For aldermen, it’s a labor of love

As Sunday’s Ward 1 Democratic nominating convention may demonstrate, becoming a New Haven alderman can be difficult.

But once elected, attending city meetings, absorbing complaints, haggling with officials and accepting phone calls 24-7 can be even more trying, aldermen said this week.

“People do this because they want to,” said Elizabeth McCormack, the Board of Aldermen’s Democratic majority leader. “Most of us work very hard. It’s not a 9 to 5 job.”

Alderman Jelani Lawson ’96 said an effective alderman devotes at least 20 hours a week to the job, which pays a $2,000 annual stipend.

“It’s one of those things where you can get 10 messages in one day and then nothing for a few days,” McCormack said. “Some of us are out every night of the week.”

The Board of Aldermen meets twice monthly in City Hall for one to two hours. In addition, each alderman serves on two or three of the 11 aldermanic committees.

Some committees meet more frequently than others; the community development committee has seven scheduled meetings between Feb. 13 and Apr. 2, while the ad-hoc housing authority review committee meets more sporadically.

Historically, the aldermen from Ward 1, which encompasses Old Campus and eight residential colleges, have served on a wide range of committees, said McCormack, who has served for 13 years. Ward 1 Alderman Julio Gonzalez ’99 currently serves on the finance, education and youth services committees.

Ward 1 differs from other wards in terms of its constituents and its alderman’s goals, Gonzalez said.

“The overwhelming part of the constituent population is Yale students,” Gonzalez said. “Their service needs are different and their expectations are different.”

Gonzalez also said Ward 1 has a history of producing aldermen who focus more on citywide policy issues than the representatives from other districts.

Although relations between Ward 1 and the other wards have been strained at times, Gonzalez said it depends mainly on the individual leader’s personality.

“Usually over time, the relations between the Ward 1 alderman and the other aldermen becomes the same as the relationships among the others,” Gonzalez said.

Lawson said the board differs from Yale in its composition and initially can be a challenging experience for the Ward 1 alderman.

“New Haven is a lot more diverse than Yale, so when you get on the Board of Aldermen, you get to see the broad range of peoples and cultures in New Haven,” Lawson said.

The current aldermen have served an average of five years on the board, according to board President Jorge Perez, but recent Ward 1 aldermen have served fewer terms than that.

Perez, the second most senior alderman, first ran 13 years ago to address concerns specific to his ward.

“I love my city, and I wanted to be part of the solution to neighborhood issues,” Perez said.

The board appealed to Lawson because of the opportunity to develop a sense of neighborhood community.

“It’s an opportunity to work with a grassroots community on local projects,” said Lawson, a fourth-year alderman. “It also allows the community to better self-determine itself.”

Because the city is divided into 30 wards, each alderman represents only 4,500 people and many aldermen come to know all their constituents, Lawson said.

Communication, particularly by telephone, is an important part of the aldermanic job.

“The telephone involves aldermen directly,” Perez said. “We have staff for letters and research, but you have to handle the phone yourself.”

But without input from city residents, an alderman’s job would be much more difficult.

“If you don’t put money in the bank, you’re not going to get any interest,” McCormack said. “If you don’t call your alderman, you won’t get any things back, either.”

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