A two-month search for city residents to scrutinize New Haven’s budget process ended this week.
Board of Aldermen President Carl Goldfield appointed the seven civilian members of an 11-member independent blue ribbon committee on Monday. The committee — which was unanimously approved by the aldermanic board in August and includes the city’s budget director and two aldermen — will review the budget and provide to the aldermanic Finance Committee suggestions about the budgetary process in upcoming months. The independent committee will answer to the aldermanic Finance Committee.
Blue ribbon committee members said they hope to provide transparency to the process and hope to scrutinize the budget process. Goldfield says it is too early to determine how the committee will help the Board. But he added that he is “optimistic” and hopes the group will provide helpful contributions to the budgeting process.
Yet some community members say the group may not be able to help. Although the blue ribbon budget committee has been created to bring more transparency and resident feedback to the budget process, many of the half-dozen city officials and local budget activists interviewed Wednesday and Thursday cited concerns about diversity and balance of voice and opinions in the group.
“It could be an important committee,” Green Party Ward 10 Alderman and blue ribbon committee member Allan Brison said, “or it could also be totally meaningless.”
A CRITICAL PANEL?
The aldermanic minority caucus, headed by Ward 5 Alderman Jorge Perez, started to push for a blue ribbon panel in January after hearing suggestions to form the new committee from the New Haven Citizens’ Action Network, a budget watchdog often critical of the administration.
At July 9’s aldermanic Finance Committee meeting discussing the blue ribbon panel, finance chair Ward 23 Alderman Yusuf Shah said, according to the New Haven Independent, that the group should limit City Hall members to Comptroller Mark Pietrosimone and Budget Director Lawrence Rusconi in order to curb “the perception of puppetry by the administration.”
City Hall spokeswoman Jessica Mayorga said Thursday that the committee is “an attempt of including the community into the [budgetary] process.”
Citizen members of the committee were chosen from a pool of self- or alderman-selected nominees. Goldfield said aldermen reached out to the community through the local media.
But many aldermen interviewed said they had hoped more citizens showed interest in serving on the committee. Brison, a membership of the aldermanic leadership team that advised Goldfield on the appointments, said about 15 citizens had received interviews for the position.
Brison added that he was unsure whether the group had enough of a balance between voices supportive and critical of the administration.
“Is this panel going to be a whitewash for the administration, or is this is gonna be a panel of people who are willing to provide a critique of the administration?” he said.
There are three non-Democrats in the group, Goldfield said: Brison, Republican Christine Bishop of United Health Group and Republican 2008 city mayoral candidate H. Richter Elser ’81.
Of the Democrats, known critics of the administration on the panel include New Haven CAN member Timothy Holahan and Yale political science professor David Cameron, who has written columns critical of the city budget in the New Haven Register.
And there are members with clear connections to City Hall. Pierrette Silverman of Planned Parenthood was a former deputy chief of staff and former head of DeStefano’s youth committee. Ward 20 Alderman Charles Blango, many city officials said, is a strong DeStefano supporter.
Meanwhile, some aldermen said, few minority citizens made it on to the list of nominees. Although many aldermen interviewed said they did not remember the exact number of nominees who were non-white, most placed the number at about two.
The only minority member of the panel is Blango.
“I wish that there would have been more people interested in being considered and willing to serve so we could have gotten a more diverse group of people in every sense of the word,” Perez said.
Added New Haven CAN member Gary Doyen: “We get right to point that we actually can do something, and what do we do? They revert back to how it always has been.”
ANSWERING THE ‘DIFFICULT QUESTIONS’
Still, aldermen interviewed said it may not matter who is on the panel — as long as the panel can come up with useful proposals. And committee members say they can work well with the Board.
Members said that they will work on improving the way that aldermen receive information on the budget and other structural points of the budgetary process. And some said they will bring their specialization and experience to the table.
“The first service [the panel] can provide is an education,” Elser told the Register. “I don’t think people really have a grasp of how much the budget is actually essentially set well before anyone starts planning it.”
Cameron said that the group will work hard to provide fitting proposals.
“The point of a blue ribbon panel is you put all your political views aside and you actually try to deal with the issue with an independent non-partisan way — try to come with the best answers to some very difficult questions,” he said.
The two other citizen members on the panel are UBS businessman Andrew Boone and Elm Campus Partners executive Douglas Hausladen ’04.