In what was designed to be a quarterly check on the general activity of the New Haven Board of Aldermen, the committee chairmen of the board gathered last night to discuss a wide range of issues, including aldermanic truancy at committee and full board meetings, the highly scrutinized city budget currently under consideration, and the impending closure of the overflow shelter for the homeless at the end of this month.
Board President Jorge Perez directed discussion of the most pressing issues and then opened the floor to each alderman in attendance — slightly over half the 30-member total — to either summarize the most recent work of their committees or commissions or to voice complaints about the upcoming business of the board as a whole.
“I thought the meeting went well,” said Ward 27 Alderman Philip Voigt, chairman of the board’s Finance Committee. “It was an opportunity for everyone to express their concern about attendance or whatever they wanted.”
The unusually high rates of aldermanic absence, especially at public hearings where large crowds of constituents witness the legislative process, was the first and most hotly debated topic of the night.
The Aldermanic Affairs committee, which oversees the rules and workings of the board, requested that attendance records be submitted regularly for each meeting of the city’s manifold commissions and boards, whose members are appointed by the mayor.
Though attendance is already taken at every aldermanic meeting — committee or full board — Perez also exhorted his committee chairmen to remind the members of their respective bodies to show up.
“I’ve been getting a lot of complaints from committee chairs about this issue, and I think we have to deal with it,” said Perez of conspicuous absences, which touched off a debate about whether excused absences should be included in the record.
Ward 26 Alderwoman Lindy Gold said that aldermen should have been more responsible when they agreed to serve on committees and commissions at the beginning of their term and even suggested that irresponsible aldermen should be relieved of their duties.
“Maybe you should rethink serving on committees,” she said, in reference to frequently absent or only momentarily present members. “How do we let people roll in, make a cameo appearance, and leave?”
Other members of the board rejected such punitive action, but Perez said that the board’s current revision of its rules is an opportune time to address with such matters.
Concerning the budget, Voigt outlined the principal sticking points of the current proposal: the possible privatization of the city’s Department of Traffic and Parking, some treatment of the Fire Department’s overbudgeting, the effects of social and municipal service cuts on city residents, and the $5.5 million in union concessions built into the budget.
Ward 4 Alderwoman Andrea Jackson-Brooks requested a list of government mandated services and those programs that legally could be cut under the budget duress New Haven faces at present, prompted by complaints from her constituents about a noticeable dropoff in basic municipal functions.
“Services are already being cut back,” she said, citing trash removal and street cleaning as primary resident concerns. “Somebody needs to look at this system.”
The final major subject of contention is not a new one: the fact that New Haven shoulders the burden of homelessness for the entire region.
With the overflow shelter scheduled to close on April 30, the city’s large homeless population — men, women, and children — is once again a hot-button issue after the Tent City on the Green this fall and continuing debate over the city’s “no freeze” policy during the winter months.
Some aldermen even suggested that New Haven look into a lawsuit against neighboring towns who currently force their poor or vagrant to New Haven, once municipal aid at home has run out.
“We need to take up that fight again,” said Voigt.