Voters to decide changes to city charter

On Election Day this Thursday, New Haven residents will choose not only the future occupants of the city’s political offices, but also how much power those occupants will wield.

Voters will decide the fate of two revisions to the city charter, as part of a process that reviews the city’s constitution each decade. The first revision allows for the election of two members to the seven-person Board of Education (BoE), which is currently entirely appointed by the mayor, while the second is a broad package of revisions primarily designed to rebalance power between the mayor and Board of Aldermen. If voters approve either revision on Nov. 5, the charter will be suitably amended.

The Charter Revision Commission, comprised of aldermen and community members, was tasked last December with identifying and developing a set of recommended changes for the city charter. It delivered those recommendations to the Board of Aldermen in May 2013.

Presently, the BoE consists of seven members: the mayor and six of his appointees. Under the revised charter, the BoE would be made up of the mayor, four mayoral appointees, two members to be elected from two “educational districts”, and two non-voting “student representatives”. The educational districts have yet to be drawn, but the revised charter stipulates that they should each contain similar numbers of wards.

Commission member Will Ginsberg said that at the end of the drafting process, the commission approved the entire package of proposals for aldermanic consideration, with one dissenting vote: his own. Ginsberg said that he, like many, felt that the composition of the school board was the most important issue on the docket. But he said the city’s educational system will be stronger if the mayor can be held accountable for its performance, and that adding elected seats to the board waters down mayoral accountability.

“National experience suggests to me that communities that have strong mayoral control over their educational systems are better able to rapidly conceive and implement change,” Ginsberg said.

The second proposed revision bundles several changes into one package to avoid asking citizens to vote on each of the many individual changes, according to Ward 22 Alderwoman Jeanette Morrison. The package would require aldermanic approval of mayoral appointees to most boards, commissions and key positions, and would formalize the existence of the Civilian Review Board — a body that investigates complaints against police officers, and currently only exists by special order of the mayor. Among other changes, the revision would also overhaul the charter to introduce gender-neutral language.

“The charter hasn’t been changed in 40 to 50 years,” said lawyer and former alderman Steve Mednick. “Many provisions of the charter go back to the 19th century.”

Mednick, who was hired by the city to advise the Charter Review Commission after doing the same for several neighboring towns, called the revised charter “a publicly accessible document.”

Mednick said New Haven’s committee engaged the public to a greater degree than any other charter committee he has advised, a fact he attributed to committee chair and alderman Michael Smart’s decision to hold four public hearings throughout the process, which Mednick described as “very well-attended.” Several ideas, including the addition of two student representatives on the board of education, were brought forth by members of the public.

Both mayoral candidates Toni Harp Arc ’78 and Justin Elicker FES ’10 SOM ’10 said they planned to vote ‘yes’ on the hybrid school board.

“One of the most frequent complaints I get from parents is that the Board of Education isn’t very responsive,” Elicker said. “By having two elected members on the Board of Education there’s more pressure for the Board of Education to be responsive to the public’s needs.”

Harp said she felt the hybrid board was a good compromise which would give citizens a say in education policy while keeping the mayoral administration accountable.

Harp said she was still considering Question Two, while Elicker declined to comment on how he plans to vote. Both cited the question’s multipart nature as a complicating factor in their decision.

The last attempted charter revision, which would have extended the length of mayoral and aldermanic terms from two to four years, narrowly failed in 2002.

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