People’s caucus targets city clerk

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Photo by Isaac Stanley-Becker.

A fledgling coalition of city lawmakers took aim on Tuesday at New Haven’s second-highest elected official, staging a press conference at the office of the city/town clerk to call for the elimination of the clerk’s position.

Termed the “People’s Caucus,” the coalition stands in opposition to the union-backed majority on the 30-member New Haven Board of Alders. Little more than a week after the caucus’ emergence, five of its members announced at Tuesday’s press conference at 200 Orange St. that they had submitted two ordinances for the Board’s consideration. Both target City Clerk Michael Smart, who was elected with the support of Yale’s UNITE HERE unions, Locals 34 and 35, and on a ticket with Mayor Toni Harp.

The first asks that the Board convene a charter revision commission to eliminate the position of city clerk. The caucus members said the civil servant staffers working under Smart are equipped to handle city records without him. The office has five employees, including Smart and Deputy City Clerk Sally Brown.

Ward 21 Alder Brenda Foskey-Cyrus called the city clerk position a “completely unnecessary burden on taxpayers.” She estimated that the city would save half a million dollars within 10 years of eliminating the part-time job, which pays $46,597 per year. New Haven’s chief record keeper, the city clerk is responsible for handling all public documents, including claims and suits against the city, business licenses, land records and liquor permits; compiling and overseeing Board legislation; and distributing absentee ballots for city elections. The issue of absentee ballots embroiled Smart in a scandal when he was still a candidate for the job last fall. Smart is under investigation by the State Elections Enforcement Commission for yet-unconfirmed reports that his campaign fraudulently handled voters’ absentee ballots.

The second proposed ordinance would ban the city clerk from dictating how staffers respond to public requests for documents and related information. It comes in response to a memo Smart issued last week disallowing his staff to give documents or interviews to the public or to the media without consulting him first.

Smart later revised his directive, clarifying that all public documents were readily accessible, while maintaining that only he would give interviews to the press.

Reached Tuesday, Smart said controversy over the memo has been resolved.

“Certainly the public is welcome, and has always been welcome, to obtain any information we have. And we’re here to serve them,” Smart said. “We clarified that.”

He called the prospect of the Board eliminating his job “unrealistic.” If members of the people’s caucus had wanted to modify the composition of the city clerk’s office, he said, they should have done so during the once-a-decade process of charter revision that just took place last fall.

Brown was within earshot of the press conference. Smart did not appear to be present.

Ward 19 Alder Mike Stratton said the elimination of the clerk position is one of a number of “best practices” solutions the caucus will be submitting for the Board’s consideration. He said its legislative agenda will be driven by public meetings — the first of which is scheduled for Jan. 25. The caucus will enlist the help of a number of progressive Yale students in drafting statute based on the expressed needs of residents, Stratton said. “We all believe that we were elected to serve one interest group, and that’s the people of New Haven,” Stratton said. He said an elected city clerk job allows the “political establishment” to solidify its influence, including in paid positions.

Anna Festa, alder in Ward 10’s East Rock neighborhood, said the city needs to start “penny-pinching,” beginning with the salary for the city clerk. Stratton said the money could also be better spent elsewhere, including by putting more police officers on the streets.

Smart defended his position by saying he has been “hands-on” in working with the public, with city businesses and with the Board.

“For me it’s an extremely important function, otherwise I wouldn’t have pursued the position,” he said.

Joining Stratton and Foskey-Cyrus at Tuesday’s press conference were Ward 28 Alder Claudette Robinson-Thorpe, Ward 10 Alder Anna Festa and Ward 12 Alder Richard Spears. Doug Hausladen ’04 in Ward 7 and Carlton Staggers in Ward 30 are also members.

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