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Honey, Don’t Shrink The Board

by Thomas MacMillan | Jan 18, 2013 8:10 am

(27) Comments | Commenting has been closed | E-mail the Author

Thomas MacMillan Photo Neighbors weighing in on a once-a-decade revision of New Haven’s core laws sent a clear message: Don’t shrink the Board of Aldermen.

That was a nearly unanimous messages that emerged from the testimony of 27 neighbors Thursday evening in an auditorium at the Davis Street School.

It was the first public hearing of the newly formed 15-member Charter Revision Commission.

The newly formed commission is charged with the decennial task of studying the New Haven Charter and deciding if it needs any changes.

The charter is the city’s foundational legal document, covering such municipal basics as the composition of city government and its departments, the length of lawmaker’s elected terms, and even the name of the city.

Every 10 years, the city is required to form a commission to propose any revisions that may be necessary. After approval by the Board of Aldermen, the proposed changes are then submitted to voters in the form of a ballot referendum, which is planned this year for the November election.

Aldermen have given the commission a list of 15 topics that it must consider. The commission may, however, take up whatever other topics it chooses.

Thursday’s hearing was designed to hear testimony from the general public on what changes people would like to see.

Close to 100 people attended, comprising a who’s who of current and former aldermen, neighborhood activists, Board of Ed staff, former New Haven Green Occupiers, and ward Democratic committee co-chairs.

“We simply are here to listen,” said Wooster Square Alderman Mike Smart, the commission chair, as he kicked off Thursday’s hearing.

Three items on the list of 15 emerged as the hot topics of discussion: Reducing the number of aldermen, moving to a partially or fully elected Board of Ed instead of one appointed by the mayor, and reforming the Civilian Review Board.

The majority public response on those two ideas seemed was: no thanks and yes please, respectively. Civilian Review Board reform earned unanimous support and some of the most impassioned testimony.

BOA

Proponents of having a smaller Board of Aldermen argue that the legislative branch could be a more effective check to the mayor if it had fewer, more powerful lawmakers. The aldermen could be paid more and could then devote more of their time to public service.

Almost no one who spoke on the matter Thursday night agreed with that argument. Having a larger board allows people to have a personal connection with their representatives, several people argued. That means more democracy, in their opinions.

If the size of the board were reduced, “it’s no longer a community-oriented town—it’s bureaucratic,” said Bridget Gardner, who lives on Beverly Road. “Don’t take the people’s touch away from dealing with the government.”

“A lot of people feel alienated from the political process,” said Kenneth Reveiz. Cutting the size of the board would only increase that sense, he said.

“The smallness of the wards makes actual democracy possible,” said Jim Berger, who lives on Woodbridge Avenue. Having a lot of small wards means you don’t need a huge political operation to win a seat on the board, he said. “You can run on a shoe string.”

“Heck, maybe make more wards,” he joked. (New Haven did once have 33.)

“I don’t think the city of New Haven is ready for professional politicians,” said Arthur Lindley, who lives on Central Avenue. Having a smaller, professionalized board would change the “close relationship” aldermen now have with their constituents, he said.

Former Westville Alderwoman Nancy Ahern was one of only two people to speak up in favor of having fewer aldermen. Andy Orefice suggested cutting it in half. Ahern’s suggestion was more modest.

“Take a giant step” and reduce the size of the board by exactly one, she said. The oddly shaped Ward 27 should be eliminated, she said.

“There are too many wards in Westville,” she said.“The 27th Ward, since it was created, has looked like a dragon.”

BOE

As it is now, the Board of Education comprises seven unpaid members appointed by the mayor, plus the mayor himself. The set-up is unique in the state. It gives the mayor enormous power over the school board, which has a budget that’s not subject to line-by-line editing by the Board of Aldermen.

Proponents of appointed school boards say that takes politics out of the equation, and allows talented people who might never run for office to serve on the board.

Former East Rock Alderman Allan Brison (pictured), who now lives in Hamden, said that as an aldermen he was part of a budget committee that determined that the education budget truly accounts for some 65 percent of the total city budget, when you factor in debt service for school construction and pensions and health care for school staff.

For the mayor to appoint the people who control that many city dollars puts “too much power in the hands of one person,” Brison said. “We need to shore up legislative branch oversight.”

Brison said he favors a fully-elected Board of Ed. Having a partially elected, “hybrid” board “makes no more sense than having the mayor appoint 10 of 30 aldermen,” he said.

The majority of at least the speakers who showed up Thursday night leaned toward making at least some change in the current set-up.

One woman spoke in favor of an appointed Board of Ed as a means of keeping the quality of board members high. “I do not want just anyone being on the Board of Ed,” she said. “I do not want Joe Schmoes being on the Board of Ed.”

Carlos Torre (pictured), chairman of the Board of Ed, also testified for an appointed board. “We need to keep the politics out of education.” Elected Boards of Ed work “in places with little or no diversity,” unlike New Haven.

“Special interest groups with all kinds of money would come in,” he said.

Torre rattled of a list of successes in the city’s school reform push: plaudits from The New York Times and Education Secretary Arnie Duncan, a $53 million teacher development grant, school construction, the Promise program, a closing achievement gap, reduced drop-out rates.

Westville parent Tim Holahan took the mic immediately after to blast “a troubling culture of unanimity on the board.” The Board of Ed does not have enough debate, and it’s because of the process, not the people, he argued. It’s because the mayor, who appoints the other members, also sits on the board, he said.

Holahan spoke up for a hybrid board, with at least three members elected citywide.

“Everybody thinks, ‘Elections are good. It’s democratic.’ Not so,” said Nancy Ahern. Having an appointed board works, she argued, “extremely well.”

And anyway, moving to a hybrid Board of Ed would require a special act by the state legislature, Ahern warned.

CRB

Some of the most passionate testimony of the night came from people calling for a Civilian Review Board that’s enshrined in the charter and has subpoena power. The current Civilian Review Board, created by an executive order of the mayor, can only call on the police department to investigate itself; it cannot conduct its own investigations.

“I’m supposed to have faith in other police officers policing themselves?” said Jewu Richardson (at left in photo), who is was shot in the chest by a police officer after leading cops on a cross-town car chase. “How could I have faith in something like that when a police officer just shot me?”

Carrie Ellington (at right in photo) unleashed a detailed list of people allegedly abused at the hands of New Haven police.

Natasha Wells (pictured) called for a more effective Civilian Review Board. “I’m begging you to consider this.”

“That was very moving testimony,” commission member Elizabeth Torres told Richardson after the meeting.

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posted by: mm on January 18, 2013  8:37am

I remember well when New Haven had 33 wards, it also had a population substantially larger than now (before the white flight of the late 1960s and early 1970s).  30 members of the Board of Aldermen is far too many to be effective. It leads to too many factions and power plays in a small city.  With a population loss of 35,000 since 1950 and better communication tools for residents to contact government, a 20 member Board would be sufficient to govern.

posted by: Christopher Schaefer on January 18, 2013  9:48am

I was the first to testify at last night’s meeting. I handed out a flier to Commission members and to those in attendance, but only had enough for c. 1/3rd of the c. 100 people who were there. Therefore, for those who didn’t receive a copy, the full text can be viewed here: http://en.seeclickfix.com/issues/359488

posted by: Mark Oppenheimer on January 18, 2013  12:06pm

1. I would love Mr. Torre to elaborate on his claim that elected boards of Ed work “in places with little or no diversity.” Why are elections good for some communities but not for others? And why would, say, an all-white or all middle-class community fare better with elections than our more diverse community? Why might Woodbridge deserve an electoral process but not New Haven? I don’t follow. Please explain.

2. To the people who think the BOA is the right size, I wonder: do you think 30 is the PERFECT number? Not 28, not 32? If the city shrank in size, would you favor shrinking the BOA? It is odd to think that we are in a perfect situation and can’t improve things. Among other considerations: our alders are terribly underpaid. If we had half as many, maybe we could pay these brave, hard-working citizens twice as much.

posted by: Kevin on January 18, 2013  12:17pm

I missed the meeting, unfortunately. Did anyone suggest a hybrid BOE, with a small number of members (perhaps five) elected geographically?

posted by: Curious on January 18, 2013  12:30pm

Allan Brison is ignoring the fact that Unite Here, a powerful national union, is now deeply involved in New Haven politics via Local 34 at Yale.  Many if not most of the current aldermen were elected via the money that poured in from Unite Here.

How would that be any different with an elected Board of Ed?  Why wouldn’t Unite Here make the same push to stack that board, and then secure overly-generous benefits for unionized teachers with few checks?

For the same reason that we don’t want the mayor appointing ever member of the BOE, we don’t want them all to be “freely” elected, either.

posted by: Curious on January 18, 2013  12:48pm

New Haven has 21 defined neighborhoods.

http://www.cityofnewhaven.com/CityPlan/pdfs/Maps/NeighborhoodPlanningMaps/

Why can’t these be our wards?  In cases where one ward has more residents in it than another, either have two alderman for that ward, or have elected block captains for each and every ward that communicate with their alderman on a regular basis?

Why is New Haven stuck in doing things the same way they have always been done?  Think outside the box!

posted by: accountability on January 18, 2013  1:05pm

Funny how things work out. The overwhelming majority of people who addressed the issue of BoA size last night favor maintaining the 30 person board, or at least a large board that keeps small wards so people know their electeds.

NHI? Two comments for cutting it in half. Why the dramatic difference?

posted by: streever on January 18, 2013  1:42pm

accountability:
Those of us who do not favor keeping the board at 30 largely did not bother to attend. We have little faith in the people making the decisions, and feel shut out and dismissed by the factionism that is endemic to New Haven.

We are not organized, we are not advocacy groups, we are just concerned citizens and residents who are tired of the status quo.

It isn’t funny at all. It is sad and exactly what we’ve been saying all along.

posted by: Curious on January 18, 2013  2:27pm

Streever, who were these 100 people, then?

Concerned citizens looking to be involved, or people packed in there by Local 34 to preserve the status quo?

posted by: HhE on January 18, 2013  2:43pm

Entrenched interests digging in.  Don’t forget the wire and range cards.

posted by: streever on January 18, 2013  3:09pm

@Curious
I can’t speak to all of them (I wasn’t present), but I know that there are many people who think a 30 member board is ridiculous, and I also know what anyone can find in terms of CCNE membership and affiliation if they google the names of the people + New Haven who spoke out against reducing the board.

Obviously I don’t know about the other 90 people, but the oft-repeated command to “organize and show up in droves” by CCNE members here in response to any complaint that anyone makes about the governance of our city certainly suggests an answer to your question.

posted by: Christopher Schaefer on January 18, 2013  3:45pm

I was one of the c. 100 in attendance and, with the exception of the testimony by Carlos Torre, I felt that the overwhelming majority of people attending and testifying were just ordinary citizens who love New Haven and want to use this opportunity to improve the way government works. While Mr. Torre’s statement obviously was biased towards maintaining the status quo re. the Board of Ed., his comments were thoughtful and caused me to rethink the whole issue of the Board of Education. Allan Brison provided an important revelation: that Education takes up a whopping 65% of the budget. However, I’m now inclined to agree with the previous comment by “Curious” that an elected Board will not fix this problem—and quite likely will exacerbate it due to the influx of campaign funds by special interest groups. I now believe the fundamental problem here is the city’s budget—specifically how it is created and passed—and this is what I intend to address at the next public hearing.
As for why Wards cannot be identical to identified neighborhoods, the problem goes back to state statutes and the redistricting requirements following each 10-year national census. Each ward must have approx. the same number of residents. The numerous people who called for maintaining 30 wards pointed out that they like being able to know their alder personally, that fewer aldermen would require that it be a full-time position, which would mean that in order to run for alderman one would have to raise large amounts of cash. One person pointed out that not so long ago we had 3 alders from the Green Party!—an impossibility if one had to run a professional election campaign. My own 2 cents, for what it’s worth, was that as long as all of the aldermen belong to the same party, then the only thing that creates an element of give-and-take is the competition for attention between the 30 different wards. A board half that size—but all of the same political party? We might as well just have a Mayor-only form of government.

posted by: ElmJackCity on January 18, 2013  5:37pm

None of these people came up with the novel idea of instituting TERM LIMITS?  Just wait until the next tax evaluation when they’re all belly-hooing about their disproportionate tax bill.

posted by: Christopher Schaefer on January 18, 2013  6:09pm

to ElmJackCity: Some DID mention term limits. It just wasn’t discussed as much as Board of Ed & size of Board of Alderman, & to a lesser extent, Civilian Review Board.

posted by: Claudia Herrera on January 19, 2013  10:34am

Sorry I could’t help it :-)

http://www.wimp.com/humansociety/

posted by: Stephen Harris on January 19, 2013  4:39pm

The BoA should be cut down to 15. 30 is just way to big for a small city. A smaller Board should be more focused and less factionalized (if that’s a word).

posted by: accountability on January 19, 2013  4:54pm

Curious: “Streever, who were these 100 people, then? Concerned citizens looking to be involved, or people packed in there by Local 34 to preserve the status quo?”

Could any comment more perfectly encapsulate the NHI commentariat? Curious, who didn’t go to the meeting, asks Streever, who didn’t go to the meeting, who was at the meeting?

Gotta love it.

I’m also disappointed that the moderator posted the comment. The half dozen anti-union commenters who post here consistently imply that people who disagree with them are somehow mindless or unconcerned non-citizens, or whatever. That’s personal insult.

But I guess it makes sense. If you’re the only people who have the right answers to policy questions and the only people who REALLY have the city’s best interests at heart, why everyone else must be “corrupt” or just robots.

Streever, btw, I lived in Virginia for years, in a county of more than 200,000 people the legislative power of which was vested in a five-member county commission, all full time jobs. If there is a jurisdiction in the US more slavishly devoted to unbridled, unsustainable development, I haven’t visited it yet.

I’ll take our citizen legislators and small wards every time, thank you very much. Good luck down there.

posted by: anonymous on January 19, 2013  10:02pm

There should be 20 Alders (roughly one per neighborhood) and a few at-large Alders who represent all of us.

It’s ridiculous and damaging to citizen participation that our tiny neighborhoods are split up the way they are, and we desperately need people (other than folks like Justin Elicker) who represent the entire city and tirelessly advocate on its behalf besides the Mayor.

Given the nonexistent pay and fact Alders can currently win an election by a couple dozen votes, most Alders are too busy, as volunteers sweeping up trash in their Wards, to take on matters of citywide concern.

The whole city really suffers as a result. Other than Elicker for example, has a single Alder attended board of Education meetings or State transportation hearings?

posted by: ElmJackCity on January 20, 2013  11:46am

I think it is interesting how much mind-share is created on NHI, and its specific limitations.  It reasons well to believe that the likelihood to create a smaller board becomes more possible with the implementation of BOA and mayoral term limits. 

When you break the cycle of patronage, new ideas are proposed and, most importantly, heard.  When you have what seem to be nearly lifetime political positions stagnancy is inherent in the New Haven’s democratic processes.

If you want a smaller board choose TERM LIMITS for all.  You may lose a free dinner or two but, the city itself will prosper.

posted by: Christopher Schaefer on January 20, 2013  4:14pm

“At-large” Alders would essentially mimic a senator, albeit at the municipal level. This would require a more significant re-structuring of city govt., and still would need to be compliant with state statutes with regards to redistricting: each Ward-representing Alderman must represent an equal number of residents, which is the major obstacle to Wards being identical to neighborhoods. Significant restructuring of New Haven’s govt. has been done in the past. For example, we used to have a Board of Aldermen PLUS a Court of Common Council in the 19th century. I only know this because I ran into this bit of historical trivia when doing some neighborhood-related historical research. I have no idea how these functioned, except that both the Board of Aldermen and the Court of Common Council had legislative duties (not judicial, despite the name of the latter). At-large Aldermen would need a full-time salary for them to not be a mere duplication of the current, essentially volunteer, Board of Aldermen. I’m not sure how realistic that would be, given the fact that our city is rapidly becoming a money pit.

posted by: S Brown on January 21, 2013  11:27am

Does ANYONE actually believe that having the mayor appoint the board of ed somehow “takes the politics out of education”? I think there’s a strong case to be made that the opposite is true.

posted by: S Brown on January 21, 2013  11:56am

I disagree with the notion that more alders constitutes better democracy, for the simple reason that in four years of living in Ward 14 I haven’t been able to get either of my last two alders to return a phone call or address an issue of great importance to myself and my neighbors. I’ve usually had to turn to neighboring alders like Joe Rodriguez or Justin Elicker, who were happy to help even though I didn’t live in their ward.

Fewer, BETTER, alders, would be good for New Haven, and the personal touch would still be there. It’s already happening for those of us with worthless union-backed representation.

posted by: Christopher Schaefer on January 21, 2013  12:44pm

You can search for lots of info on the controversial topic of elected vs. appointed school boards. Here are some good, simple intros to the topic:http://www.ehow.com/info_7918929_pros-elected-school-board-members.html http://www.ehow.com/info_12035128_things-consider-running-school-board-election.html http://www.ehow.com/how_2074539_get-elected-school-board.html  HOWEVER, given the fact that 65% of the city’s budget goes toward the school system, I think the underlying issue—which has not been addressed AT ALL—is how the city’s annual budget is passed. You can view the city’s current charter here: http://library.municode.com/index.aspx?clientID=14668&stateID=7&statename=Connecticut In the search box type in “budget” and hit “go”. Then, among the selections that come up, click the following section:  (Title I – Charter)  ARTICLE V. THE MAYOR - New Haven, Connecticut - Code of Ordinances. Open and scroll to Sec. 12. – Duties. Then scroll down to part (b).  Notice that under the current charter the Board of Aldermen has very little involvement in the budget process. It’s sort of a “like it or lump it” approach, giving far too much power to the mayor. THIS is what really needs to change.  I hope to address this, with specific recommendations, at the public hearing on Jan. 31.

posted by: accountability on January 21, 2013  10:59pm

Earth to Anonymous:

1. The current Board of Alderman passed a resolution announcing a city-wide agenda. First time that’s ever happened, and therefor, for the first time, you have a yardstick by which to measure city-wide progress and hold alders accountable.

The idea that only Elicker, whose signature issue was a boondoggle for East Rock and suburban commuters, has the entire city’s interests at heart is laughable. The leadership of the Board—Jorge Perez, Jackie James, Al Paolillo, Tyisha Walker, Claudette Robinson-Thorpe, and Dolores Colon are driving the city-wide agenda. Feel free to disagree with it, or criticize the Board’s progress toward it. But don’t come here and pretend it doesn’t exist.

2. At large seats? How much do you love big money politics and professional politicians? Those races will soon cost as much and be run just like the mayor’s race.

posted by: accountability on January 22, 2013  12:07am

S Brown: No question, Ward 14 has had poor representation for the past three years. Your last alder was awol, and that’s why voters took a chance on Gabriel Santiago, who clearly wasn’t up to the task.

But that’s not an argument for either small or large districts. Look at the incredible misbehavior of Governors [eg. Rowland] or members of the US House and Senate who have been involved in petty corruption and just as awol from their responsibilities as Santiago.

The foibles of a single alder aren’t an argument for either large or small districts. If there’s a case for a bigger board, Ward 14’s troubles don’t make it. In fact, a bad apple in a small board is a bigger problem for more people. The overwhelming majority of current alders are showing up and working hard, and are committed to a city-wide agenda.

Here’s hoping the special election brings you effective representation. Good luck.

posted by: streever on January 22, 2013  5:26pm

accountability:
Statistically, if you only had to scrounge about for 8 CCNE candidates instead of 16, you might not have ANY bad apples.

How about ‘dem apples?

posted by: HhE on January 22, 2013  10:26pm

I think there is an argumargumentfor a smaller board in the poor performance of a member.  Our city may simply not have enough people in its various wards to produce one person who is qualified and committed to the task at hand.  S Brown’s experience speaks to a ward that lacks such a person. 

I find “The idea that only Elicker, whose signature issue was a boondoggle for East Rock and suburban commuters, has the entire city’s interests at heart is laughable.” rather a bit much.  I don’t think anyone has claimed that he is the only person who gives a toss about New Haven.  (If there is, by all means, point it out to me, and I will eat my words with a fork and spoon, or chop sticks.)  I hardly call the street car his signature issue.  More like transparency, putting the breaks on spend-spend-spend-barrow-barrow-barrow, or quality of life issues. 


“Carlos Torre (pictured), chairman of the Board of Ed, also testified for an appointed board. “We need to keep the politics out of education.” Elected Boards of Ed work “in places with little or no diversity,” unlike New Haven.”  Sounds like an argument against debate, or being anything other than a rubber stamp.

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