Bolden: “Less Is More” On Charter Revision

As a special once-a-decade commission decides what changes to add to the New Haven’s foundational laws, City Hall’s top lawyer offered advice: Don’t add. In fact, you should take things out.

“Less is more,” Corporation Counsel Victor Bolden (pictured) told the Charter Revision Commission Thursday night in City Hall. He advised the commission to remove antiquated language and not to add laws covering things like public campaign financing.

The commission’s Thursday evening hearing was part of its ongoing process to revise the New Haven Charter, the 39-article document that contains the most basic laws of New Haven, defining the shape and scope of city government.

The city is undergoing its legally required decennial charter revision process. Aldermen have formed a special commission to examine the charter and decide if any changes are needed. The commission will propose changes to the Board of Aldermen, which, if approved, will appear on the ballot in November, for public referendum.

Bolden offered the commission seven recommendations Thursday night. He and Assistant Superintendent of School Garth Harries both spent a large part of their testimony on what has emerged as the hot-button charter revision issue: whether to move from an appointed Board of Ed to a partially or fully elected board. They both said the city should stick with what it’s got.

“The Charter Dilemma”

The charter presents a fundamental dilemma, Bolden (pictured) told the commission. On one hand, it fosters democracy by allowing neighbors a direct say in the shape of their municipal government. On the other hand, once something is in the charter, it’s very hard to change, even if the “will of the people” evolves.

The resolution of that dilemma is twofold, Bolden said: “Add no more than what is necessary to govern. Remove matters that can be handled through simple legislation.”

Bolden presented seven recommendations based on those two ideas.

• First, he said, amend the language of the charter. He said he supports East Rock Alderwoman Jessica Holmes’ suggestion that the language of the charter should be made gender neutral so as to not exclude any city residents. The city should also remove “antiquated provisions” like references to a “Department of Welfare,” which hasn’t existed for many years.

• Bolden’s second recommendation: Do no add entities into the charter, such as a Civilian Complaint Review Board and the Democracy Fund Board, both suggestions before the commission. It’s better to address those ideas with regular ordinances, which are easier to revise and improve, Bolden argued. Adding intended solutions to the charter can later limit your abilities down the road, he said.

• Bolden also recommended the city switch from two- to four-year terms for mayor and aldermen, to allow elected officials to focus on the job, not on campaigning. He also offered recommendations about reviewing civil service requirements, purchasing reform, and maintaining the current appointment powers in the charter, which grants most appointing power to the mayor, with aldermanic review for the majority.

• Bolden’s final recommendation: Maintain a Board of Ed fully appointed by the mayor.

The Appeal Of Appointment

While the Charter Revision Commission has many proposed changes to consider, one has emerged as the dominant topic of discussion: Whether to move to an elected Board of Ed.

As it is, the mayor appoints all members of the Board of Ed, of which he is also a member.

Proponents of an appointed board argue that appointments take the politics out of education. They argue the process leads to a board comprising people who wouldn’t run for an office, people who are motivated not by personal ambition but by the opportunity to serve. Proponents of a fully or partially elected board argue that it allows for a more democratic body that would better reflect the will of the city and allow for a greater diversity of voices on the board.

In arguing for a fully-appointed Board of Ed Thursday night, Bolden appealed to what he called the “One-Vote Principle.” As it is, with just one vote—the vote for mayor—people can hold a single person accountable for education in the city, Bolden said. This forces the mayor to make education a continuous priority, because the mayor will always have to answer to voters about the performance of public schools, Bolden said.

Bolden said that with an elected Board of Ed, a mayor would have an excuse for failing to improve education: It’s not me, it’s that Board of Ed you elected.

The question of moving to an elected Board of Ed brings up a number of transitional and procedural questions, and could lead to litigation if mishandled, Bolden said. And no data show that elected school boards lead to better student outcomes, he said.

Assistant Superintendent Harries also argued for maintaining an all-appointed Board of Ed. Harries said an appointed board ensures a “unified agenda” and ensures board members are not there for personal gain. He echoed Bolden’s accountability argument, saying that an appointed board “focuses accountability” on the mayor. And he said that an appointed board ensures that the Board of Ed is “aligned” with other “city initiatives.”


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posted by: robn on February 22, 2013  10:06am

Atty Bolden is right about one thing I would take further. Take ALL of the controversial revision items out of the charter and make them simple legislation, accessible to the BOA at all times. New Haven shouldn’t be bound for a decade or more by what a shadow coalition decides they want.

posted by: Morgan Barth on February 22, 2013  10:20am

NHI Readers,

Victor Bolden made several good points in his presentation to the Charter Commission. The Commission has a chance to streamline city government, making it more accountable, accessible, and efficient. I strongly agree with his two most significant recommendations: 1) 4-year terms and 2) Maintaining the appointed Board of Ed.  (I also support reducing the size of the Board of Aldermen—but I realize this is not a viable proposal for this commission.)

4 Year Terms: This would allow the Mayor and the B of A to hold office in a single term long enough to move forward an agenda. It takes at least 2 - 3 years to see through any major initiative. My hypothesis is that 4 year terms would increase civic awareness and participation—each election would be more significant with more issues at stake. 

Keep the Board of Ed: New Haven has a competent, diverse and effective Board of Education. My hope is that the next mayor will be elected (and then either re-elected or put out of office) based on his or her ability to improve our city’s schools.  We want to be able to hold the mayor accountable for success or failure of schools.  An elected (or hybrid) board doesn’t increase democracy so much as it diffuses and dilutes accountability.  Critics have pointed out that NH has the only appointed Board in the state. For points of comparison please look to the respective Boards of Ed on Connecticut’s other cities—they have been political nightmares that have distracted energy from running schools.  (Bridgeport has been a political circus, New London has been taken over by the state, Waterbury…!)

Morgan Barth

posted by: Brutus2011 on February 22, 2013  10:40am

Good article.

I did not read any recommendations for term limits. I agree with a change from a 2 year to a 4 year term for mayor—with the caveat that there be a 2 consecutive term limit. This is important as it will change the incentive(s) for a mayoral candidate.

As far as the appointed school board issue, my sense is that it really depends upon who is doing the appointing or who the mayor is. For example, with Mayor DeStefano I would be against a appointed school board for obvious reasons. With say Mayor Holder-Winfield, I would be more amenable to having an appointed school board because I believe he would heading a more transparent and responsive administration than what we have now.

Anyway you slice it, this promises to be exciting times for New Haven.

posted by: Anderson Scooper on February 22, 2013  11:43am

Four year terms for Alder-people? Yikes!

If Congress can be held accountable every two years, so can New Haven’s Board of Aldermen.

Imagine if that Fair Haven Alderperson had been elected to a four year term, and if he had refused to step down. Or if some scandal enmeshes a current board member. Should the people really have to wait up to four years to remove a wayward politician?

We need more accountability, not less. Four year terms for Alder-people would be a step in the wrong direction.

posted by: SaveOurCity on February 22, 2013  11:57am

An appointed board is not political?!?!  I wasn’t at this meeting, but is it possible to say that with a straight face?  At least with the current mayor, nearly all appointments have been political.  You get these jobs via quid pro quo.  The question is:  Do we want BOE members who are beholden to the mayor or beholden to the electorate?

posted by: Samuel T. Ross-Lee on February 22, 2013  2:05pm

To suggest that a Board of Education totally appointed by an elected politician is not political is ludicrous prima facie.

“Anderson Scooper” is right. If Rosa DeLauaro who represent over 700,000 people can stand for re-election every 2 years, then Alders who represent about 31/2 Blocks certainly can.

posted by: Wooster Squared on February 22, 2013  2:52pm

With all due respect to Mr. Bolden, stick to providing legal services to the City and stop editorializing. Decisions on Charter reform should be left to voters and the officials representing them, not a lawyer who wasn’t elected by anyone.

posted by: robn on February 22, 2013  3:24pm

The problem with a two year term is that its not a term, its a constant campaign…ask Congresswoman DeLauro and she’ll tell you. We should half as many alders for four year terms, full time and paid commensurate with the service. It’s time for New Haven to have grown-up BOA.

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on February 22, 2013  3:54pm

Bolden’s final recommendation: Maintain a Board of Ed fully appointed by the mayor.

And mayor appointed school board is comprised of elite decision makers who are neither representative of the student population nor directly accountable to the public..Mayor appointed school boards also severely limit public input in decisions.Ninety-six percent of school districts in the nation have elected school boards, with a variety of structures and methods of electing members.Also there is no conclusive evidence that mayoral-appointed boards are more effective at governing schools or raising student achievement.In fact Look at what King Bloomberg did to the New York school system with fully appointed school Board.

posted by: Dwightstreeter on February 22, 2013  7:04pm

The Education budget is the single largest category in the City’s budget.
  It’s time to open the process for making decisions by electing members to the Board to create some checks and balances that are sadly lacking in the current Charter based on a “strong mayor” model.
  Having lived under 2 year and 4 year mayors, in the absence of a Referendum or Recall process, I’d prefer to stick with the current 2 year terms for Mayor and Alders.
    New Haven lacks a strong Ethics Code or path to enforcement for bad actors.
    More checks and balances are needed.

posted by: Samuel T. Ross-Lee on February 22, 2013  10:43pm

Constantly campaigning to an electorate of over 700,000 voters is in no way comparable to doing the same to an electorate of a very small city ward. 

Even with less Alders and larger wards a four year term, the equivalent of what the President of the United States gets, is simply not not warranted.

posted by: fastdriver on February 23, 2013  12:20am

We definitely NEED TERM LIMITS for the mayor’s office!. Two 4 year terms sounds just about right! As for the Board of Ed, it DEFINITELY should be an ELECTED one that the VOTERS choose and NOT one person!

posted by: SaveOurCity on February 23, 2013  10:56am

does anyone have the details on when the hearing for public input will be?  It sounds like we need to make our voices heard regarding the importance of removing the appointed school board.

posted by: Eddie on February 23, 2013  10:48pm

I hope that everyone commenting on this thread at least took the time to attend one public hearing on the charter commission.  The hearing that I attended was very good.  The vast majority of the participants called for more democracy on the board of education and appreciated the current size of the BOA.  I wasn’t surprised but the dialogue in the public meetings was very different than what is found from the small group of individuals who write the majority of comments here.

posted by: robn on February 24, 2013  1:09pm


Maybe industrious people who tend to work 14 hours days don’t have time to attend public meetings. Doesn’t make their opinions less valid.

posted by: Samuel T. Ross-Lee on February 24, 2013  4:08pm

Well said Robn!

posted by: Eddie on February 24, 2013  5:27pm

It was not my impression that those who participated in the charter public hearing were not industrious people.  Others who couldn’t make it, still had statements read, which seemed like a good idea.  These public hearings were the opportunities to express one’s opinion to the entire public charter committee.  They were opportunities to play a constructive role in New Haven’s politics.  Moreover, it was an excellent opportunity to hear people’s opinions who don’t take the time to make many statements on these threads. 

Finally the continued calls for a smaller BOA do strike me as a fringe viewpoint.  The NHI did a great job in reporting the strong support in the hearings for the current BOA size.  In contrast, the handful of individuals calling for a smaller BOA have not taken any steps to demonstrate public support for such a change.  I don’t think this means their opinions are necessarily invalid.  I do take it as an indication that their opinions are not widely shared among New Haven’s community.

posted by: robn on February 24, 2013  10:55pm


A BOA with this many members is a feudalistic anomaly and like our fragmented local govt structure in Ct, is completely dysfunctional.

This is not a fringe opinion, it is far more common.

posted by: SaveOurCity on February 24, 2013  11:02pm


How many residents did you hear from at the hearing that you attended (both those who spoke and those who wrote letters)?  Considering that New Haven is a city of 140,000 people, if you heard from less than 140 people than your sample size is less than 1/10th of 1 percent.  If that is the case, than your sampling is not likely to provide a substantially better representation than that of those commenting to NHI. 

Let’s have an open debate and discuss both the benefits and drawbacks of each side before we pass judgement.

posted by: Samuel T. Ross-Lee on February 25, 2013  4:36am


When I served on the Charter Revision Commission a decade ago, I was not merely interested in hearing popular or even publicly expressed views. I wanted to hear the views of all citizens who had them to express.

Your attempt to dismiss some views as “fringe” does a disservice to your understanding of the history of our republic and the value of our democracy. It is not uncommon for citizens to believe that majority rules means the same thing as the ruling majority is always right. But, history has taught us that minority, or what you call “fringe”, views have often proved prescient after the majority has ruled in the opposite direction.

The value of the views expressed here are equal to the ones expressed in public forums or by activist citizens. The present Charter Revision Commission, being aware of these articles written and these comments made, would do well to consider what is being expressed here for the benefit of the general discussion.

posted by: SaveOurCity on February 25, 2013  10:12am

another thing to consider is that other cities are moving in the direction of reducing alders;

Although cost reduction is not really our issue, many of the other issues mentioned in this article are relevant New Haven.

P.S. The bill mentioned in the article receive the 60% approval needed in November