New Haven residents will have a once-in-a-decade opportunity to make major changes to city government in coming months, potentially reshaping City Hall and the political playing field.
The city is initiating a process to revise its charter — the basis for the city’s government — which has not been revised since 1993. City Hall is required to consider charter revisions at least once every 10 years by the charter and must follow specific procedures set out in state law.
Last week, the Board of Aldermen took the first steps of the process by proposing a list of potential topics and candidates for a charter revision commission of up to 15 members. After the commission proposes a series of changes, voters must decide whether or not to approve them at the ballot box.
Charter revision could include changing the number of aldermen that represent the city, lengthening the mayor’s term or setting limits on the amount of time public officials can spend in office.
“The charter is to the city like the Constitution is to the country, so revising it is a serious and important opportunity,” City Hall spokeswoman Elizabeth Benton ’04 said.
APPOINTING A COMMISSION
According to the city charter, the charter revision process must be initiated before June 30, 2013 with the creation of a charter revision commission of up to 15 members. Only one-third can hold public office, and only a bare majority can be from the same political party. The commission will hold public hearings and deliberate on potential amendments to the charter for up to 16 months before presenting recommendations to the Board of Aldermen. A majority vote by the full Board sends the amendments to New Haven’s voters in a citywide election.
“The entire process can take as little as six months and as much as 40 months to complete,” said Carl Amento, the assistant corporation counsel for the city, in a 2009 memo to DeStefano. “A reasonable time for the completion of a substantive charter revision process is about 24 months.”
The last charter revision commission, appointed in 2002, recommended extending the terms of the mayor and the Board of Aldermen from two to four years. But the recommendations were put on ballots as a package, and voters narrowly rejected all the changes in a citywide election.
Eight years later, in April 2010, another charter revision commission was proposed. But former Ward 30 Alderman Darnell Goldson argued that the slate of candidates proposed by Mayor John DeStefano Jr. represented the mayor’s perspective too heavily and excluded other voices. The commission was rejected 20–5 by the Board of Aldermen, far from the two-thirds majority necessary to begin the revision process.
But city officials say they are optimistic about successfully appointing a commission this year.
“The charter anticipates a charter revision commission be formed every 10 years and there is no reason to believe that won’t occur here,” Benton said.
This year, the Board’s leadership proposed a list of 13 names after soliciting recommendations from all of the aldermen.
‘TRANSPARENT, FAIR AND INFORMED’
New Haven residents, city officials and Yale students alike are gearing up for the long process ahead.
Aaron Goode, a member of the Downtown Wooster Square Community Management Team and New Haven Votes coalition, formed a Facebook page with fellow activist Rachel Heerema to increase awareness about the upcoming revision.
“We just want to make sure the process is transparent, fair, and informed by robust public participation,” Goode wrote in an email to the News. “We strongly believe that no issues, no matter how controversial, should be considered off the table. The commission should take its cues from public testimony, and should resist advice from the Board of Aldermen and mayor’s office about what to include in, or exclude from, its agenda.”
Ward 10 Alderman Justin Elicker said public input is particularly important, since the final result of the charter revision process will depend on passing the amendments in an election.
“If the public isn’t included from the start, it’s going to be much more difficult to get them excited about the process and to support the final recommendations that the commission comes up with,” Elicker said.
During a full Board of Aldermen meeting on Oct. 16, the Board looked at two items: an item regarding members of the commission and an item regarding issues to be considered by the commission. During the next full Board meeting in November, they will vote on the items.
Ward 3 Alderman Jackie James, who proposed the Board vote on both items without a committee hearing, declined to comment.
Ward 7 Alderman Doug Hausladen criticized the process and said that it did not allow for enough public input about the makeup of the commission.
“When the committee meets about the commission, that’s the only time public input and public workshop happens. At the full Board of Aldermen meeting, nothing really gets debated or discussed,” Hausladen said. “The number one thing I’ve heard from New Haven citizens is that they want this process to be open and accountable.”
But other aldermen said the public has had the opportunity to be involved. Board of Aldermen President and Ward 5 Alderman Jorge Perez said that he felt the public had many different ways of giving their input to their respective aldermen. He said aldermen, who submitted the nominations for the members of the commission, got names from emails, conversations with constituents and people who expressed interest in serving on the commission themselves.
Ward 25 Alderman Adam Marchand GRD ’99 agreed and added there was sufficient time for the aldermen to interact with their constituents and make the appropriate nominations.
Ward 1 Alderman Sarah Eidelson ’12 could not be reached for comment.
A ONCE-IN-A-DECADE OPPORTUNITY
The charter revision commission can recommend a revision of almost anything in the city’s charter. Topics the charter revision commission could consider include increasing the length of terms for the mayor and aldermen, imposing term limits for those positions, changing salaries, reducing the number of aldermen and considering whether the members of the Board of Education should be appointed, elected or a combination of both.
Elicker said the list addressed the main topics that are consistently brought up in discussions of city government, but he worried that the list was “too comprehensive.” Since voters might reject all of the proposed amendments if they do not like one item, the commission needs to focus, he said.
Drew Morrison ’14, president of New Haven Action, said he thinks the most important part of the charter revision process is discussion of the Board of Education and the public school system. Currently, some criticize the board for being distanced from constituents, he said. Adding an elected student member and a representative from the parent-teacher association would make the board more representative of the city’s diverse concerns, he said.
Elicker said one of the most important issues he hopes the committee considers is the size of the Board of Aldermen. Currently, the Board has 30 members, who are each paid an annual salary of $2,000. By reducing the number of aldermen, the Board could be much more effective and balanced with the mayor, Elicker said.
Hausladen, meanwhile, said term limits and campaign finance are two particularly important issues. DeStefano, who became New Haven’s longest serving mayor earlier this month, is serving his 10th term in office.
“People say if eight years is good enough for the President, it should be good enough for the Mayor,” Hausladen said.
He also added that the Board should consider expanding campaign finance options for both mayoral and aldermanic elections, given the expense of campaigning and its potential to promote equal opportunities for candidates.
Ward 6 Alderman Dolores Colon agreed and said she wants to discuss term limits, though she said there are arguments for both sides. She said campaigning for elections often can be a way for aldermen to get in touch with their constituents, but that it also took up time and energy that could be put into serving as representatives.
And while the public will not receive another chance to shape the formation of the charter reform commission before the final vote at the next meeting of the Board, they still have a chance to affect the commission’s recommendations.
“This is a once-in-a-decade opportunity for us to determine how fundamental governance in the city of New Haven works,” Morrison said. “Yale students should think about and talk with people in the community about what ways democracy is working well in New Haven. Wherever it is not, we can make it more democratic and more responsive.”
There are currently 30 New Haven aldermen.