City officials who are backing the switch to a four-year mayoral term will have both local political support and the weight of several national trends behind them when a citizen committee sits down later this year for its decennial review of the city’s charter.
The term length increase, which will go before voters if it is recommended by the committee, would be best accompanied by a reduction in the size of New Haven’s 30-member Board of Aldermen, two experts in local government said.
Several aldermen, including board President Jorge Perez, D-5, and Majority Leader Elizabeth McCormack, D-24, said they would support the term length change as long as it also applied to aldermanic terms.
Cynthia Farrar, a Yale associate professor who teaches a class in local governance, said the committee will have to weigh the relationship between the mayor and the legislators.
“What the Charter commission is going to have to think through is what are the respective roles of the mayor and the Board of Aldermen,” she said. “You might argue that the executive branch ought to be able to do longer-term planning and establish a longer-term agenda for the city, and then assume that the Board of Aldermen, with shorter terms, is the way citizens can influence their government. It doesn’t follow that [the term lengths] have to be the same.”
The majority of American cities operate under four-year mayoral terms, according to data from the National League of Cities. Two-year mayoral terms exist in about half as many cities, and a substantial number of city voters even elect mayors to one-year terms.
Like most American cities, New Haven has a “strong mayor” system, in which the mayor serves as chief executive officer and dominates over the city legislature. Some cities — like Hartford — have a “weak mayor” system, where a powerful city council appoints a professional city manager to execute policy and the mayor serves as a mere figurehead.
Ward 25 Alderwoman Nancy Ahern, one of the board’s two Republicans, said Wednesday that she feared a four-year mayoral term in a strong-mayor system like New Haven’s could reduce accountability.
In Bridgeport, which switched to a four-year term in 1999, Mayor Joseph Ganim has been indicted on federal corruption charges.
But Farrar said that Ahern’s concerns were only somewhat valid.
“You could say that since we have a strong mayor system we have to ensure accountability,” she said. “But I suspect that even if [Ganim] had had a two-year term, it still could have happened.”
Although the Board of Aldermen has yet to choose the five to 15 city residents who will serve on the Charter committee, the committee’s members will have an opportunity to deliver to voters several needed reforms.
The last time the Charter was revised, in the early 1990s, the committee inserted a provision into the document that mandates its revision at least once a decade. It also gave the Board of Aldermen power over the city budget process. Until 1990, the budget was set by a Board of Finance that was hand-picked by the mayor.
Members of the 1990 committee said they only won those key reforms through compromise.
“You have to set aside certain things at the very beginning and just agree that you aren’t going to deal with them,” said 1990 committee member Susan Voigt, who is married to Ward 27 Alderman Philip Voigt.
One of the issues that the committee agreed to set aside was the size of the Board of Aldermen. With 30 members, the board is the second-largest municipal legislative body in Connecticut and one of the largest in the nation. Each alderman answers to a constituency of roughly 4,000 city residents — a size Farrar said makes for inefficiency and less-than-ideal government.
“That small a constituency creates a kind of parochialism that is problematic,” Farrar said. “Aldermen should obviously have smaller constituencies than the mayor does, but that’s just too small.”
According to data from the National League of Cities, most American cities have city councils of between 5 and 9 seats.
In Connecticut, only Stamford — with its 40-member Board of Representatives — has a larger city council than New Haven. Hartford and Bridgeport, each more populous than New Haven, both have smaller city councils. With a population of 124,121, Hartford is only slightly larger than New Haven — but its city council of nine is far smaller.
While many aldermen remain opposed to the idea, they have heard it before. Both reforms — the four year term and the reduction in the size of the board — were included in the Promise to New Haven, a comprehensive reform platform that was the brainchild of former Ward 1 Alderman Julio Gonzalez ’99.
But Gonzalez, who is now the mayor’s executive assistant, and the two other aldermen who helped him — Jelani Lawson ’96 and Gerry Garcia ’94 SOM ’01 — never submitted the Promise to New Haven for a formal vote. Sources said DeStefano was unhappy with another part of the proposal that would have limited his control over the Board of Education.
New Haven is the only city in the state where the mayor appoints the entire Board of Education; in most other cities, the board’s members are elected by the public.