also must run for reelection every two years, too.
Some had hoped charter revision would produce term limits to avoid having unpopular mayors or aldermen stay in power, say, 20 years because of powers accrued during incumbency. But state law prevents the city from imposing term limits. Commissioner Melissa Mason noted that fact Thursday night. Keeping terms at two years, rather than four, helps prevent “very, very long terms,” she said.
As a Newhallville alderwoman, Delphine Clyburn would have had to campaign less often to keep her seat if four-year terms had advanced Thursday night and eventually received the voters’ approval in November. She nonetheless voted against the idea
“If it’s four years and they’re not doing a good job, the people get weary,” she said. “Let the people say what they want.”
Volunteers? Or Professionals?
Clyburn (pictured) also voted against giving herself a raise.
This time she was in the minority.
The question was whether to write a $1,000 raise into the charter for members of the Board of Aldermen. They currently receive around $2,000 a year.
Unlike the salaries of the mayor and other city officials, aldermanic pay has to be set by referendum in Connecticut. Legislators’ salaries under state statute have to be approved by referendum just like the charter changes. A charter ballot vote would be considered one form of referendum.
Thursday night’s debate touched on a larger debate in New Haven over the role of aldermen: Are they volunteers? Or are they doing a “job”? Aldermanic pay is technically called a “stipend,” not a “salary,” in recognition that the small amount defrays some expenses but would never come remotely close to minimum wage for all the hours spent at public meetings and with constituents.
A second question is whether the city can ever afford to pay them enough to make it a real part-time job when there are 30 of them.
“Let’s keep it where you really want to serve the people. Not a job,” Clyburn urged her colleagues. “Would it become other than service if we do this?”
She had come to the charter revision meeting directly from a budget hearing across the hall. New Haven faces a possible deficit in the current fiscal year and painful choices about how to avoid raising taxes much, if at all, in the coming one. “Adding money to our stipend is going to be hard on the people we serve,” Clyburn argued. “Watching the challenge we have even now ... I wouldn’t want to put” more of a burden on the taxpayers.
Torres argued that while the city can’t afford to “properly compensate” aldermen for all the time they put into the job, “we all felt strongly it should be increased,” including with a formula to add the cost-of-living increase every two years.
Commissioner Arlene DePino (pictured), a former Morris Cove alderwoman, agreed the aldermen deserve more money even if they city can’t afford much more. The extra $1,000 can actually make a difference for expenses like “gas to get downtown [and] getting to people’s houses,” DePino said. Not to mention the cost of having “your cellphone going off all the time.”
Will Ginsberg argued that $3,000 is still too low. “Still we’re one of the lowest in the state” in reimbursing urban lawmakers, he said. “I think it [puts] the wrong value on legislative service.”
Hartford’s nine City Council members each receives $15,000 a year. (A councilwoman there has proposed upping it to $90,000, plus $15,000 in expenses) as part of charter revision there. The Hartford Courant was displeased.) Bridgeport’s 20 members each receives a $9,000 annual stipend.
Ginsberg joined Clyburn in voting Thursday night against the $1,000 New Haven raise (he because it was too low, she because it was too high). They were outvoted 9-2. The recommended $1,000 annual raise now gets passed to the Board of Aldermen to consider placing on November’s ballot.
Commission chair Michael Smart (pictured with Mason), who also serves as Wooster Square’s alderman, asked for a point of clarification: Was the raise $1,000 a year, or $1,000 a month?
It was taken by all as a joke, in keeping with the evening’s serious yet friendly tone.