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.
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.
“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.”
“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.
“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.
“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.