The Democracy Fund tried, with no success, to hold its first meeting in months, but it got a new director determined to inject life into the body.
The Fund, a seven-member board that runs the city’s municipal public-finance system, needs four people to reach quorum and meet. With exactly four members currently (three other spots remain vacant), the body can’t meet if a single person doesn’t show up – which is what happened Wednesday night. It hasn’t mustered a meeting since October.
The new administrator, Alyson Heimer, was on hand at the board’s almost-meeting at City Hall Wednesday night. She spoke with the Independent about her goals.
The Democracy Fund approves and hands out government matching money to the campaigns of qualifying mayoral candidates. New Haven is the only city in Connecticut with a municipal financing program, which aims to enable more candidates to compete for public office and limit the influence of special-interest donors. The Fund became a significant election issue in the 2013 Democratic mayoral primary, with Justin Elicker and Kermit Carolina opting in and Henry Fernandez and current mayor Toni Harp opting out.
Heimer, who grew up in New Haven, said her interest in clean elections stems from her previous experiences working on political campaigns for people who have participated in public funding for elections. Prior to joining the Fund, she worked as a press secretary for the Connecticut House Democrats. The Democracy Fund post, which is part-time, pays $26,000 a year.
“I’ve always found the idea of publicly financed campaigns to be very interesting and a really great way to enable candidates to spend more time talking about issues and less time asking people for money,” Heimer said. “This has always been something I’m really passionate about, and it’s a great benefit to New Haven and I’m really excited to be a part of it.”
On the top of Heimer’s agenda is actually filling the board so it can function. The board had a number of topics it wanted to discuss Wednesday night, including outreach efforts, the 2015 budget, and a presentation to the Board of Alders. Members informally discussed some of these issues, but because no quorum was reached, they could not vote on any issue and decided to push the meeting to next week.
According to chair Jared Milfred, two people have applied to serve on the Fund board over the past few months, but Mayor Toni Harp has declined to nominate both of them.
Tomas Reyes, New Haven’s chief of staff, said Wednesday night that the mayor hasn’t actually yet made a decision about these candidates.
“Decisions just simply haven’t been made as to who the mayor would like to appoint. It’s not that she’s unwilling to appoint,” he said. “We’re waiting for the mayor to decide which of the individuals she wants to appoint.”
Heimer said she sees the long confirmation process as a potential deterrent to joining the board. Milfred originally applied to be on the board in November 2013; he wasn’t confirmed to join the board until July 2014, in a process taking over half a year. For the few months before he was confirmed, the board couldn’t even meet because it didn’t have enough members to meet quorum by definition.
While the board tries to get a quorum, Heimer has some other policy goals. She wants to make it easier for candidates to use the Fund by reducing the paperwork. Currently, participating candidates have to submit different paperwork about campaign contributions both to the State Elections Enforcement Commission (a Connecticut state body) and to the Democracy Fund. Heimer called this “double reporting” a challenge for campaigns with limited resources and time.
Additionally, the Board of Alders has raised the question of extending public financing to other races including alder races, and has asked the Fund to provide further information about the potential expansion. Heimer said she hopes the Fund board will be able to discuss these issues next Wednesday, when it tries to meet again.