When a committee of New Haven voters meets later this year to undertake a line-by-line review of the city Charter, Mayor John DeStefano Jr. and members of the Board of Aldermen plan to lobby for a host of fundamental changes in the way the city does business.
Decrying the more than $3 million dollars he and his two challengers poured into last fall’s contentious mayoral election, DeStefano and his legislative allies will ask a panel of city residents to lengthen the terms served by the mayor and aldermen, in an attempt to alter what they say is a vicious two-year campaign cycle.
Other legislators said they may propose a reduction in the size of the Board of Aldermen, the election of the Board of Education, and changes to the regulations surrounding the hiring of city officials.
But none of the proposed changes will come easily. Some are especially worried that lengthening the mayoral and aldermanic terms — to four years from the current two — may come at the expense of voter accountability.
DeStefano, who admitted that he once supported two-year terms for that reason, said he changed his mind because his Democratic primary battle against state Sen. Martin Looney detracted from his ability to govern.
“It’s time to start looking at four-year terms,” he said. “After going through a campaign where we spent $4 million and two years doing it, folks are going to be looking toward a change like this.”
The process — and how it can go wrong
Under a provision inserted into the Charter when it was last revised in 1992, the city must appoint a committee to review the important document at least once a decade.
The Charter revision committee will consider DeStefano’s concerns alongside those of many others when it completes its cumbersome task over the next 16 months.
Under guidelines set forth in state law, a committee of the Board of Aldermen will select between five and 15 city residents to serve on the panel, no more than a third of whom may be elected officials.
If the committee approves an increase in the mayoral term, New Haven would become the second of Connecticut’s three largest cities to do so in the last decade.
Voters in Bridgeport — the state’s largest city — approved a mayoral term length increase that took effect in 1999.
But for some, Bridgeport is an example of what can go wrong with such a change. Not even three years after the new rule went into effect, Mayor Joseph Ganim was indicted on federal corruption charges.
“All you have to do is look at Bridgeport,” said Ward 25 Alderwoman Nancy Ahern, one of two Republicans on the Board of Aldermen. “I think it’s a good thing even for good mayors to have to face the electorate biennially — and it’s certainly a good thing for bad ones.”
A smaller board?
Legislators are also divided over proposals that would reduce the size of the Board of Aldermen. With its 30 members, New Haven’s city council is among the largest in the state.
Bridgeport and Hartford, each slightly more populous than New Haven, have far fewer city legislators — 20 and nine, respectively.
Ahern said she supports eliminating three wards to bring the board back to the size it was two decades ago.
“There are strong arguments to be made for having a slightly less cumbersome Board of Aldermen,” she said. “I’d support a larger cut, but I think it would be difficult to persuade any alderman into redrawing his ward out of existence.”
Ahern did say, however, that New Haven’s small constituencies allow aldermen to provide a high volume of constituent services.
“The drawback is that we can become somewhat parochial,” she said, “and the legislative process can become cumbersome.”
Four and four
Ward 24 Alderwoman Elizabeth McCormack and Ward 27 Alderman Philip Voigt — whose wife Susan served on the last Charter revision committee a decade ago — both said they were amenable to the term length increase, as long it applied to both the mayor and the Board of Aldermen.
“The days of having two-year terms has passed,” Voigt said. “It doesn’t make for good government when you get elected and you have to start campaigning again for the next time.”
Susan Voigt, who is vying to lead New Haven’s Democratic Party, said this year’s Charter revision process will likely be far less contentious than it was a decade ago.
“I don’t see as many contested issues,” she said. “Last time was the first time we had looked at the Charter in about 25 years.”
But Voigt, who has DeStefano’s support in her bid for the Democratic leadership post, added that the process will hardly be peaceful.
Ahern also said she opposes proposals that would change the way the members of the Board of Education are selected. New Haven is one of the few municipalities in the state where the Charter gives the mayor complete control over educational policy.
“There’s an always an element that wants to have an elected Board of Education,” Ahern said. “They think it’s going to make it more democratic. But what they don’t think about is who’s going to pay for it. It’s the unions who want more money spent on education — not just on education but on salaries.”
DeStefano put his opposition to the idea in different terms.
“I think a mayor should be responsible for the quality of his schools,” he said.
Board of Aldermen President Jorge Perez said he would like to re-examine the way the city hires its fire chief.
Unlike when selecting a police chief, the city may not seek candidates from outside the fire department to fill its top post, he said.
Perez also said he would not oppose a change in term lengths.
“I personally like the two and two situation,” he said. “But if the Charter revision committee wants to go for it, I wouldn’t stand in their way.”