Charter May Allow Immigrants On Commissions

Thomas MacMillan PhotoCome January, an undocumented immigrant might be able to drive to City Hall with a legal license—and then take a seat on the zoning board or City Plan Commission when he gets there.

That could happen if two proposed measures go through in state and local government.

One is the proposal to start issuing Connecticut drivers licenses to undocumented immigrants.

The other measure was proposed Tuesday night as a last-minute addition to recommended changes to New Haven’s foundational laws.

Joelle Fishman (pictured), a member of the special commission charged with recommending revisions to the New Haven Charter, Tuesday night proposed that positions on city boards and commissions not be restricted to electors (registered voters) only, but to any resident of New Haven.

That would mean that people who are not citizens of the United States could take appointed positions in New Haven city government.

If passed, Fishman’s proposal would be the latest in a string of measures New Haven has taken to welcome undocumented immigrants into civic life. Other measures have included the introduction of an immigrant-friendly “Elm City Resident” ID card and of a police police barring officers from inquiring into a person’s immigration status in most cases.

Fishman’s suggestion met with noncommittal responses from at least two of her fellow commissioners Tuesday night. Commission attorney Steve Mednick said Hartford is in the process of adding a similar provision to its charter.

Barring any disagreement from members of the commission, Fishman’s suggestion will be added to a proposed draft of the revised charter that will be made public on Thursday or Friday.

The New Haven Charter includes the laws that create the basic framework of city government, including city departments, the number of wards,  the powers of the mayor. Every 10 years, the city is required to form a special commission to review the charter and recommend what changes, if any, ought to be made. After weeks of work, the Charter Revision Commission is nearing the end of the process.

The commission finished up drafting a new charter and plans to distribute the draft to the public later this week. Then the commission will hold a final public hearing on Tuesday night at Conte-West Hills School. That night, the commission will make any final changes necessary and then send the suggested new charter to the Board of Aldermen. The aldermen will take a look at it, possibly send it back to the commission for more changes, then ultimately decide what, if any, proposed charter changes should appear as referendum on the ballot in November.

Fishman made her pitch for non-citizens on boards and commissions halfway through Tuesday’s meeting of the Charter Revision Commission: “I’m imagining somebody who’s a contributing member of society and has lived in New Haven for many years. Why shouldn’t they serve on a board or commission?”

As it stands now, the charter states that such positions are open only to electors. That’s the case also for department-head positions, said Mednick, the local attorney who is assisting the commission with its work. The charter allows the Board of Aldermen to waive that requirement if, for instance, “the mayor wants to hire an esteemed physician from India” to run the health department, Mednick said. Maybe the same waiver could be allowed for boards and commissions, he suggested.

“Why should the person have to have a waiver?” FIshman asked.

Commission Chair Mike Smart asked Fishman and Mednick to get together on Wednesday and work out suitable language to achieve Fishman’s goal.

“I think that everyone who lives here has an equal stake in the quality of life in our community,” Fishman said during a break in the meeting. She argued that everyone who lives here should have a chance to shape the community through leadership on boards and commissions.

Newhallville Alderwoman Delphine Clyburn, a commissioner, said she hadn’t yet figured out how she feels about Fishman’s suggestion: “I don’t know. I’m really thinking about it.”

“I’d like to hear a little more about it,” said Chairman Smart. “I don’t see any major issue with it.”


The Charter Revision Commission wrapped up a number of other details Tuesday night, including:

• Fishman strengthened a charter change that would require the mayor, when making Board of Ed appointments, to consider the input of individuals or groups representing teachers, administrators, school staff, and parents. The mayor would not be required to take their advice, but the measure would nonetheless give such groups a means of advocating for their interests and creating “public pressure,” Fishman said.

• The commission clarified that the two new “educational districts” from which two members of the Board of Ed would be elected would each comprise 15 wards, if possible.

• The commission worked out how to stagger terms on the Board of Ed if it shifts from seven appointed members to five appointed and two elected.

• Following another suggestion by Fishman, the commission changed wording in the charter preamble to include not just “citizens” but “residents.”

• Following a suggestion by Commission Caleb Klepner (pictured above), the commission agreed to recommend that the superintendent of schools be responsible for making sure the two new student representatives to the Board of Ed receive the proper mentoring and guidance. Klepner initially suggested that the task be carried out by a new Office of Student Representation, but commissioners decided the superintendent could handle it.

“I think the superintendent makes enough to do this,” remarked Clyburn.

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posted by: Curious on May 1, 2013  11:25am

It is worth mentioning that “Joelle Fishman is not just the coordinator of the People’s Center. For nearly three decades, she’s also been the chairwoman of the Connecticut chapter of Communist Party USA (CPUSA)”.

posted by: 32knot on May 1, 2013  12:02pm

Somebody is kidding, right. If you want to be a contributing member of the political process, prove citizenship and register to vote. Undocumented people aside, do we want rich people who can afford multiple resident locations impacting what happens in our city. do we want Donald Trump’s money influencing local issues just because he can buy a house in New Haven???  A ridiculous example I know but it opens a whole big can of worms allowing people who are citizens voting in multiple cities/states. Allowing people who are already in violation of at least one law to participate in setting policies or interpret laws defies logic. No wonder people from other parts of the country laugh when I tell them I’m from New Haven

posted by: IloveMYcity203 on May 1, 2013  12:13pm

What I don’t understand is why doesn’t the city of New Haven help illegal immigrants become legal? In doing so, they will have access to the same resources as a US citizen.

Instead it just seems as if they are trying to give them all these resources, without fixing the root of the problem (help them become a citizen of the US). Isn’t that the logical thing to do?

I am not against the immigrant in any way, and would love to see the law abiding immigrants get to stay without fearing deportation, but let’s really help them. It’s a win win situation. They become a citizen, and the city gets taxes (if they stay in New Haven).

posted by: Noteworthy on May 1, 2013  12:17pm

The requirement to be an American citizen and a registered voter are such low standards for being on a board of this city - that if someone can’t meet those, they shouldn’t be on them. Continuing to dumb down what it means to be an American and participate in American governance and democracy is to make those concepts meaningless. Is that Fishman’s point, as a communist?

Why shouldn’t a non-citizen, non-registered voter be on one of our boards? That’s like asking why a non-Jew, an unconverted gentile, should not be on the board of the local synagogue. If you haven’t bought into what it means to be an American, you don’t belong on boards that shape our communities and control our lives any more than squatting in a vacant multi-million dollar mansion makes it yours.

This idea should be summarily rejected or we should all give up the flag and go the People’s Center for mandatory re-education classes.

posted by: Bill Saunders on May 1, 2013  1:30pm

Government Administration is Citizen’s Work.
Or maybe politic’s is fast becoming another job ‘Americans’ are unwilling to do.

posted by: Joe City on May 1, 2013  1:50pm

The very basic requirement of participating in our republic is citizenship.

posted by: cedarhillresident! on May 1, 2013  3:50pm

I like to think of my self as a liberal minded person in some ways. But I really feel that this is wrong. I understand reasoning behind certain moves being made for undocumented folks. But I truly think that to be part of any part of the government structure and decision making you have to be a citizen. I am even a bit wobbly on the licenses. And I felt differently a while back till I talked to folks that came here and did it the right way and they worked so hard and earn their place like our ancestors did. No I do not think (no matter how long a person has lived here) this is the right move.

Remembering even if the feds get there asses in gear to straighten things out all undocumented folks will still have to meet requirements to stay here. Until then they came here for there family’s illegally and cut the line that many proudly wait in. For reasons I totally get (if it was me I may do the same thing) but I would not expect to be rewarded for breaking the laws of this country.

posted by: leibzelig on May 1, 2013  6:45pm

A proposal that people who are not citizens be allowed to serve on boards and commissions,  suggested by the head of the Communist party, while other committee members take it seriously. This in the same city in which it was seriously suggested that non-citizens be allowed to vote for mayor.
This will keep the right-wing radio and television crazies and Tea Party radicals going for months.
Congratulations, Tom, and doing this story straight. It must have been tough.

posted by: formerNhresident on May 1, 2013  7:55pm

Are citizens of New Haven so disengaged and disheartened with the political process that this even needs to be a thought? First thing you notice at an illegal immigration rally is the all the non United States flags. “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, one nation under God.” No longer recited because it offends non-Christian’snd atheists and those of different cultural backgrounds.

posted by: yale_historian on May 2, 2013  3:11am

“everyone who lives here has an equal stake in the quality of life in our community.”

This is common sense fairness. There is really no counter-argument. Someone who has lived in New Haven longer than I have is not less of a person than I am just because they happened to be born in a different place. A path to citizenship would be great. Meanwhile, we all have the same human rights.

I wonder - what fine upstanding citizen wants to put their name on record opposing equal rights for their neighbors?

posted by: HenryCT on May 2, 2013  8:23am

There are far more immigrants in New Haven who have papers than who don’t. Do adults with children in the public schools not have worthwhile ideas about how the schools should be run because they happen to be immigrants and not yet citizens? Do homeowners or renters not have worthwhile ideas about zoning waivers in their neighborhoods because they are not yet citizens?

The labor movement in the U.S. was energized in the 1930’s hugely by immigrant workers, some of whom did not speak English and others of whom spoke with thick accents. They brought with them their socialist ideals that led to organizing industrial workers and to the great prosperity that this country experienced after World War II. They helped lead the struggles for Social Security, the 8-hour day, end to child labor and so on that made the USA so well respected and emulated around the world. Some of them had no papers.

Gaining citizenship does not magically confer intelligence, thoughtfulness or experience on people. This country has thrived on immigrants bringing physical and mental muscle power. Our neighbors and ourselves. 

Except for a handful of Native Americans in our city, they are our grandparents and great grandparents.

posted by: Noteworthy on May 2, 2013  9:27am

Yale Historian:
What fine upstanding citizen will use their own name? Why don’t you?

HenryCT - That’s a tired specious argument - Ever hear of Ellis Island? The largest waves of immigrants came through Ellis Island, where they passed minimal standards, and signed in. That era is entirely different from today where we have laws, standards and procedures. People may not like them, may intentionally violate them for whatever moral reason/justification they choose. Fine. I don’t think it’s asking too much to have our government which more and more controls our lives, run by those who are citizens and voters. Would you like me to break into your house and then tell you how to raise your children?

posted by: cedarhillresident! on May 2, 2013  3:41pm

All I know is that the feds will be in New Haven if this happens.