At this moment of ever-worsening economic crisis, the pre-primary for Ward 1 alderman announced last week by Ward 1 Democratic co-chairwomen Adzua Agyapon ’11 and Rhiannon Bronstein ’11 offers Yale students an exciting opportunity to engage in a debate over the future of New Haven.
When I was co-chairman with Cynthia Okechukwu ’08, we designed a process akin to that which Agyapon and Bronstein have proposed, but were disappointed when only one candidate (current alderwoman Rachel Plattus ’09) stepped forward — not because we were disappointed in Rachel but because we (along with many others) felt an opportunity to discuss issues of great importance to the city had been lost.
Right now, there is only one candidate in the race, Michael Jones ’11. Candidates have until the end of February to file, and need only 40 signatures from registered Ward 1 Democrats to do so, but so far no one else has signaled they may run.
We should not have an election just to have an election. While local governments are often derided for ineffectiveness, I believe they can and must play a crucial role if we are to remake our country, to paraphrase President Obama. That we have the privilege here in Ward 1 to elect someone to the Board of Aldermen, our city council, is not something that should be taken lightly by anybody.
I had been uneasy to speak out on the race, given my past position as co-chairman, but I now decide to do so because of my sense that the conversations in this paper and on this campus have, for the past few weeks, missed how significant an election like this really could be. To me, the fault of this lies with many but must also fall somewhat on Jones’s shoulders.
So far Jones has articulated a narrow vision of what he hopes to accomplish in the seat, speaking in general terms about getting more students involved in the city and working with existing student groups to affect some changes in sex education and homelessness policies in New Haven. These goals are fine, but they reflect a broader problem I see not only in Jones’s candidacy, but also in the entire discourse around the race: a lack of vision coupled with a lack of clarity about what the Board’s role should be. This shortcoming is especially disheartening given the extraordinary political moment we are in.
I called Jones earlier this week to talk about some of the views he articulated in an interview with the New Haven Independent last week, hoping he would expand on his vision for the city. I was troubled by some of his statements to the Independent: for example, that he had “difficulty identifying many shortfalls” with Mayor John DeStefano’s administration and what I saw as an overly favorable comparison of Yale’s expansion into New Haven and Columbia’s into Harlem.
Jones told me he thought the mayor was doing a great job given his constraints — namely, the city’s budget situation and small tax base. Yet he saw no solutions for these problems beyond state or federal action. He particularly emphasized that he wanted one of his priorities to be lobbying the state for more PILOT (Payment in Lieu of Taxes) funding.
That is fine, but Jones could do such lobbying now, as a citizen, if he saw fit. He did not, beyond this, articulate what he might be able to do from the position of alderman to affect a meaningful change in the city’s economic situation. I asked whether he felt Yale and Yale-New Haven Hospital should dramatically increase their voluntary contributions to the city to make up for the city’s tax problems, particularly given that Yale’s increased property acquisitions in the past decade have only diminished the tax base further. He said he was “not prepared” to call on Yale to make any such moves.
Oddly, however, he suggested if the U.S. Senate were to approve a proposal to force private universities to spend more of their endowments, Yale should in that case perhaps consider using some of those funds toward a greater contribution. That comment in particular, along with his conveyed sense that the city was ultimately at the mercy of the state and federal governments, left me with a question: If Jones does not ultimately think municipal government can do very much, then why does he want to be a part of it?
In the coming years, the Board will have to continue grappling with serious issues exacerbated by the recession. Rather than relying on federal and state government for solutions to our city’s problems, the Board must think creatively about fresh ways it can use its power to help working people in the city.
It was this kind of innovation that drove such successful measures as the Elm City Resident Card, which was an exciting assertion of what municipal government still can do — if it wants to. With this move, New Haven became a national model in the movement for immigrant rights, as other cities, like San Francisco, have since looked to create similar programs of their own.
In particular, it would be exciting to see the Board return to the thinking that drove the 2006 Community Benefits Agreement with Yale-New Haven Hospital. The Board should revive the principle articulated then: that when developers and institutions want to build in our city, the community should benefit. And it should consider closely how it can make further development of the city help working people, rather than driving up property values or eroding the tax base further as more land becomes non-taxable. The Board must act to find new ways to create good jobs in our city. More importantly, the Board can act on this. Its ability to regulate development is one of the most powerful ways it can affect the economic direction of our city. Moreover, the Board should think about how to make such changes possible as part of a long-term development plan. Such a plan could incorporate and build upon proposals coming out of other cities right now, such as the recently created Green Job Corps in Oakland or the plans to deal with foreclosures currently being considered in Philadelphia.
Ward 1 deserves an alderman who can be part of such a wave of new thinking and action on the Board. I hope Jones will show himself to be that kind of leader, to be someone who will help bring the change we need to the Board. But if not, then I hope someone else steps forward.
Hugh Baran is a senior in Davenport College.