New Haveners heading into voting booths Nov. 5 will decide not only who the next mayor is, but how much power he or she will wield.
That’s because the Nov. 5 ballot will include two referendum questions on whether and how the city should overhaul its foundational laws, as enshrined in the New Haven Charter.
The first question is whether or not the city should move from a fully appointed Board of Ed to one that includes two elected members and two non-voting student members. See here, here, here and here for more about this question.
The second question is an omnibus query containing many other changes to the charter, both large and small. The changes in Question Two include referring to aldermen as gender-neutral “alders,” officially establishing the police-oversight Civilian Review Board, and establishing city government by function rather than by department. And much more. The only choice for voters is to say yes or not to all of them as a package. (Have a suggestion for the adjectival form of “alder” if the noun becomes official usage? Cast your “True Vote” or else suggest other options in the comments section at the bottom of this story.)
Probably the most significant shift proposed in Question Two is the new requirement that the Board of Alderman approve top mayoral staffers, the way the U.S. Congress must approve presidential appointees. This would be a move away from New Haven’s “strong mayor” form of government, under which the mayor has been able, on his own, to appoint fire and police chiefs and four people who supervise the day-to-day running of the city.
The proposed changes to the charter would be the most significant in at least 50 years, since the 1957 passage of Connecticut’s Home Rule Act, which empowered cities to adopt their own charters. Municipal charters had previously been drafted by the state legislature.
New Haven voters now face the choice of changing the charter, prompting a number of important questions:
Is this a good idea?
How would the city be different under the proposed revised charter?
How did we get here anyway?
Read on for some answers, and some more questions.
Start at the beginning. What’s this charter thing again?
The New Haven Charter is like the city’s constitution. The document contains the city’s most basic laws. The charter currently covers matters like the number and name of city departments, the powers of the mayor and Board of Aldermen, even the name of the city.
Every 10 years, the city is required to take a look at the charter, see if it needs revision, and if so, to propose revisions, in the form of ballot questions. This year, the city created a special Charter Revision Commission, which included community leaders and several aldermen. After a number of public hearings and some extended deliberation, the commission came up with a number of recommended charter changes.
The commission then submitted the proposed changed to the Board of Aldermen, which requested some further review then voted to put the changes on the ballot as two questions.
Why two questions? Why not combine them into a single question?
Aldermen are trying to avoid what happened 10 years ago, when all proposed charter changes were folded into one ballot question and a couple of controversial proposals scuttled the whole thing. This time, they separated out the Board of Ed question because it’s seen as the most controversial. Even if people don’t go for a hybrid Board of Ed, the charter could still be revised in other ways, and vice versa.
Wait. Laws change all the time. Why do we have to—I mean, get to—vote on these changes?
Just like the federal government, New Haven has several types of laws. It has the charter, which is like the U.S. Constitution, and it has ordinances, which are like federal statutes, created because of power granted in the charter. The Board of Aldermen can create ordinances on its own, but the charter can’t be changed without a referendum vote.
I’ve already heard a lot about the hybrid Board of Ed proposal. But what’s all this stuff in Question 2?
It bears repeating that New Haven is the only municipality in Connecticut with a fully appointed Board of Ed. Harford’s school board has five appointed and four elected members. All other Connecticut towns and cities have fully elected school boards, according to Kevin Maloney of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities (CCM).
As for Question 2, well it’s all laid out right here.
TL;DR. Give it to me in English, and briefly.
OK. The biggest change, arguably, would be to the balance of powers between the city’s legislative and executive branches, the Board of Aldermen and the mayor. Mayoral appointees to most boards and commission would require aldermanic approval. The mayor would also need approval for his appointments for police and fire chief as well as for four “controller” positions: chief administrative officer, head of economic development, head of community services, and the budget director.
“That was a big issue in terms of altering the relationship” between the mayor and aldermen, said Steve Mednick, the lawyer hired by the city to help the Charter Revision Commission. Mednick is a former alderman and a former city corporation counsel; he has spent decades in private practice specializing in municipal law. The mayor would “have to be mindful of the desires of the Board of Aldermen,” he said.
The charter would prevent the mayor from circumventing the aldermanic approval process by appointing an “acting” staff member indefinitely. And it would prevent aldermen from stalling in order to keep a position totally vacant, as sometimes happens at the federal level.
Otherwise, the change would give the city a “similar separation of powers as Congress,” Mednick said.
Hmm. I’m not sure what to think of this. What do other cities in Connecticut do?
It varies. Mednick said that in Hartford, the City Council must approve all department heads. In Waterbury, the default is straight mayoral appointment, unless aldermen object. In New Britain, the mayor has full appointment powers.
Maloney, of the (CCM) said legislative approval of executive appointments is “very common but not universal” in Connecticut towns and cities. “My sense is that the system is not controversial, councils have been doing this in other communities for some time.”
OK. What else is in Question 2? What’s this about the BZA?
Well, along these same lines, the charter would change the Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) so that it would have two members appointed by aldermen and three members appointed by the mayor and confirmed by aldermen. That’s a change from the current set-up, in which the mayor appoints all members. The mayor would also be prohibited from participating in the zoning functions of the City Plan Commission.
This proposal is in response to some public testimony the commission heard. People said they want greater public participation and more transparency when it comes to planning and zoning decisions.
Didn’t people also ask for more power for that committee that looks into complaints about cops?
The Civilian Review Board (CRB). Yes. The commission responded by proposing that the CRB be enshrined in the charter. It currently exists only by executive order of the mayor. Putting it in the charter would mean that it can’t disappear if a new mayor decides he or she doesn’t want it. It “constitutionalizes the authority,” as Mednick (pictured) put it. “No one can question the legitimacy of the Civilian Review Board.”
People asked the commission to give the CRB subpoena power, but state law doesn’t allow that. The Board of Aldermen, however, does have subpoena power. Theoretically, if the CRB really wants to investigate something, it could ask the Board of Aldermen to subpoena people. (Oddly, the director of public works also has subpoena power in the charter.)
It looks like the new charter would have 15 articles instead of the current charter’s 39. What gives?
The proposed new charter would be totally restructured to make it more “user-friendly,” Mednick said. Language that’s now repeated in each section would be consolidated. And there would be a glossary of terms, to put all definitions into one place.
Most significantly, the charter would be organized by functions instead of by departments. For instance, instead of saying the city needs to have a department of libraries, it would say that the city needs to provide library services, and leave it up to the mayor and the aldermen to decide how to do that.
This change would make the city charter more like the U.S. Constitution, which gives lays out the government’s powers and responsibilities, but doesn’t list a bunch of departments. “HUD [the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development] isn’t in the Constitution,” Mednick observed, for example.
As it is, the charter includes outdated references like one to the Department of Welfare, which hasn’t existed in years.
The new charter would theoretically allow for all kinds of interesting reorganization by ordinance. The city could, for instance, decide that the Board of Ed should be in charge of recreation, instead of the parks department. Or it could decide that the police and fire departments should be merged into a super-department of protective services. Any changes like this, however, would require a legal opinion stating that the city would not be neglecting its city-service responsibilities as enshrined in the charter.
And many of the department administrator positions are listed in the charter. So, for instance, you might be able to do away with the public health department, but not with the Director of Public Health position.
“It gives greater flexibility to the government to meet the needs of the people,” Mednick said. “It gives alders the ability to fashion the government in the context of the time in which they’re governing, without abrogating the requirements of the charter.”
Whoa, wait. “Alders”? We’re giving the government over to a bunch of flowering shrubs?
Ha. No. “Alders” is the proposed gender-neutral term for what the charter now refers to as “aldermen.” In the proposed new charter, all references to “aldermen” have been changed to “alders.”
Incidentally, this proposal presents a particular problem for people who write about the Board of Aldermen a lot: What’s the adjectival form of “alder,” the equivalent of “aldermanic”?
Uh ... Alderic? Alderian? Alderoid!
The new charter would also add “gender identity or expression” to the preamble, which expresses the city’s intention to include people “in all aspects of city life” without regard to things like race, color, religion, sex, and age.
Speaking of including people, doesn’t the proposed charter say something about residency and city workers?
Yes. The new charter would establish a residency preference, giving New Haveners an extra 10 points on any entry-level civil service examination. That would be in addition to points already given to military veterans, not to exceed a total of 15 points. New Haveners wouldn’t have any advantage on promotional exams, just entry-level tests.
This isn’t really new. The preference already exists by ordinance. Putting it in the charter would make it more permanent.
But it would be rare in Connecticut. “It is highly uncommon for charters to make any mention of civil service examination,” said the CCM’s Maloney. That is usually done internally by policy and overseen by HR.”
OK ... Anything else?
Just a few other items:
In the event that all the members of the Board of Aldermen belong to the same party (as is currently the case), the charter would allow the board to appoint a “minority leader,” even though no minority actually exists. In those circumstances, the charter would also allow the city to appoint members of the majority party—if it’s the only party— to seats on boards and commission that would otherwise be reserved for minority party members, unless doing so would violate the overall party makeup requirements of that board.
Also, the new charter would clarify the definition of “elector” and use it to replace a variety of terms dealing with “residency.” The new charter would give the city more flexibility to create and change required qualifications for a variety of positions, including the fire chief. And the new charter would change laws on procurement by retaining all the language on things like fairness, but leaving the procurement processes themselves to be created by ordinance. If the new charter goes through, the city would have six months to create new ordinances covering things like qualifications and procurement.
Thanks. When do I vote again?
If it passes, the new charter would take effect on Jan. 1, 2014.