Even though state law does not give him a formal role in the highly political Charter reform process, New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr. is taking steps ensure his interests will be represented when a committee of residents sits down later this year to review the city’s governing document.
Sources in City Hall and e-mail messages obtained by the Yale Daily News suggest that DeStefano has actively tried to influence the composition of the commission in an effort to ensure that his main proposal — increasing the length of the mayoral term from two to four years — will be included in the final report that will eventually go before New Haven voters.
DeStefano has privately contacted Lindy Lee Gold, the chairwoman of the Board of Aldermen’s Legislation Committee, to recommend the appointment of certain individuals who he thought would approve of his proposal, the sources said.
While nothing prohibits the mayor from making such recommendations — as any other private citizen may — his actions indicate that he is taking a substantial role in a process many consider exclusively the province of the Board of Aldermen.
Gold said she hopes to appoint the five- to 15-member commission by mid-March. Under a provision inserted into the Charter in the early 1990s — the last time it was revised — the city is formally required to review the document at least once every 10 years.
Despite her steady contact on the issue with DeStefano and his chief of staff, Julio Gonzalez, Gold said she did not feel pressured to put anyone on the committee.
“I have never once in all these years gotten pressure from the mayor on any issue,” she said. “I don’t think that the mayor would do that to me.”
Gold met last week with Gonzalez and local lawyer Steven Mednick, a former DeStefano administration official who has acted as Charter revision counsel to several other Connecticut cities.
While Gold and Gonzalez characterized it as a chance meeting, the encounter left enough of an impression on Mednick that he sent a five-page letter about the Charter reform process to New Haven Corporation Counsel Thomas Ude, the city’s top lawyer.
Mednick, who donated to DeStefano’s mayoral campaign in the fall, did not say whether he sent the letter in an attempt to get a job with the commission, which Gold said will likely hire its own lawyer this spring even though Ude has already offered his own services to the panel.
Mednick, who held Ude’s job for two years during one of DeStefano’s earlier terms, said he met with Gold and Gonzalez “just to bat around general ideas.”
“I have not been formally retained by New Haven,” Mednick said. “If I’m asked to play a part, I will. But since there’s no commission yet, I can’t say.”
Mednick, a former New Haven alderman, helped the city of New Britain pare its charter down from 400 pages to a more manageable 100. DeStefano said Mednick will also work this year for Hartford Mayor Eddie Perez, who is backing a sweeping charter reform platform there that will overhaul the city’s entire governmental structure.
Gold said she did not think Mednick would face a conflict of interest if he were hired by the commission as its independent counsel.
“He’s been successful in his private life both before his service and after,” Gold said. “We shouldn’t penalize him for his service. People don’t go into public service for the money, at least not in New Haven.”
Gonzalez said that while his meeting with Mednick and Gold was informal, the mayor’s office would “advocate” for the appointment of particular commission members.
He also said that neither he nor DeStefano would attempt to lobby the commission on any issues except the switch00
“We have one issue here,” Gonzalez said, referring to the term switch. “That’s our issue, and that’s our place to talk about it.”
For his part, DeStefano said Wednesday that he did not want to politicize further an already political process.
“I’m not particularly interested in responding to every idea people have about Charter reform,” he said. “Let the Charter revision committee get formed. That should be done as soon as possible — so we can get in on the ballot in November.”
The actual Charter revision process is governed by state law, specifically sections 7-187 through 7-191 of Chapter 99 of the Connecticut General Statutes. Under these state regulations, the relevant city legislature — in this case, the New Haven Board of Aldermen — retains exclusive control over the process.
The city’s chief executive, DeStefano, has no formal jurisdiction over any aspect of the proceedings.