It should be no light decision for a governmental body to change its fundamental laws. The United States has amended the Constitution just 27 times in more than 213 years since its ratification, and almost every amendment has deeply impacted American history.
At the local level, the city of New Haven will have to consider making such extensive changes to its charter. When the Charter was last reformed in 1992, it was mandated that the reform process occur every 10 years. This year, a small committee selected by Mayor John DeStefano Jr. will conduct the city’s first-ever mandatory review.
The spirit of the mandatory reform clause is admirable, as it represents a welcome commitment on the part of the city to engage in a structured process of periodic self-examination. But for the commission to make any positive impact, it will have to move beyond superficial inquiry and engage in a substantive and thoughtful analysis of the Charter’s problems.
A variety of issues will likely occupy the committee’s agenda, but the most important is the question of lengthening of the mayoral term, which DeStefano himself proposed, unsurprisingly. The popular mayor, who won his fifth term in office this past November, cites as his reasons the lengthy and expensive campaigns that characterized last year’s election — the most expensive in city history. DeStefano and members of the Board of Aldermen have also proposed extending aldermanic terms by the same amount.
DeStefano is on target in pointing out the severe problems with a two-year campaign cycle, particularly given the extraordinary time commitment and exorbitant amount of money required to campaign in the modern age. For a mayor to have to begin thinking about the next election as soon as he wins the last one unquestionably impairs his ability to govern the city effectively.
But the proposal also carries with it considerable risks. Opponents of lengthening the mayor and aldermen’s terms rightly point out that frequent elections promote accountability to the voters. DeStefano himself has favored the two-year term for most of his tenure. In particular, lengthening the mayor’s term will likely strengthen what is already a remarkably powerful office, with sweeping authority over many city policies and appointments.
To see how strong-mayor systems can go wrong, one need look no farther than Bridgeport, where Mayor Joseph Ganim stands accused of corruption, or Waterbury, where former Mayor Philip Giordano has been arrested and charged with sexually assaulting young girls while in office.
Given the problems with the status quo, longer terms for the mayor and aldermen appear to be desirable goals in this round of Charter reform — but there are, as always, downsides. Once appointed, the members of the committee should dedicate much of the upcoming year to conducting an in-depth examination of the ramifications of changing the term lengths — it is their recommendations that will go before the voters and thus fundamentally shape city government for at least a decade to come.