Last Thursday marked the fourth and final public hearing addressing New Haven charter revision.
At each of the meetings held by the Board of Aldermen-appointed charter revision commission, city residents testified about potential changes to New Haven’s charter, which dictates the regulations that govern the structure of the city. According to commission members and aldermen, about 100 people attended each meeting, discussing issues including reforming the Board of Education, adopting potential term lengths and limits for public officials, strengthening the Civilian Review Board — a group that reviews complaints against police — and changing the size of the Board of Aldermen. But as the commission’s final proposal is not due before the Board of Aldermen until May, the next task for commission members will be to incorporate public opinions when they draft recommendations for charter revision.
“I think it was pretty healthy turnout at all four of the meetings, and everyone who wanted to testify had a chance to. The public was given a really excellent opportunity,” said Caleb Kleppner ’89, a member of the commission. “I thought the public hearing process was excellent, and it really does help give the commissioners a sense of where the public is coming from.”
Will Ginsberg, a commission member and the president of the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven, said the public hearings were very helpful in educating commission members about what issues the public found important.
Ginsberg said he was particularly interested in the structure of the Board of Education, as the Community Foundation invests in school change and supports New Haven Promise, the Yale-sponsored program that awards scholarships to New Haven public school students.
Ward 10 Alderman Justin Elicker FES ’10 SOM ’10, who attended some of the public hearings, said that reforming the Board of Education to a hybrid model is one of his top priorities in the charter revision process. Currently, all members of the Board of Education are appointed by the mayor, but Elicker supports including elected officials in the makeup of the board. Mayor John DeStefano Jr. has previously warned against electing Board of Education officials, claiming that public elections may lead to politicization of the board.
“Generally, it seems more people want an elected or hybrid Board of Education, and they want some form of direct public representation on the board,” said Elicker, who said that there were some at the hearing who testified in favor of an all-appointed board. “But the issue is the details of any proposal. Do we just want to elect some representatives? Or a majority of the board? How long is the term of elected officials?”
New Haven residents also discussed strengthening the Civilian Review Board, which allows citizens to file complaints against police officers for charges of misconduct.
Kleppner and Ward 7 Alderman Doug Hausladen ’04 said there seemed to be strong support for the charter to incorporate a stronger Civilian Review Board, as it is currently instituted only through an executive order.
Ward 9 Alderman Jessica Holmes was among those who testified in favor of strengthening the Review Board.
“The [Civilian Review] Board currently doesn’t have a very functional role,” Holmes said. “The board only has the power to review documents and write up reports, but doesn’t actually have any teeth.”
New Haven residents also discussed restructuring the city’s political system.
Ginsberg said that DeStefano’s choice not to run for re-election this November opens up the opportunity to have a substantive discussion about term limits. Meeting attendees seemed less interested in decreasing the size of the Board of Aldermen, Elicker said.
Hausladen called the public hearing process “the most public process of charter revision” to his knowledge, and he added that both he and Holmes testified in favor of changing the name of the Board of Aldermen to something more gender-neutral, such as the Board of Alders.
Elicker agreed that there was healthy turnout at the meetings, but said that he thought the city could have still done a better job of including the public by webcasting the meeting, using Facebook to inform residents about the meetings and utilizing other sources of outreach.
Holmes said she thought that there was a sizeable portion of the public that was unaware that the meetings were occurring. But the process, she added, is far from over: The commission still has to draft its recommendations, and both the Board of Aldermen and the public at large must approve the changes before they are implemented.
Kleppner said that the commission has not talked much about what the process will look like now that the public hearings are complete. Ginsberg said that while the commissioners have learned a lot from the public hearings, the commission members have had little time to convene and discuss their own personal thoughts.
“I think the biggest obstacle is time. There are lots of topics that people commented on, and there are a lot of topics that you could imagine making a recommendation on, and some of them, such as the Board of Ed or the budget process are really complex issues,” Kleppner said. “There’s no simple solution.”
According to Kleppner, the DeStefano administration will deliver a presentation on topics of its choice at the next commission meeting on Feb. 21.