Aldermen want their own attorney

After a suggestion from Ward 17 Alderman Matt Naclerio, New Haven’s Charter revision commission will consider allowing the Board of Aldermen to hire its own full-time independent lawyer.

Naclerio said that members of the Board of Aldermen are often unable to obtain independent legal advice from the corporation counsel’s staff, which is appointed by the mayor.

Naclerio’s proposal is the latest in a long list of suggestions for the 15-member commission, which is slated to begin its decennial review of the city’s constitution within the month and report back to the Board of Aldermen by June 21.

Under the current city Charter, the corporation counsel is appointed by the mayor but is charged with serving elected officials in both branches of city government.

Even though the Board of Aldermen may currently hire its own lawyer on a case-by-case basis, Naclerio said the arrangement creates too many potential conflicts of interest.

“Under the current Charter, the corporation counsel is hired by and subject to the authority of the mayor,” Naclerio said Monday. “So it’s a conflict of interest for attorneys who are appointed by the administration to be rendering advice to the Board of Aldermen.”

Current Corporation Counsel Tom Ude said there are good reasons the city does not employ two separate staffs of lawyers.

“Under the Charter my office is responsible to provide services to the mayor, city department heads and the Board of Aldermen,” said Ude, who will himself serve on the Charter commission with several other lawyers. “And that’s the way it has been in the city for over 100 years. There are benefits to having the different branches of the city working together.”

Ude said the city would suffer if the two groups of lawyers disagreed on how to best represent the city in a lawsuit or take action on some other legal matter.

But Naclerio said there are many times when the Board of Aldermen might need its own lawyer. He also pointed to the fact that, while the Board may currently hire its own temporary legal counsel, such appropriations must go through the body’s president.

“The current arrangement doesn’t give the average alderperson the ability to seek out independent legal advice on many issues,” he said.

Naclerio said the fact that the two legal staffs might disagree actually indicated the need for an independent counsel.

In addition to Naclerio’s proposal, members of the Board of Aldermen have asked the commission to consider reducing the number of wards in the city, and two have asked for the creation of city campaign-finance laws.

Mayor John DeStefano Jr. is petitioning the commission for an increase in the length of the mayoral term from two to four years, and several aldermen have asked that the charter be rewritten in “plain English” to eliminate many hard-to-understand statutes.

At a Board of Aldermen committee meeting Monday, William Celentano, a Republican from New Haven’s East Shore, was appointed to be the commission’s fifteenth member.

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