UP CLOSE | Does board size matter?

Just seven months after Mayor John DeStefano Jr. swore former Ward 1 Alderman Ben Healey ’04 into his new position on the city’s chief legislative body, Healey decided to shake things up.

“We could just as easily serve our constituents with a smaller board size,” he wrote in a March 2002 letter to the rest of the 30-member Board of Aldermen. “It is a struggle to organize colleagues towards any sort of unity that might counteract the power of the city’s executive branch and provide some meaning to an underutilized system of checks and balances.”

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And though Healey’s proposition was a pertinent suggestion — the board was beginning its decennial process of assessing possible reforms to the city’s charter — the proposal fell flat. The notion of a freshman alderman proposing such radical changes ruffled feathers on the board, and though Healey’s letter was mentioned in closed-door charter reform meetings, it never gained traction.

Charter reform surged ahead, and a proposed amendment to decrease the number of New Haven aldermen did not appear on the ballot that November.

A smaller board was not then in the stars for New Haven. But, with the deadline for charter reform again drawing near, many aldermen agree that the issue will remain on the horizon.

TAKING CARE OF THE WHOLE CITY

This much is clear: New Haven’s legislative body is undeniably large.

According to the National League of Cities, the average size of a municipal legislative body is between five and nine people.

And while that average increases slightly in New England — the Elm City was not the only colonial city that favored town meeting–style government — New Haven still has the second-biggest legislative body in Connecticut. Bridgeport has a 20-person council; Hartford has a nine-person one. Stamford’s council is larger than New Haven’s, composed of 40 individuals, but Stamford is nonetheless divided into 20 districts.

Hartford Councilwoman rJo Winch said she could not ultimately say whether the New Haven Board of Aldermen would benefit from a smaller size. But Winch, the Democratic majority leader on Hartford’s council, maintained that she appreciates the more compact size of Hartford’s City Council. A larger legislative body is more susceptible to being governed by personal relationships and distinct dealings, she said.

“On our nine-person council, you have fewer people to deal with,” Winch said. “Because of human nature, when people like you, they’ll support your ideas. When they don’t like you, they won’t work with you. If you have 30 people to go through, that makes things more difficult.”

Additionally, Winch said, a 30-ward legislative board could also be more susceptible to disparities in service from their representatives. Members of the Hartford City Council are elected at-large, and for this reason, all councilmen are responsible for all the problems facing the city, she said. The structure of the council requires that a problem with potholes in one neighborhood must become a problem of the entire city. Instead, on a larger board with many different districts, the problems facing one neighborhood can be ignored by the other representatives of the city.

“On a bigger board, potholes and sidewalks are not being done if the residents do not have a good relationship with their alderman,” Winch said. “But on our board, each one of us takes care of the whole city.”

New Haven, Healey had claimed in his proposal to the city, is not afforded this luxury.

CUMBERSOME GOVERNANCE

School of Management professor Douglas Rae, a former city chief administrative officer, criticizes the Board of Aldermen for pursuing what he calls narrow-minded measures rather than policies beneficial to the entire city.

“The Board of Aldermen has two obvious defects: one, it’s too big, and two, no members are elected at-large,” Rae said. “A board that has such an attachment to these very parochial interests is just not good for the city. They’re not able to look at the broader picture.”

In the spirit of addressing that same problem, Healey’s 2002 letter to the Board of Aldermen at the beginning of his first term was a theoretical analysis of the problems he saw with the existing structure of the board. Healey and three other aldermen — Ward 21 Alderman Willie Green, Ward 2 Alderwoman Joyce Chen ’01 and Ward 27 Alderman Philip Voigt — submitted the letter to the Board of Aldermen’s charter revision commission. Voigt suggested that the Board of Aldermen reduce its size to 15 members. He and Healey agreed that the existing structure of the board made governance truly cumbersome.

Healey gained empirical substantiation of his formerly theoretical belief in May of 2003, when he famously attempted to pass a piece of legislation that would formally recognize domestic partnerships held by New Haven residents. The proposed ordinance spurred some of the most contentious debates seen in the city’s aldermanic chambers in recent years. After months of committee hearings and outspoken exhortations from residents on both sides of the issue, many expected that the outcome of the highly-contentious vote would be close.

And it was. The domestic partnership legislation fell short by one vote, 15-9. Four aldermen decided not to cast a vote, and two were absent from the meeting. The legislation needed to garner 16 votes to have claimed a majority of the 30-person Board of Aldermen.

“I don’t know what to expect anymore,” Healey told the News after the Board of Alderman meeting in 2003. “People changed their votes on me so many times, my head is spinning.”

The vote on New Haven’s domestic partnership ordinance was a textbook example of the confusion and complications that arise with an unusually large legislative body.

‘PAROCHIAL NEIGHBORHOOD INTERESTS’

But the structure of the board — a structure that affords Yale students a seat on the city’s legislative body — is exactly the reason why Ward 1 aldermen have traditionally experienced such a difficult time passing legislation.

Ward 1 aldermen, who do not have the need of dealing with meat-and-potatoes issues on Yale’s campus, are expected to be both the “high-minded thinkers” on the board and the only aldermen with ample freedom to tackle the sweeping, systematic challenges facing the city. Yet the sheer size and partisanship of the Board of Aldermen causes the lofty goals of the Ward 1 alderman to become hampered by the narrow focuses of other board members.

In 2006, for example, when former Ward 1 Alderman Nick Shalek ’05 proposed an expansion of the city’s existing living-wage ordinance — a progressive change for city employment — his suggestion was brought up in committee discussions but fizzled out before it was brought up to vote before the full board.

Many of these types of sweeping proposals are typically struck down by a board full of representatives more focused on the basic concerns of their about 4,000 constituents than on the more far-reaching predicaments taking place on a city-wide scale. And over the years, several separate Ward 1 aldermen have indeed identified a flaw in the board’s structure, calling for a representative body that would no longer “think of parochial neighborhood interests before the good of the entire city,” as Healey’s letter put it. Former Ward 1 Julio Gonzalez ’99 also proposed the idea of scaling back the size of the board from 30 to 15 aldermen in 1996.

But the election of Mike Jones ’11 in last Friday’s Democratic endorsement vote signaled a shift in the nature of the relationship between the typically broad-minded Ward 1 seat and the other 29. Jones, who has stated that he is “first and foremost the Yale alderman,” won the Democratic endorsement over Katie Harrison ’11, the candidate who asserted that her allegiances would lie first and foremost with the city, and not with Yale.

“If I was lucky enough to be elected by the constituents of Ward 1, I think ultimately the people to whom I would have to answer are just those folks — the constituents who voted me into office,” Jones said last month.

Jones ran on a notably ward-centric platform: unsafe streets and the lack of opportunities for civic involvement. Unlike his Ward 1 predecessors, Jones said he had no intention to bring expansive change to the city, acknowledging that all of his goals should be achievable within a two-year term.

A 370-year-old history of representation permits him that choice.

‘CURIOUS TRANSFORMATIONS’

When John Davenport founded the Colony of New Haven in 1638, he had a distinctive vision for the settlement’s chief legislative body: White. Male. Land-owning. Puritan.

And big.

Christopher Kutz ’89, a former New Haven legislative aide, wrote about the foundation and evolution of the city’s political establishment between in his senior-essay-turned-book, “Democracy in New Haven: A History of the Board of Aldermen 1638 to 1888.” Kutz asserts that New Haven’s governing body was always meant to be inclusive — or, at least, comparatively inclusive.

Davenport’s proposed organization, the “Generall Court,” would incorporate a wide cross-section of (white, male, religious and wealthy) public opinion in a populist style of town meeting governance. In fact, members of New Haven’s electorate were fined if they did not appear at town meetings.

“The ideals and principals involved lie at the foundation of our modern, Democratic experiment,” Kutz wrote. “Through curious transformations … Davenport’s rigid theocracy paved the way for New Haven democracy.”

And while things have since changed — New Haven’s lawmakers no longer exclude minorities, enforce Scripture, mandate citizens’ attendance or execute local Indians — the tradition of town meeting governance continues to play a fundamental role in the structure of the municipal government.

The Town Court evolved into the Board of Aldermen, which slowly increased in size until 1921, when a round of charter reforms obliterated existing ward boundaries and created innovative district lines to accommodate burgeoning black neighborhoods. The number of representatives jumped dramatically from 15 to 33 aldermen, and the redistricting radically transfigured the city’s political landscape. The expansion of the board brought more minority and immigrant faces to the city’s legislative body during pivotal moments in the city’s history — blacks and women obtained aldermanic representation in New Haven long before comparative strides were made in other major American cities.

And when redistricting occurred again in 1988, one more change to the board occurred: Because of new ward boundaries, Ward 1 almost exclusively included buildings and residences owned by Yale. From that point forward, a Yalie would always make up one-30th of the Board of Aldermen.

HOVERING AROUND THE EDGES

But New Haven’s board includes many distinctive voices, and most current aldermen cling lovingly to the ability to hear 30 different viewpoints. A big board encourages cultural diversity, they say, and it allows the aldermen to properly represent the different neighborhoods and communities in the city.

In a dozen interviews, members of the Board of Aldermen said they pride themselves on being a part of a large and diverse legislative body. The board reflects the multitude of races, cultures and creeds that compose New Haven’s social fabric, they noted.

For that reason, most current members of the Board of Aldermen were not convinced that a smaller board would be a better one. The arguments against decreasing the size of the city’s legislative body abound: Cutting back on the size of the board would be a politically risky endeavor, causing in-fighting between aldermen on whose seats would be eliminated. In an interview last week, Aldermanic President Carl Goldfield asserted that any decrease would “pit one alderperson against another.”

Moreover, a smaller board could also lead to a stronger mayor, several aldermen said: The fewer bodies in the aldermanic chambers, they said, the fewer individuals who need to be persuaded by the mayor in order to pass his legislation. Rather than having to convince 15 people of his viewpoint, the mayor would only need to convince five or seven people in a 10- or 15-person board in order to have his legislation passed.

“The more people you have sitting in a room, the better,” Ward 7 Alderwoman Frances Clark said. “If you have a large group of people, the mayor really has to wrestle and herd in order to get people to do his bidding.”

Most of all, aldermen said larger wards would prevent them from maintaining close personal ties with their constituents. The beauty of the current system, they said, is that every alderman has the opportunity to develop one-on-one relationships with every voter in their ward. This dynamic is only possible in wards with only about 4,000 residents; any bigger, they said, and aldermen would no longer be as accessible.

Ward 10 Alderman Allan Brison said the small size of his ward allows him to launch political campaigns even with a modest budget; a smaller electorate means that aldermanic candidates need only knock on doors in order to communicate their platforms with the majority of voters in their ward.

“That’s what I like about New Haven,” Brison said.

And on and on the debate continues. Regardless of whether the members of the board ultimately decide to change the structure of the institution, debate on the matter — debate that must begin before 2012 — is almost inevitable.

“It’s always tossed around and talked about,” Goldfield said. “Though it hasn’t really picked up any momentum, it’s always sort of hovering around the edges.”

But potential for change on the horizon remains hazy. And until another high-minded Ward 1 alderman steps onto the scene and demands radical reform within the city’s legislative body, the Board of Aldermen will need to make do with what it has.

Comments

  • Katie '11

    Hey Martine, this is a great piece. Does this mean the YDN is going to keep covering city issues after the election so that when the next one comes around, people who read the YDN will know something about city politics? Because that would be great.

    Although it would have been cool to have had some kind of independent voice (poli sci professor not affiliated with the city?) on whether a big board or a small board is more independent, because Bitsie & Ben at this point are just talking past each other with no real indication of who might be right. Still awesome story, hope to see more like it.

  • Interested Observer

    Martine, you are to be complimented on a fine piece of journalism. The city can use more of this type of in-depth thoughtful exploration of the issues. You are way ahead of the Register and the NHI.

  • Anonymous

    Hey Harrison, the YDN covers city issues every day. You just don't read those stories unless they're about you.

  • Anonymous

    city "issues" != city politics. both are important.

  • Dumb Yalie

    Of course size matter for girls as well as guys. If a broad is too large, don't date her. She will only get bigger after she gets married.

  • AnonymousCityActivist

    Perhaps size matters less than indebtedness. Sad, but true, few alders vote in support of their constituents compared to the number who vote for what is best for their personal interest.

  • a well known activ &

    Yup , takin a couple of hundred bucks from Union members just don't cut it for them in these trying times

  • elm city

    Ward 1 is always ignored on the Board of Alderman. The "lofty goals" are seen as little more than poltical carpet bagging from transient students. Sorry, but the rest of the city has totally different goals than a Yale student seeking political mileage for their own future. Stick with your concerns about Yale, and the Townies will take care of their own.