An Opportunity Looms To Change Government

Fewer aldermen, an elected Board of Ed, term limits for mayor: Those ideas might not be what-ifs anymore, as New Haven gears up for a once-a-decade opportunity to rewrite the city’s foundational document.

Aldermen have begun the process of putting together a commission to look at revising the City Charter. The document serves as the city’s constitution, covering fundamental aspects of New Haven: the powers of the mayor, the establishment of various departments, even the city’s name.

Every 10 years, the Board of Aldermen is required to form a special commission to look at the charter, decide if it needs revision, and if necessary, propose changes. With aldermanic approval, the changes are put to the voters in the form of one or more ballot questions.

Among the hot topics the commission is expected to take up this year: Should the city have a smaller Board of Aldermen? Should the members of the Board of Education be elected, instead of appointed by the mayor? With a mayor who is now the longest serving in city history, should there be term limits for local elected officials? (Read further down in this story for a sampling of aldermanic opinions on those possible charter changes.)

Aldermen have begun to create a list of candidates for the commission, which can have up to 15 members. No more than two-thirds of members can belong to the same party; no more than five can be elected officials currently in office.

Aldermen are aiming to submit resolutions at an October meeting of the full board to create the commission and submit the proposed names to the Aldermanic Affairs Committee. That committee will then make a recommendation on who the commission members should be, to be voted on by the full board.

Once the commission is set, it can begin its work, which is expected to take a maximum of six months. The proposed changes would then appear on the November 2013 election ballot.

In 2002, the last year charter revision came up, all the proposed changed were lumped together on the ballot as one up-or-down question. (The vote was down.) Board of Aldermen President Jorge Perez said he hopes that’s not the case this year. “I think big issues should be taken separately.”

Here’s a sampling of aldermanic reactions to three big issues that will likely be considered by the charter review commission, according to interviews with lawmakers.

Shrinky Dink?

Article III, Sec. 3: “The City of New Haven is divided into thirty wards from each of which an alderman shall be elected at the regular election of said city…”

New Haven’s Board of Aldermen comprises a whopping 30 lawmakers. Each is paid only around $2,000 per year for the two-year term as a neighborhood representative, a position that requires attendance at numerous evening City Hall and community meetings, fielding constituent phone calls, parsing the city’s inch-thick annual budget, and countless other time-consuming tasks. For years, people have been floating the idea of reducing the size of the board and increasing aldermanic salaries as a way of creating a nimbler board with more powerful members.

Thomas MacMillan File Photo“I think that the board is not nearly as effective as it could be now and a lot of that has to do with our having so many things to do as members of the board” while holding down full-time jobs, said East Rock Alderman Justin Elicker (pictured).  If aldermen were paid “a small amount,” they could afford to work less and have more time to focus on aldermanic duties, he said.

Also: “It would give individuals on the board a lot more power. Now, if I want to get something done I have to get 15 other people to support me,” Elicker said.

The board should be reduced to fewer than 10 members, he said. That way, members would be stronger, and the board as a whole would be a better check to the mayor, he said. “In order to have an effectively run city we need to have a mayor and Board of Aldermen that are more balanced.”

Other aldermen disagreed about shrinking the board.

“I don’t think that should take place,” said Dwight Alderman Frank Douglass. It’d be too much work for the aldermen to manage larger wards, more constituents, he said. “We got enough to carry right now.”

Thomas MacMillan File Photo“I don’t think that would work,” said Hill Alderwoman Jackie James. “At some point, some community will be disenfranchised” by having a smaller board.

Downtown Alderman Doug Hausladen agreed that voter disenfranchisement would be a possible pitfall to shifting to a small board.

With the current 30-person board, “one thing that’s nice is how represented a lot of neighborhoods are,” Hausladen said. If, for instance, New Haven had only 10 aldermen, corresponding, say, to the city’s 10 policing districts, Newhallville and East Rock would be lumped together, creating the possibility that high-voter-turnout East Rock would overshadow Newhallville, Hausladen said.

“If we consider lowering the number of alders, we very much have to look at how do we maintain the makeup of the board,” he said. 

Haudladen said he’s undecided on the question in general, but offered some ideas about how to best make the change to a smaller board. The way to do it would be to wait until the 2020 national census and subsequent municipal ward redistricting, use the census data to draw new boundaries for a smaller number of larger wards, and make everyone run for office again, he suggested. Having to deal with incumbency was a big obstacle to the recent redistricting process, Hausladen noted.

It might come down to a balance between representation and governance. A 30-person board is better for the former. A smaller board would be better for the latter, Hausladen said.

Hybrid Ed Power?

Article XXIX, Sect. 149: “...On or before the first day of September in every year the mayor shall fill the vacancies about to occur in positions on said board by appointing one or two members, as the case may be, to serve for four years from the third Monday of September following their appointment…”

New Haven’s Board of Education comprises seven unpaid members appointed by the mayor, plus the mayor himself. That gives the mayor a great deal of control over the board, whose budget is also off-limits to line-by-line edits by the Board of Aldermen. Over the years, people have floated the idea of a having instead a board comprising elected members, or a hybrid board, with some members appointed and others elected.

Melissa Bailey File Photo“I think that should be, definitely,” said Alderman Douglass (pictured).

Alderwoman James said the mayor should continue to appoint members, but that his appointments should be subject to aldermanic approval.

Mayor John DeStefano himself has acknowledged a need for the Board of Ed to “relinquish power,” Alderman Hausladen pointed out. Hausladen said he favors a hybrid Board of Ed, with two or three elected positions and six or seven appointees.

“For me, a hybrid system makes sense because we ‘re not getting the representation we need,” Hausladen said. “Parents don’t feel like they’re listened to.”

“I think it should be combined, because it shouldn’t just be assigned by the mayor,” said Fair Haven Alderwoman Migdalia Castro.

“There has to be some check and balance on the Board of Ed,” said Alderman Elicker. “I work well with every department in the city except I struggle with the Board of Ed.”

Proponents of the current city argue that elections politicize education.

That’s Enough, Thank You

Article IV, Sect. 9: “... The mayor, members of the board of aldermen and the city clerk shall be elected at the regular city election to be held under the provisions of this charter on the first Tuesday after the first Monday of November for a term of two years from the first day of January next, and biennially thereafter…”

Mayor DeStefano this year began his record-setting 10th two-year term in office and this week became the longest serving elected mayor in New Haven history. President Perez said term limits for elected officials is a likely topic for the charter revision committee to consider. Possible proposals could also include changing the length of terms.

“I don’t think you should be able to go 20 years,” said Alderman Douglass. He said he’s in favor of limiting a mayor’s tenure to 10 or 12 years. “Move over and let somebody else do it.”

“Twenty years is too much,” Alderwoman Castro said. “There needs to be new blood.”

Alderwoman James disagreed. She said she doesn’t want to see term limits imposed. She suggested that mayoral terms should be extended to four years.

Thomas MacMillan File Photo“I think a lot of people claim that elections are term limits,” said Alderman Hausladen (pictured). “I don’t know if I believe that in our system of government.” Given the current campaign finance system, the incumbent has a significant advantage, especially at the mayoral level, Hausladen said. City contractors give the mayor thousands of dollars that he can spend on polling and opposition research and on “Jeffrey Kerekes being painted as a Tea Party candidate,” he said.

“I don’t think it’s healthy to go this long without a turnover,” Hausladen said. He said he favors term limits, but said he hasn’t yet decided exactly when the cut-off should be.

If a maximum of eight years in office is good enough for the country’s president, “it should be good enough for our city,” said Alderman Elicker. People argue that term limits would mean the city wouldn’t be able to have a good mayor like DeStefano for so long, Elicker said. “I give other New Haveners more credit than that.” There are other people in the city who could do a good job as mayor, he said.

“It’s a good idea from time to time to clean house and bring fresh ideas to the table,” he said.

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posted by: anonymous on October 5, 2012  10:21am

Looking at the experience of other cities, the idea that voters would be “disenfranchised” by a smaller Board - when each Board member currently gets a few hundred votes on average and many do not even show up to meetings at City Hall - is completely off-base.  It would give neighborhoods more power, and also give residents a greater incentive to be involved in what was going on at City Hall.  The current system is a recipe for disaster.

Electing BOE members, promoting public financing, and Term Limits is a great idea.

posted by: Curious on October 5, 2012  10:35am

I support…

1. Fewer wards.

2. Term limits on mayor and aldermen.

3. Hybrid board of ed; appointed and elected.

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on October 5, 2012  10:39am

How about adding proportional representation.Also no Hybrid Ed Power or mayoral control of the BOE.Full elected school board.There should be Term Limits for all.

Alderwoman James disagreed. She said she doesn’t want to see term limits imposed. She suggested that mayoral terms should be extended to four years.

Remeber Elections are considered the bread & butter to a functioning democracy. Yet elections, even can fail the public they can be rigged.Now with out term limits elected official administration turns into a regime and the voice of opposition is held unceremoniously at bay.Also When politicians do not have term limits, they can quickly become drunk with the power, prestige and privilege provided by elected office. This invariably leads to abuses and corruption. It can be argued that incumbent politicians eventually tend to be more concerned with the next election and ensuring victory on election night, than doing what is in the best interest of the people.How about a referendum on Term Limits.I bet you it would win hands down. Term Limits Now!!!!

posted by: PH on October 5, 2012  12:19pm

Allowing the alders to make some of these changes is like having the fox in charge of the henhouse—some of them should be put to a citywide vote.  Kudos to Elicker for taking a principled stand that could cost him his position.  The idea that New Haven needs 30 alders is insanity.  Disenfranchised voters?  New York City has 51 council members—for 10 million people!!  If New Haven were a district in NYC it would have less than 1 representative.  We do not need 30 for a city of our size.  Decreasing the size of the Board would allow members to wield actual power, make quicker and better decisions and provide a real legislative counterweight to the executive authority of the mayor (which many people seem to be strongly in favor of).  They should also be better compensated—they do a lot of work at near-volunteer pay.  If we want informed alders making decisions we should pay them more money to take the position and its responsibilities seriously.  I would push for 11 or 13 alders paid $10,000-$15,000 each per year.

posted by: Drosophila on the Wall on October 5, 2012  12:24pm

I’ve thought for quite a while that a smaller Board of Aldermen would benefit the city in the long run, but I’m not sure that it would translate to either higher aldermanic recompensation (let alone an actual salary) or less work.  The entire Board of Aldermen is currently paid $60,000 a year.  Even if we only had 5 aldermen, that would translate to about $12,000 per ward—that might be enough to limit the number of hours one needed to work in a per-hour job, but it certainly wouldn’t allow aldermen to take a leave of absence from a full-time job for 2 years.  Additionally, making a smaller Board involves having fewer wards, and therefore bigger wards, thus probably increasing the number of neighborhood quality-of-life issues that individual aldermen need to deal with.  (By this, I mean individual streets that need cleaning, sidewalks that need repairing, etc. as opposed to crafting legislation and policy that does good for the city as a whole).

To really be able to pay aldermen a salary that would allow them to work significantly less, we would need to significantly increase the total amount of money we pay to the Board of Aldermen, no matter how small we make it.  Additionally, it seems likely that the only way to effectively reduce the amount of time aldermen spend on quality-of-life issues is to give them a staff, which would cost a LOT more money.  Both of these may be worthwhile in the long run, but I don’t think that shrinking the size of the Board will address them effectively.

For me, the reasons to shrink the Board of Aldermen is to increase competition for the seats on the Board, and to increase the relative power of individual aldermen.  I certainly don’t think our aldermanic elections need to be more vitriolic, but I think that having fewer seats (like, at most ten seats) might result in us having a higher proportion of competent aldermen (I’ll leave it at that).

posted by: robn on October 5, 2012  1:01pm

I support

A ten member paid BOA (they’ll be more effective,  have less political cover, and do better with 13000 constituent than they would have with 4500)

A half elected, half appointed BOA

4 year mayoral terms (we’re now in a continuous election and fundraising cycle that must be broken)

I do NOT support term limits ( we don’t want a continuous stream of rookies; let the electorate throw out the bums; don’t put out a welcome mat for them)

posted by: anonymous on October 5, 2012  3:20pm

What about residency requirements?

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on October 5, 2012  10:55pm

posted by: robn on October 5, 2012 1:01pm

I do NOT support term limits ( we don’t want a continuous stream of rookies; let the electorate throw out the bums; don’t put out a welcome mat for them)

Term limits ensure citizen representatives instead of career politicians.Years of out-of-control spending and shortsighted policies championed by career politicians from both crooked parties have got us into this mess and career politicians can’t get us out.Term Limits now.

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on October 5, 2012  11:02pm

Get rid of the crooked political partronage town committees and replace them with Instant-runoff voting.

posted by: Brutus2011 on October 6, 2012  8:10am

This is a real opportunity for change.

I would like to attend whatever meeting(s) to make my voice heard.

Will schedules be published for the public?

posted by: Stephen Harris on October 6, 2012  12:19pm

Here’s my two cents:

1. We should have fewer Wards. Thirty is unwieldy, 11 is enough.
2. The Board of Ed, City Plan Commission and Board of Zoning Appeals should be elected.
3. If it’s legally possible the Special Act provisions should be eliminated. That would bring our planning zoning in line with the rest of the state.
4. Term limits of 10 years for all elected alders, mayor and board and commission members.
5. Elections every five years. Constant campaigning leaves little time for serious governing.

posted by: AMDC on October 6, 2012  6:19pm

We certainly do need term limits for all political offices. The inertia and apathy created through modern media manipulation lead to ossification of the electoral process. The result is the mess we are in.  AND ... the aldermen bear just as much blame for the mess we are in as the mayor does. They are sheep and the mayor has become entrenched and too powerful to oppose. I wish that , for once, the aldermen would find some courage and do the right thing to save our beloved New Haven.

posted by: Christopher Schaefer on October 6, 2012  8:23pm

“’It would give individuals on the board a lot more power. Now, if I want to get something done I have to get 15 other people to support me,’ Elicker said.” What a pity! Elicker needs support of 15 other people to get his way. “A smaller board would be better for [governance], Hausladen said.”  Only if one defines “governance” as synonymous with autocratic tyranny.  “New Haven’s Board of Education… budget is also off-limits to line-by-line edits by the Board of Aldermen.” So no wonder we keep wasting money on more and more buildings. Note that smaller towns in CT have budget referendums—cumbersome and time-consuming, but definitely lets the Selectmen know how—and how not—they may spend taxpayers’ money. Perhaps certain segments of New Haven’s budget should be put up for referendum. Now THAT would be a real eye-opener! Just when you thought that surely most New Havener’s simply adored your favorite expensive project and –BAM—guess again! “Proponents of the current city argue that elections politicize education.” Like it isn’t ALREADY politicized by being nothing more than the mayor’s rubber-stamp-of-approval group? On term limits: “It’s a good idea from time to time to clean house and bring fresh ideas to the table”. AMEN! And while we clean house here, let’s put term limits on Congress—for the very same reason.

posted by: Morgan Barth on October 7, 2012  9:25pm

I conducted an unscientific study by Googling the websites of the city councils of the first 10 random cities that I could think of.  Most on this list are more populous than New Haven and all (big cities, medium cities and small cities) have considerably smaller councils.

Our current Board of Alderman is too big. A smaller board would lead to better governance AND better representation. Fewer members means that each election actually means something and that each member can actually drive an agenda forward…this means that the person you vote for can actually make an impact as your rep. The cities on the list below may not all represent great governance—but I doubt anyone would suggest their smaller councils make them less democratic.

Hartford, CT: 8
Green Bay, WI: 12
Houston, TX 16
Boston, MA 13
Philadelphia, PA: 10
Oakland, CA: 8
Santa, Fe, NM: 8
Poughkeepsie, NY: 8
Mobile, AL: 8
Cheyenne, WY: 9

posted by: Curious on October 8, 2012  1:19pm

I am shocked that more people don’t have anything to say about this.

To think of the articles on here that get 30, 50, or 70 comments, and then to find that this one has barely more than a dozen…that’s shameful.

People need to wake up and get involved on government.  Do not let this chance slip by!

posted by: robn on October 8, 2012  1:46pm


That would make a great Wikipedia page if you could chart it up and do a per capita formula.

posted by: Bill Saunders on October 8, 2012  6:35pm

Just remember, the last time Charter Reform was on the table, the only significant change was to increase term length from 2 to 4 years, so KING JOHN could run for GOVERNOR without encumbrance…

posted by: ElmJackCity on October 9, 2012  7:22am

Term limits if nothing else.  Mayor should only be allowed a maximum eight years in office, whether in two (2) four year terms or (4) two year terms.

Anyone who says otherwise is benefiting from the current regime.

posted by: Lisa on October 9, 2012  9:57am

I think a term limit should be set.  I agree with whomever posted 8 years - just as the commander in chief.  All elected officials should have term limits.  Change is scary - but it is a good thing.  I also think the B of E should be elected.  And yes, reduce the number of alders please, and pay them more.  A smaller B of A will make it easier to get things done.

posted by: Christopher Schaefer on October 9, 2012  1:40pm

“Anyone who says otherwise [re. need for term limits] is benefiting from the current regime.” How very true! This is most blatant at the federal level:  Solution? Get rid of ALL incumbents and let a new group of “amateurs” take over: they can’t screw up any more than our current “careerist” elected officials have done. And by the time a “public servant” has learned how to turn a political office into a self-enrichment scheme—we get rid of them.  I agree “theoretically” with the idea that fewer alders would “make it easier to get things done”. However, without the balancing effect of more than one functioning political party, fewer alders in a “one-party town” like New Haven would mean that every idea that’s introduced will be approved with little real discussion. Specifically there will be no authentic opposing viewpoint. We already see this in our “one viewpoint” approach to education “reform”.  Thus everyone gets a pat on the back because we have an education program that’s a “national model”, replete with “political correctness”—and we’ll just conveniently overlook the fact that we still have a dropout rate of c. 25%; or that many who DO graduate are still functionally illiterate—regardless of what those utterly meaningless standardized tests might suggest; or that a huge percentage of graduates face a bleak future with a high school diploma that merely shows they squeaked through a program that still is essentially a state-mandated minimalistic college prep curriculum. According to the 2010 census, less than 32% of New Haven County adults have a college degree:  I bet if you break it down to New Haven-only the percentage will be less, and an even smaller percentage if you only count non-whites. So, an ”alternative viewpoint” might suggest that emphasizing a college prep curriculum in New Haven is a monumental waste of tax dollars and other resources that SHOULD be re-directed towards programs that actually will give our kids a future.  But obviously New Haven’s “Party Machine” would disagree vehemently. They still haven’t finished uncorking all the celebratory bottles of champagne for the “great job we’re doing”.

posted by: Bill Saunders on October 9, 2012  2:20pm

I was visiting my Alma mater in Troy, NY this weekend, and found myself talking to a guy having a beer and smoking a cigar outside of a bar.

One of my fraternity brothers introduced him to me as the ex-mayor of Troy.  Given my political antics in New Haven, we certainly started having a lively conversation.

I finally said to him, “So, why ex-mayor—term limits?”

“Yep,” he said, “...and it’s great.  Without term limits I wold never be able to sit out here, have a cigar and beer, and enjoy a regular conversation”

posted by: Anders on October 9, 2012  5:51pm

The most important issues are to revise the charter to allow updating every 4 or 5 years, not 10. We live in rapidly changing times, and this also gives a get out if unintended consequences occur. Voters must be allowed to vote up or down on each change to the charter too.

posted by: HhE on October 11, 2012  7:55pm

More disconnect from Christopher Schaefer.  What Elicker means is to advance a good idea, he has to sell the idea 15 other Alders.  A smaller board of say ten Alders would mean that he would need to have only five such discussions.  The size of the BoA works against positive change.  What I find particularly surprising about Christopher Schaefer’s objection is that Justin Elicker is committed to sound fiscal policy and transparency in government. 

The inflexibility of the overly large BoA serves primary to empower the already overly powerful Mayor’s Office.  So equating Aldermen Hausladen call for a smaller, nimbler BoA with “governance” as synonymous with autocratic tyranny is specious.

The question of the size of the BoA comes down to a choice of priorities.  Do we stay with the current, overly large BoA, where Alders are known and available to their constituents? Do we choose to have a smaller, nimbler BoA, one that hopefully would be more informed and of higher caliber? 

At a minimum, some members of the Board of ed ought to be elected. 

I disagree with the idea that rapidly changing times call for halving the time between charter revisions.  If anything, rapid change calls for more time for reflection.

posted by: Christopher Schaefer on October 12, 2012  5:32am

HhE says “What Elicker means is to advance a good idea, he has to sell the idea 15 other Alders.  A smaller board of say ten Alders would mean that he would need to have only five such discussions.  The size of the BoA works against positive change.” And my point is that allowing only 10 people to decide that something is “a good idea” or a “positive change” is in itself a BAD idea. I’ll reiterate that “theoretically” this could work if there was a balance of political parties to provide alternative viewpoints. However if the city were to be run by only 10 Alders plus a Mayor, all of whom share the very same political party ideology—and all of whom are part of the same Machine that for years has been notorious for its political payback system—then I fail to see how this reduces the Mayor’s power. “Autocratic tyranny” was admittedly rather harsh; “further disenfranchised electorate” would have been a better choice of words. HhE: “a smaller, nimbler BoA, one that hopefully would be more informed and of higher caliber”. And what is to guarantee that they will be more informed and of higher caliber? A higher salary? We have people in Congress who make $174,000 per year, have served for decades yet are utterly ineffective and ill-informed about the ultimate impact of laws they create. I believe this underscores the point that term limits is the most important issue here. I’d give second priority to an elected Board of Ed. And having at least certain portions of the annual budget put up for referendum should be discussed as a potential way to increase citizen participation in the legislative process. “More nimble”? Definitely not. More direct-participation—albeit potentially cumbersome? Yes.