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4-Year Terms Quashed

by Paul Bass | Apr 22, 2013 8:17 am

(25) Comments | Commenting has been closed | E-mail the Author

Paul Bass Photo 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.

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posted by: PH on April 22, 2013  9:56am

Hartford City Council has 9 members.  Bridgeport has 20.  New Haven should have half as many as it currently does and they should be paid twice as much (or more).  Pay people for the work they do, but stop diluting their work by having so many aldermen.  How about 10 wards with 5 at-large slots, with everyone getting paid $10,000-$15,000 a year?  And make terms for three years.

posted by: S Brown on April 22, 2013  10:11am

Does anyone else see the irony of denying voters the right to weigh in on these proposals under the argument that such proposals “undermine democracy”?

posted by: robn on April 22, 2013  10:16am

Ridiculous.

Please stop tooting horns about how democratic it is to have “volunteer” alderpersons because its exactly the opposite. Our city is a half billion dollar organization. It should be governed by people with some expertise and those people should be compensated appropriately. Currently we bar from office anyone who needs to actually make a living and thats very VERY undemocratic. Public service doesn’t mean public slavery.

posted by: MotiS on April 22, 2013  10:54am

I am glad to see that the increase in stipend made it through committee and hopes that it makes it out of the BOA. As Arlene said - here and I said at the Hillhouse hearing - the extra $1,000 will help defray the costs of being an Alderman. It will in NO way cover the full expense but serving the people should not be a burden on those serving.

Would have liked to have a shot at voting on 4 year terms. I think the Mayor’s position and Aldermanic positions should have been separated and voted at of committee.

MS

posted by: anonymous on April 22, 2013  11:03am

PH, that would be an ideal scenario for improving city government, but most of our local politicians are too shortsighted and self-centered to propose that kind of change. 

The Unions don’t like that idea either, because it would make it harder for them to buy the entire Board as they did in 2011.

posted by: accountability on April 22, 2013  12:00pm

Robn: “Currently we bar from office anyone who needs to actually make a living and thats very VERY undemocratic.”

Delphine Clyburn works with mentally disabled people for the state of CT. Guess that doesn’t count as “actually making a living” in your book. Does in mine. I could never do that work successfully and admire those who do.

And still Alderwoman Clyburn’s willing to face her voters every two years and do the work necessary to lead the city. Didn’t even want a raise. Go Delphine!

posted by: Brutus2011 on April 22, 2013  12:06pm

I disagree with the viewpoint that public virtue is over-rated as evidenced by “volunteer” aldermen.

The past 20 years have proven how toxic a strong executive can be in municipal government. Additionally, a history re-visit of Boss Tweed should provide further evidence.

I have been thinking of suggesting a “council of censors” to be added to the city charter.
My historical precedent would be the 1776 Pennsylvania Constitution.

After DeStefano and his cartel have set up our schools for political patronage, I want to see executive power diluted and accountable to the people.

Of course, the people need to be aware and willing to participate in their own government.

And that is a big if.

posted by: swatty on April 22, 2013  12:24pm

Paul,

Did DD and Snapple pay to be advertised in this article?

Maybe the city should spring for a coffee machine…

posted by: robn on April 22, 2013  12:33pm

ACCOUNTABILITY,

Nice try but I won’t let you twist my words.
By the logic of our current system, either Ms. Clyburn SHOULDN’T get paid a prevailing wage for her work with mentally disabled people, or she SHOULD get paid a prevailing wage for being an alderperson.
In my opinion, both are importantin their own special way and both should be compensated.

posted by: Steve Harris on April 22, 2013  12:42pm

I think 15 alders elected every four years is a good idea. A City Manager instead of a mayor is an even better idea.

posted by: Eddie on April 22, 2013  1:27pm

From the public hearing that I attended, it appears the commission has been very responsive to public input.  These, and the civilian police review board, are all ideas that community members articulated.  Thanks to this committee for putting all of these proposals in place.

posted by: Curious on April 22, 2013  2:40pm

...and a compromise of three years wasn’t suggested, why?

Oh good, Michael Smart can make jokes about getting $1,000 a month, while still not answering my emails.  Worst alderman I have had yet in New Haven.  Glad he’s got time to do stuff like this, while ignoring his residents.

posted by: accountability on April 22, 2013  3:04pm

Robn, you said that the system effectively eliminates people who need to earn a living.

It. Does. Not.

Evidence: Alderwoman Delphine Clyburn. She:

1. Earns a living doing vitally important work, AND

2. Invests the time necessary to do a good job as an Alderperson, including not only carrying out her duties to her ward constituents and the city as a whole, but also finding the time to serve on the Charter Revision Commission.

Perhaps you think that the current system screens out people who need to make a living because you just can’t imagine yourself both doing whatever day job you steal so much time from to comment on the NHI and being an effective Alder at the same time.

Well, me too. But then again neither you nor I are a Delphine Clyburn. Wish I was. Maybe someday.

posted by: momnprof on April 22, 2013  3:08pm

Two years is much too short for anyone to do a good job at being mayor.  I am less concerned with how much alderpersons are paid and more concerned about how many there are.  Frankly, 30 is a ridiculous number for a city this size.  Half that number would make more sense.  There are as many people in the City of Chicago as there are in this entire state, and Chicago has 50 alderpeople.  Perhaps there are too few there, but 30 is too many by any measure for a city of barely 100,000 people.

posted by: dorothy25 on April 22, 2013  3:19pm

We actually don’t bar people who have to work for a living from serving, Alderwoman Clyburn is one of many examples. 

It’s not in this article, but it looks like the Commission’s putting the CRB in the Charter.  Way to go!!!

posted by: robn on April 22, 2013  4:56pm

ANONYMOUS

Your (incorrect) premise is that current and past alders have been effective as a group of 30 part timers. It doesn’t take much imagination to imagine something more effective than ineffective.

posted by: robn on April 22, 2013  5:11pm

sorry

Meant that last response for ACCOUNTABILITY.

posted by: ohnonotagain on April 22, 2013  8:48pm

I believe we do have term limits and that is the voter. However, considering what voters have voted in or kept in office, perhaps term limits should be considered. As far as compensation,well perhaps that should be considered once the board size is cut down. We have 30 little mayors running around where we should have no more than 15 aldermen working on solving problems in this city. 30 Wards is over the top crazy for this size of a city. I would urge the voting public to shoot down any raises for the aldermen.

posted by: HhE on April 22, 2013  10:16pm

Accountability, I find “...because you just can’t imagine yourself both doing whatever day job you steal so much time from to comment on the NHI and being an effective Alder at the same time.” to be a very cheep shot. 

I do not know what robn’s employment is.  (Perhaps he is a near-do well cad like myself, or maybe he comments during meals.)  I do know that his comments are amongst the best on the NHI by far. 

I belive he was advocating for a truly professional BoA:  one where its members could (and would have to) study the issues in great detail. 

As it is, and as it will remain, our BoA is an amateur one, albeit with a number of very dedicated members.

posted by: cp06 on April 22, 2013  10:45pm

@PH

You think that Bridgeport or Hartford are the standards that New Haven should look to???!!!! Wow, that’s scary and shows how much some New Haven people are clueless as to how great this City is, but if you want to ruin it, yes, use Bridgeport and Hartford as your guide.

posted by: abg22 on April 23, 2013  1:10pm

As the article suggests, it is not at all clear if this approach to raising and COLA-indexing legislative salaries is permissible under Sec. 7-460 of CT General Statutes. The Board of Aldermen should probably consult a personal injury lawyer for a second opinion.

posted by: PH on April 23, 2013  4:27pm

@ cp06. As a lifelong resident of New Haven I am fully aware of its strengths and flaws.  I hold up Bridgeport and Hartford not as examples of overall city character, but of reasonable examples of proportional representation on a city legislative body.  New York City, with 100 TIMES the population of New Haven somehow manages to operate with a 50 person council.  Each council member represents an area twice the size of New Haven.  If each alder in New Haven was elected by more than a few hundred people—and paid more—then we would have a good chance of improving the quality of those who run and get elected. A more professional and dedicated Board of Aldermen would likely lead to better governance, or at least more time to understand the myriad issues they regularly vote on.

posted by: accountability on April 23, 2013  9:26pm

Hhe: I love when commenters say something and then say they didn’t say it. Now we’re down to “I believe [Robn] was advocating for a truly professional board…”

No doubt. But here’s what he actually said in trying to make his point: “Currently we bar from office anyone who needs to actually make a living and thats very VERY undemocratic.”

Repeat after me: “bar from office….undemocratic” Robn said that the current system effectively bars people who need to “make a living” from office, implying that the time constraints are too great.

I think that’s a load of condescending crap. Anyone who calls the current BoA system—whatever its strengths and weaknesses—“undemocratic” wouldn’t know democracy if it bit them on their hindquarters.

And what’s with this fetish for “professional” legislators? Imagine a system of a legislative branch and an executive branch in which some legislators are elected for two years, the Executive for four and other legislators for 6 years. They’re all paid so much that their salaries put them in the top 5 percent of income earners in the country. They’ve all got dozens of paid staff.

How much more professional can you get? And how’s that working out? Are federal elections immune from special interest influence? Are Congress and the President doing the people’s work effectively?

posted by: swatty on April 23, 2013  11:39pm

Ph,

How much are those nycers paid?

posted by: robn on April 24, 2013  1:33pm

ACCOUNTABILITY,

It’s correct that I believe anyone working a full time job to support their family cannot also effectively work a full time job as a legislator. You may disagree but I believe my proof lies in the lack of effectiveness of the current board structure; our ballooning debt is toying with insolvency.

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