For a democracy to function, government decision-making must be open and accessible. The public deserves to know why their representatives vote on deeply important issues that impact us all. In New Haven, a city with more than its fair share of challenges, it’s all the more important that the actions of city government are open to scrutiny and that elected officials are held to account.
But, in our city, too many decisions are taken behind closed doors because of the single party rule in City Hall. The fact that Democratic Party Caucus meetings, held before Board of Alders meetings, are closed to the public means that, too often, deliberation occurs and decisions are made prior to any public gathering. When the board does meet, meetings are brief — the last one lasted 26 minutes — without discussion and all votes unanimous.
A recent meeting highlighted many of the problems facing democracy in our city.
Five alders were absent, presumably because they knew that very little was actually going to be decided at the meeting itself. The board voted unanimously on every single one of 38 motions, 27 of them as a single block. There was neither discourse nor dialogue at a meeting that was intended to discuss these issues in front of the public. There was no explanation or even a description of what was being voted on. These were important votes that have real effects on New Haven citizens.
I wish this were an exception, but it’s not. This is just what Board of Alders meetings are like at City Hall. Over the last two years, only a handful of votes were not unanimous, and only a handful of dissenting voices were heard. If it is clear that a motion won’t be met with full support, it is often quickly pulled to be discussed privately among members of the caucus out of the public eye.
This practice damages democracy by diminishing the level of accountability each alder must be held to.
But more importantly, a lack of scrutiny actively leads to bad governance, which affects everyone in New Haven. Just last year, when Yale tried to build a new science building on Whitney Avenue, the board held up approval for 6 months, delaying the creation of over 280 jobs. The reason given for this delay — concerns about parking spaces — was widely seen as a cover for a more questionable political motive: to pressure the University to negotiate with Local 33. The lack of a voice of scrutiny on the board meant that nobody questioned the reasoning for this decision in an arena open to the public.
Caucuses aren’t inherently bad. They allow our representatives to discuss ideas and stances with their peers and develop a position for their party. Caucuses can make city government more effective, but these meetings have become a place to take unaccountable policy stances and craft legislation shrouded in secrecy. It has created a single party system that prioritizes anonymity over accountability.
One of the reasons I’m running as an unaffiliated alder for Ward 1 on November 7th is that I want to be an independent voice in my city to promote scrutiny and accountability. If elected, I would not belong to the Democratic Party Caucus and would instead work to foster an open dialogue in meetings. I don’t imagine that my election will cause a huge behavioral shift on the board, but it will mean that I would have the capacity to keep members accountable, to ask questions in meetings that the public deserves to understand and to invite real discourse into our local government.
I’m certainly not the first person to take a stance on this issue. Former Alder and mayoral candidate Justin Elicker ’04 fiercely campaigned on this issue back in 2013, saying that “we need to increase the amount of transparency so that people in the city feel like the government is something they can trust.” Doug Hausladen ’04, now the mayor’s director for transportation, traffic and parking, even started a campaign called Take Back New Haven when he sat as Ward 7 alder to tackle the lack of accountability of the caucus.
It’s time to change how New Haven government works. I can’t promise today how I’ll vote on every single issue or exactly what I’ll do on the board. Local politics is nuanced and needs to be treated as such. But what I can promise is that, after every meeting as your alder, I’ll put myself in front of a camera and tell you how and why I voted on every single issue. Government works better at all levels when representatives are held to account and decisions are taken in the public eye, and I intend to do my part to start improving accountability in the city that I love.
Hacibey Catalbasoglu is a junior in Davenport College and a candidate for Ward 1 alder. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .
Correction, Oct. 13: A previous version of this column stated that eight alders were absent in a recent Democratic Party Caucus meeting. In fact, five alders were absent.