Charter commission takes public input

New Haven’s Charter Revision Commission held a public hearing on Tuesday to give citizens a chance to voice their opinions about how the city’s charter should be revised.

Roughly 20 people testified at Tuesday’s meeting, which was held at the Benjamin Jepson School. Although a wide range of issues was discussed, much of the testimony focused on the structure of the Board of Education and the powers of the Civilian Review Board, which reviews reports of police misconduct.

New Haven is required by law to review its charter and consider changes to the document every 10 years. The Charter Revision Commission, whose 15 members were selected by the Board of Aldermen late last year, has convened to discuss and draft changes before submitting a proposal to the Board of Aldermen by May 13. At that time, the board will review and potentially alter the proposal, then approve a final version to be voted on as a referendum item in citywide elections in the fall.

The Board of Education is currently comprised of seven mayoral appointees and the mayor himself. The Board of Aldermen, however, has tasked the Charter Revision Commission to consider how the Board of Education should be selected, whether by election, mayoral or aldermanic appointment or a combination of all three.

The makeup of the Board of Education was the most discussed issue at Tuesday night’s meeting, with most of those who spoke about the board favoring the current process of mayoral appointment or a hybrid system made up of elected officials and appointees. A few attendees, however, spoke in favor of a wholly elected board.

Tomi Veale, the head coordinator of Youth@Work, a program that provides New Haven students with work exposure and summer employment opportunities, attended the hearing to speak out against an elected school board. In her testimony, she expressed concern that fundraising and elections would distract board members and inhibit their ability to work solely on behalf of students.

“The students matter most, and I don’t want what people are fighting for in terms of their education to become a political platform,” Veale told the News.

Many of those who spoke feared that an elected school board would halt or reverse many of the reforms enacted by the current leadership, which began an intensive school change initiative in 2009.

“Right now, things are going well. We’re on an upswing. There’s a lot of really important reforms that are happening, and if we try to switch things midstream, it’s not going to be helpful,” Arlene DePino, a mother of two New Haven public school students, told the News.

DePino, who has organized for unions before, said that she worries about the effects that elections will have on the quality and intentions of board members.

John Cirello, a local attorney who is the father of two New Haven public school students, testified that he was worried that were the Board of Education elected, unions could elect candidates who would give them overly favorable contracts, which he feared could hurt the city.

“Because education is one of the biggest expenditures of any town budget, it could really run us into ruin because there would be no one kind of watching the henhouse,” Cirello told the News.

But other residents that testified were in favor of a change. Bret Bissell said he is “ambivalent” about whether the Board of Education is directly elected or appointed by the Board of Aldermen, but he thinks the current system of pure mayoral appointment allows the mayor too much power.

Others who support direct election or aldermanic appointment cited similar concerns about mayoral power. Some also said that they want part of the board to be made up of students, parents and teachers.

Several people also testified about enshrining the Civilian Review Board — which was created in 2001 to review reports of police misconduct — in the city’s charter. All who spoke on the matter supported giving the board more powers to investigate misconduct and punish offenses.

“What we need is an organization of and by the people of New Haven that can resist this pandemic of police brutality,” said New Haven resident Ina Staklo, who argued for a more powerful Civilian Review Board.

A wide range of other topics was raised as well, although fewer testified on such matters. Imposing term limits on the mayor was discussed, as was giving the Board of Aldermen more power to make or review appointments to boards and commissions that are currently handled by the mayor. A few people expressed support for discarding the term “alderman” in exchange for a gender-neutral term.

The commission has worked to be “inclusive,” said Ward 8 Alderman and Commission Chair Michael Smart.

“We really want to engage the public and get as much information as we can get because it’s important,” Smart said. “We’ve got to get it on the ballot and we have to sell it to the public, that’s the next challenge.”

The fourth and final public hearing on charter revision will be at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 7 at Conte/West Hills School at 511 Chapel St.

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