Elm City charter revision begins

For the first time in a decade, a Board of Aldermen-appointed commission met Monday to begin the process of revising New Haven’s charter, the document that outlines the structure of the city government.

The 15-member charter revision commission began its work Tuesday night with a briefing from Board of Aldermen President Jorge Perez. In a process that the board is required to undergo every 10 years, the commission’s recommendations will be submitted to the Board of Aldermen for approval next May and voted on by the public next November. Community activists also began organizing in a Monday night meeting to discuss the process and suggest ideas they would like to see before the revision commission.

“You must really try to listen to what people have to say,” Perez told the committee Monday. “It is us collectively, as residents in the city of voters, who are going to decide.”

Perez stressed the importance of seeking public input from a large portion of city residents and from special interest groups and suggested holding meetings in each neighborhood.

The last charter revision was narrowly defeated in 2002 by 247 votes, less than a 2 percent margin. Perez said he believed the ballot proposition was defeated because all of the proposed changes to the city charter were presented as a package rather than as individual questions. Every union in the city opposed one controversial question about the city’s civil service exams, Perez said.

“A lot of work gets put into it, but at the end of the day, it may not pass,” Perez told the committee said. The last time the charter was successfully revised was in 1992, when the Board of Finance was eliminated and its responsibilities were transferred to the Board of Aldermen.

In the months ahead, the commission, which includes Aldermen Delphine Clyburn and Mark Stopa, must consider 15 topics submitted by the board. The questions include increasing mayoral and aldermanic terms to four years, imposing term limits, reducing the number of aldermen and changing the process for appointing the city’s boards and commissions. The charter revision commission must also hold at least two public hearings and can consider any other issue it wishes for its recommendations.

For its first action, the commission elected Ward 8 Alderman Michael Smart as its chair in a unanimous vote.

“My vision is to carry out the wishes of the community,” Smart said before the vote. “If I’m elected, I will make sure we have a very transparent process for the public and get this job done.”

Also on Monday, city residents held a a two-hour open meeting on Monday night at The Grove on Orange Street to discuss the changes they would like to see in a new charter. Four aldermen and state Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield joined in the conversation.

“We spend a lot of time talking about the personality of politics and not enough time digging into the structures of government,” said Aaron Goode, one of the three activists who organized Monday’s meeting. “The process of charter revision is a singularly important opportunity to create the structures and institutions for good governance and a thriving city. As concerned citizens, there is nothing more important we can do than make our voices heard.”

Roughly 30 people listened to a presentation about the revision process and opportunities for public input before dividing into smaller groups to brainstorm solutions to individual problems they see in the structure of city government.

Ward 7 Alderman Doug Hausladen ’04 led a discussion about how to increase transparency and improve the current system of public notification. Ward 9 Alderman Jessica Holmes contributed to a discussion of potential changes to the Board of Aldermen, including changing the term “aldermen” to a gender-neutral term. Other groups focused on better allocation of the city’s resources, a system for tracking indicators of wellness and the process for selecting the Board of Education, whether that be by election, appointment or a hybrid of both.

At the end of the session, participants went around in a circle with three-word responses to the first meeting: “an exciting start,” “more change needed,” “lots to explore.”

Nate Bixby, one of the organizers, gave the last assessment: “We’re not done.”

The charter revision commission will reconvene at City Hall in mid-January.

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