Ward 1 Alderman Ben Healey ’04 and three of his fellow city legislators will submit a letter this week directing New Haven’s charter reform commission to consider reducing the size of the Board of Aldermen, even though the idea was scrapped at an early stage during the last round of charter negotiations a decade ago.
Compared to cities of similar population size, New Haven’s 30-member city council is among the largest in the country. Each legislator currently answers to about 4,100 residents — a size Healey and his three co-signatories say is far too large.
The letter, which in its current draft form does not contain any specific recommendations, comes less than five years after Healey’s predecessor — former Ward 1 Aldermen Julio Gonzalez ’99 — proposed a similar change as part of the “Promise to New Haven,” a comprehensive reform platform Gonzalez co-wrote with two former board members.
Although the Board of Aldermen has yet to appoint the five to 15 member commission that will review the city’s governing document over the course of the year, Healey’s letter — along with several others — will be waiting when the slate of residents finally sits down to complete its task this spring. Any changes recommended by the commission will go before New Haven voters as a series of ballot initiatives within the next 18 months.
Healey, Aldermen Philip Voigt and Willie Greene, and Alderwoman Joyce Chen ’01 said they believe legislative business is simply too cumbersome with 30 different voices.
“It is a struggle to organize colleagues towards any sort of unity that might counteract the power of the city’s executive branch and provide some meaning to an underutilized system of checks and balances,” Healey wrote in the letter. “Due to political necessity, the current members of the Board of Aldermen must think of parochial neighborhood interests before the good of the entire city.”
While the letter does not mention any specific numerical suggestions, Voigt said he personally believes the Board’s membership should be somewhere around 15.
“We could just as easily serve our constituents with a smaller board size,” he said.
The letter also suggests that the current size of the board also causes some members to neglect their responsibilities.
While the four contend that the proposal will make for better government, they are likely to meet fierce resistance from their colleagues.
Ward 25 Alderwoman Nancy Ahern, one of the Board’s two Republicans, said she would support a small size reduction but felt the chances of passing such a proposal were slim.
“I don’t think it will happen because I don’t think there are any aldermen out there who want to run the risk of charter-revisioning themselves out of office,” she said.
Sources said Gonzalez — who is now the mayor’s executive assistant — and the two other aldermen who helped draft the “Promise to New Haven,” Jelani Lawson ’96 and Gerry Garcia ’94 SOM ’01, never submitted the package for a formal vote because the three felt passing it would be far too difficult.
According to data from the National League of Cities, most American cities have city councils of between five and nine 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.