Hackles rise over format of charter reform question

New Haven’s charter reform proposals will go before the electorate this fall, but not without continued controversy surrounding mayoral and aldermanic term lengths.

City voters will consider fundamental changes to the city’s hiring policies and campaign finance laws this November as part of a referendum on charter revision.

But several aldermen said the way the changes will be presented — voters must approve or reject the entire slate of wide-ranging revisions as a single unit — is designed to bury another more controversial proposal that would increase the length of the city’s mayoral term from two to four years.

An alternative ballot arrangement proposed Tuesday night would have presented voters with two questions — one specifically on the term switch and another for the rest of the changes. But under the plan approved Tuesday, voters will be faced with a single unspecific question on Nov. 5: “Shall the proposed changes to the city charter be approved?” No further information will be provided.

Alderman Vincent Mauro accused his colleagues of caving to pressure from Mayor John DeStefano Jr., who has backed the term-length increase as a means of cutting back on campaign costs. The board approved the measure 14-10.

“This is clearly meant to hide the four-year term question from voters,” Mauro said. Mauro and other opponents of the switch have said it will make the city’s chief executive less accountable. But if voters reject the mayoral term length increase, a proposal to double the lengths of aldermanic terms from two to four years will also fail.

DeStefano’s chief of staff, Julio Gonzalez, said presenting voters with a single question will force them to examine all the changes carefully and prevent undue interest in specific areas.

“It will make it easier for the voters to focus on the charter as a whole,” Gonzalez said.

Alderman Carl Goldfield said voters might have ignored the less controversial changes completely if two questions had been placed on the ballot. Goldfield called Mauro’s suggestion that he and other supporters had caved under pressure “inappropriate.”

A commission of 15 city residents — which included Alderwomen Joyce Chen, Nancy Ahern and Lindy Lee Gold — began considering several proposed changes to the charter in April. Under a provision inserted into the charter during the last round of revisions, the city must review the document at least once every 10 years.

During the summer, the commission solicited input from residents at two public hearings and sent its report to the Board of Aldermen in August.

Chen, who opposed the ballot arrangement, said that sending voters a single question will jeopardize the work the commission was able to accomplish.

“It would be a shame if the voters rejected the entire set of revisions because they disagreed with one of the changes,” Chen said.

A majority of the commission’s members, as well as DeStefano, wanted the review to be completed quickly so the changes could be put before voters on Election Day. If the commission had taken more time, supporters of a speedy review argued, the city would have been forced to hold a costly special election focusing on charter revision.

As part of the package slated for the November ballot, voters will also consider giving the mayor express authority to issue executive orders and appoint “unpaid advisory councils.” In addition, the revised charter would require the chiefs of the Fire and Police Departments, and the city’s Director of Human Resources, to hold bachelors’ degrees. Several parts of the governing document would be rewritten in simpler language to make city government more accessible to residents.

Over the course of the summer, the commission rejected proposals that would have changed city ethics regulations, reduced the size of the Board of Aldermen, and mandated the creation of a Civilian Review Board to oversee the Police Department.

The commission also rejected new language that would have given the Board of Aldermen increased power to oversee mayoral appointments.

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