Alex Rhodeen opened Monday night’s meeting of the Board of Aldermen by saluting the city’s legislative body for operating better than those dysfunctional, stymied lawmakers in D.C.
Then the aldermen tackled store awnings and Afghanistan. Or tried to. For two and a half hours.
Not a whole lot of lawmaking ended up taking place inside City Hall’s aldermanic chambers. A lot of wrangling did, along with a rare appeal of a decision by the board president, a long recess to consult Robert’s Rules of Order, a couple of not-so-friendly amendments, several roll-call votes, along with the threat of nuclear annihilation.
Following are highlights from a A Night At The Aldermen.
God Help Us
The meeting began, as usual with “Divine Guidance,” the words of reflection or inspiration offered at the start each meeting by a different alderman. On Monday it was Rhodeen’s turn.
The Fair Haven Heights alderman reflected on the dysfunction he’s observed recently in Washington, D.C., where Democrats and Republicans have been locked in a high-stakes game of brinksmanship as they battle over reducing the national deficit and raising the debt ceiling. Failure to do so by Tuesday would have meant sending the nation into default, upending the country’s finances and likely sending national and global markets into a tailspin.
Rhodeen compared the failure to compromise in D.C. unfavorably with the workings of the New Haven city government, where he said aldermen from different backgrounds work together to get things done.
Awnings, Signs, Marquees
Not long after, Rhodeen’s colleagues took up what appeared at first glance to be an innocuous piece of legislation. Edgewood Alderman Marcus Paca, chair of the Community Development Committee, presented an ordinance amendment that would streamline the process by which businesses receive permission to put up new signs, awnings, canopies, awnings, and marquees “projecting over the public right of way.”
Click here to read the proposal.
Paca said the current permitting process can take up to six months. It involves the review of numerous government bodies, including the City Plan Commission and the Board of Aldermen’s City Services and Environmental Policy Committee. Under Paca’s plan, permits would be issued through a process set up by the Department of Public Works, with other bodies opting into the process only if they choose.
Paca presented the plan as a business-friendly measure that would free up more time and resources for companies to expand their operations and create jobs for New Haveners.
He said aldermen would still have a say in the process thanks to a provision requiring businesses to seek a letter of support from the alderman in their ward, or demonstrate that they had sought such a letter. An unsupportive or doubtful alderman could ask the Board of Aldermen to take over the process, essentially sending the business through the older, more thorough vetting process.
On Both Hands ...
Newhallville Alderman Charles Blango was the first to object to the proposal.
Blango said he worried that aldermen would be cut out of the process. What’s wrong with the process as it is? he asked. “I’m sure the alderpeople don’t mind” voting on awning requests as they come up, he said.
The problem is it can be a long and arduous process for businesses, Paca replied. “It has discouraged businesses from coming to New Haven, quite honestly,” he said.
Alderman are not cut out of the process, he said. “We’re still very much involved.”
In response to further objection from Blango, Paca, growing visibly more frustrated, said that the city sees only between eight and 12 applications for signs in the right of way each year; most of them are downtown. The new legislation is not even going to affect the vast majority of the Board of Aldermen, he said.
Dixwell Alderman Greg Morehead asked if the board couldn’t just add a time limit to the current process, to speed it up a bit.
That’s just what the new proposal does—it speeds things up, Paca replied. The new process would take 30 days, versus the four to six months the old way, he said.
After Aldermen Migdalia Castro, Justin Elicker, and Greg Dildine spoke up in favor of Paca’s plan, Morehead offered another objection, taking the opposite position as his previous one.
“If a business goes through the process, wouldn’t that make them more stable?” he asked. If a business needs only 30 days to get approval, it could be a “fly-by-night” operation, he said.
An Unwanted Amendment
After a couple more aldermen voiced their support of the plan, Aldermen Goldson put forward an amendment that would have stricken the part of the new plan stating that businesses could get by with proof of an effort to get a letter of approval from their aldermen.
Goldson’s amendment would, in effect, have put the burden on the business to get aldermanic approval, rather than on the alderman to object if he or she wanted to.
“I think we’re missing the point of this,” said an exasperated Paca. If a business can’t demonstrate that it’s contacted the alderman, “the process goes nowhere.”
Castro spoke out against Goldson’s amendment. But Blango said he likes the idea of putting “the onus on the business owner” rather than on the busy local alderman.
“Sometimes people are just tied up,” he said.
“Very, Very Clear”
Fair Haven Alderman Joey Rodriguez asked for clarification on the timeline for aldermanic approval of new sign applications.
It’s “very, very clear” in the ordinance, said Paca. The window would be 30 days, he said.
He went on to speak at such length about the importance of the new plan as a stimulant to business that Goldson sought to interrupt, reminding Paca that he was asked only to answer Rodriguez’s question.
Paca wrapped up his speech.
“Did that answer your question?” asked board President Alderman Carl Goldfield.
“Some time ago, Mr. President,” replied Rodriguez, prompting laughter throughout the chamber.
At that point, East Rock Alderman Matt Smith introduced a new wrench into the works.
The ordinance is worded in a way that suggests the new process is at the discretion of the Department of Public Works, he said. The discussion of Goldson’s amendment might be moot since it’s all up to the DPW anyway, he said. He suggested adding another section to clarify the issue.
The aldermanic chamber lapsed into a momentary silence as lawmakers took in the implications of that conjecture.
Alderman Goldson broke the spell with questions about the significance of emboldened versus underlined text in the ordinance draft.
President Goldfield proposed calling a short recess to sort things out.
Hill Alderman Jorge Perez proposed dealing with the rest of the agenda, then getting back to the item at the end of the evening.
Wooster Square Alderman Michael Smart suggested tabling the awning proposal altogether for another day. Goldfield reminded him he couldn’t do that, since the board was still considering just Goldson’s amendment, not the original item.
Smart said he was just throwing it out there, since everyone seemed to be tossing around recommendations.
Peace, Votes, Mushroom Clouds
The board moved on to other matters, temporarily. Lawmakers made it quickly through a tax abatement item before quickly reaching a new impasse.
This one concerned a proposal from the New Haven Peace Commission, by way of the aldermanic Human Services Committee, that would place a referendum on the November 2011 ballot: “Should our Congressional Delegation vote for the prompt withdrawal of all our troops from Iraq and Afghanistan; for a serious reduction in the military budget; and for the transfer of those funds for jobs and human needs?”
Fair Haven Hieghts Alderwoman Maureen O’Sullivan-Best presented the proposal, on behalf of Westville Alderman Sergio Rodriguez. It was his bill, but he was absent..
As O’Sullivan-Best spoke, an ominous figure in the rear row of the gallery silently held aloft a photo of a mushroom cloud and a book about “World War III” entitled “How The End Begins.”
It was not, he later explained, a commentary on the state of New Haven government, but a show of support for the peace proposal.
The figure was George Edwards (pictured), a former airman turned Black Panther who said he’s trying to prevent nuclear annihilation by working against war.
Taking It Up A Notch
“I support peace,” said Alderman Goldson. “I support referendums.” He reminded his colleagues that he recently supported a referendum on a residency requirement for municipal workers. That proposal was shot down by aldermen who argued that they didn’t want New Haven to become California, bogged down by frivolous referenda, Goldson noted. But now there’s been a “sea of change,” with many of those opposing aldermen now supporting this foreign policy referendum, he said.
Goldson offered an amendment to the peace referendum, one that would have also added the residency requirement to the ballot.
President Goldfield immediately declared the amendment “non-germane and out of order.”
It’s germane because it has to do with referenda, Goldson countered. “I appeal the decision,” he said. He called for a vote on Goldfield’s decision by the full board.
Goldfield called for a recess to see if he was on secure footing according to Robert’s Rules of Order.
Ten minutes later, back in session, Goldfield elaborated on his decision to block Goldson from introducing his amendment. He offered two reasons: It’s not germane; and the residency referendum was already considered and rejected by the board.
Goldson argued for the germaneness of his amendment. He said the residency referendum wasn’t that different from the call to end wars, bring troops home, and spend war money on jobs.
“I suggest my amendment does the same thing,” he said: A residency requirement would “save taxpayer dollars by bringing employees back home.”
A residency referendum is actually more germane to the board and to New Haven than the peace proposal, he argued. “My item more directly affects the citizens than the original item.”
Goldson noted that the evening’s agenda included another proposed referendum, to have voters weigh in on whether the state should lower the minimum voting age to 16. That item is headed to committee.
“We seem to have become referendum-happy,” Goldson said.
“These items are totally different,” objected Elicker. “The only commonality is the word ‘referendum.’”
After continued back and forth between Goldfield and Goldson on the finer points of Robert’s Rules of Order, and a clarification by Alderman Smith that a yes-vote meant yes-I-agree-with-the-president-that-the-motion-is-out-of-order, aldermen voted on Goldson’s appeal of Goldfield’s decision.
The yes-votes carried it, 18 to 5.
“The amendment is ruled as out of order,” Goldfield announced.
Back To Afghanistan
The board then returned to the matter at hand: U.S. foreign policy. And a debate that has played out repeatedly for decades on New Haven’s Board of Aldermen whenever nonbinding foreign policy resolutions arise.
O’Sullivan-Best read from a statement by Sergio Rodriguez asking for support of the peace referendum.
Paca spoke up in support of the plan. “This is bigger than us,” he said.
“I rise in support of peace but in opposition to this referendum,” Elicker said. A referendum is a powerful tool that should be used sparingly, on matters within the scope of New Haven city government, he said.
“This is something that is within our purview,” countered Hill Alderwoman Dolores Colon. If not for the actions of New Haven, “my two children and my grandchildren would have been for sale,” she said, referring to the Amistad ship and court case and its role in the end of slavery.
Goldson, who said he supported the peace referendum, expressed frustration about the course of the deliberation.
“Are we serious about the plight of people in New Haven?” he said. People call the Board of Aldermen “a joke” because of situations like this, where lawmakers vote on Afghanistan but “can’t support something that actually affects” people in town like a residency requirement, Goldson said.
“I rise in support of Alderman Goldson’s call to be serious,” Elicker said. “We’ve spent all night on signs and a resolution” on wars “we have no control over.”
Peace Snuffed Out
As a ballot referendum proposal, the peace plan required a two-thirds vote of approval by the board, or 20 votes. It won only 15 votes. Six aldermen voted against it.
Alderwoman O’Sullivan-Best passed on voting. Asked later about that action, she said she didn’t support the peace referendum but didn’t feel right voting against it since she had been acting as a representative for Rodriguez, who supported it. O’Sullivan-Best voted against a previous resolution calling for an end to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
With the peace plan scuttled, the board turned its attention back to the matter of awnings, signs, and marquees, and Alderman Goldson’s amendment to modify the language in Marcus Paca’s original proposal.
“I withdraw my amendment,” said Goldson. “It’s late. I make a motion to table.”
At 9:30, two-and-a-half hours after the meeting began, aldermen agreed with Goldson and voted 13 to 8—to do nothing.
In D.C., meanwhile, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 269-161 to raise the federal debt ceiling and avoid a financial disaster. There were no votes scheduled on foreign policy.