Addressing a pack of city residents lingering in the auditorium of the Hooker Middle School after a public hearing on the mayor’s proposed budget, Ward 19 Alder Michael Stratton said the People’s Caucus — a breakaway group of alders he helped organize in January — had a secret weapon in its legislative arsenal: Yalies.
“We’ve got about eight Yale kids working on these ideas for us,” Stratton said, as he described a 10-point plan he claimed could save city taxpayers anywhere between $38 and $105 million and avert a proposed tax hike that has property owners in a frenzy.
Actually, the number of Yale students is closer to 10, according to Rafi Bildner ’16, who is heading up the fledgling New Haven Legislative Analysts Program, a part-resurrection, part-replacement of the defunct New Haven Policy Assistants Program.
The Analysts Program debuted this semester along with the People’s Caucus. Bildner, together with the program’s other leaders, volunteered during last year’s mayor’s race for Justin Elicker FES ’10 SOM ’10, a petitioning Independent candidate who lost to Mayor Toni Harp in the general election. After witnessing the students’ work on the Elicker campaign, Stratton said he contacted them about staying involved — not by knocking on doors for a candidate but by grinding out research to back up ideas the People’s Caucus wants to put before the Board of Alders.
Though the program got its start through work for one particular faction on the Board, Bildner said its intent is nonpartisan. The research group hopes to be of service to a range of alders of diverse affiliations.
“I would love for other members of the Board to reach out to us,” he said.
Bildner said he plans to contact Ward 1 Alder Sarah Eidelson about working with her once classes resume Monday. Eidelson, whose constituents are primarily Yale students, said in response that she is “always excited to hear from student groups that want to engage in the legislative process.”
The program has its roots in a similar Policy Assistants Program that began during the tenure of Ward 1 Alder Mike Jones ’11, who served from 2009 to 2011. First funded by Yale’s Office of New Haven and State Affairs and then through Dwight Hall, the program initially assigned students to particular alders and then pivoted to particular Board committees.
The program faltered during the Board’s last term when “there was a decrease in the volume of legislation being pushed,” according to Drew Morrison ’14, who helped in the founding both of the People’s Caucus and the student research group.
The mayor’s proposed budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1 has provided the group with an abundance of initial research opportunities, Morrison said.
“They’re looking at taking some of the People’s Caucus’ budget proposals and making them more practical and actionable,” Morrison said. Those ideas include proposals to trim certain city departments and outsource a number of city functions, while growing the tax base and boosting revenue. “It’s about making sure there is a movement of ideas on the Board.”
But Bildner said the program will outlast the budget season. His goal is to create an enduring resource for the Board, he said, with the capacity to research innovative projects and not get bogged down in the “nitty gritty details of one year’s budget or another.”
Group members said, the effort represents an attempt to make a meaningful contribution to the city.
“We have time on our hands as students,” said Rachel Miller ’15, another one of the program’s organizers. “The Yale connection is a convenient way for us to organize ourselves but really everyone is just an interested citizen, and this is one really clear way for citizens to stay involved.”
Miller said the group is looking to other cities to find best-practices solutions to New Haven’s problems. So far that has included issues of workers’ compensation and a tax rebate program to encourage workers in New Haven to live within city limits.
Other policy issues the Caucus has asked the students to research include the propriety of gag orders — akin to the ban City Clerk Michael Smart put on employees of the clerk’s office speaking to the media — and the feasibility of the city taking over the transport function that the American Medical Response company performs in calls for medical service within the city, Stratton said.
Stratton cited student involvement as model civic activism. One of the People’s Caucus’ main goals is to open up avenues for greater citizen input, he said. Policy suggestions trickle up from constituents to the alders, who then enlist the students to hone the ideas and gather evidence to make them defensible.
“It’s bottom up. We’re not going to the elite of Yale — the professors or the president — we’re going to the brain trust and saying ‘go out and investigate,’” Stratton said. “Here we have the number one university in the world, and we haven’t been using them to find out what the best practices are for our city.”
The group selected its members based on competitive application prior to the spring recess.