Now that New Haven’s decennial charter revision process has essentially concluded, it is an appropriate time to reflect on where it succeeded and where it did not. On the positive side, the charter revision commission gets high marks for transparency and public engagement — exceeding the statutory minimum requirement for public hearings, moving the location of public hearings out into the community, and holding open working group meetings. Certain New Haven bad habits are hard to dispel, and regrettably there were some important decisions made behind closed doors — the appointment of Michael Smart as commission chairman was cooked up in a smoke-filled room somewhere, and the basis for the momentous decision to divide the charter amendments into two ballot questions was completely opaque. (The crafting of ballot language is a fraught political choice, not an entry-level task to be tossed off as an after-thought; it can determine whether charter revision succeeds or fails on election day, and it should not be made without public input.) For the most part the fifteen-member commission responded to concerns brought out in public testimony, as I recommended last fall in the New Haven Register, rather than boorishly pursuing their own agenda or slavishly taking their cues from the Board of Aldermen. Overall the transparency of the process went beyond the call of duty and set a positive precedent that the next charter revision commission — which may not be convened until 2023 — would be wise to replicate.
On the other side of the ledger, the commission failed to deal with some long-overdue reforms like nonpartisan redistricting and overhauling the woefully obsolete Code of Ethics, which has not been updated since 1961. While the charter commission was finalizing its recommendations, an ethics scandal involving a recently retired building department official waltzing through the revolving door and becoming a lobbyist highlighted the pressing need for the latter. It makes sense to situate the commission’s glaring oversights in the context of the tendency of charter commissions to be straitjacketed, or to straitjacket themselves, with a particular overarching focus and vocabulary that end up defining not only which elements of the charter they choose to scrutinize, but how they approach reforming them. In some cases the straitjacket is explicit from the outset: in 1950s New Haven, Mayor Richard C. Lee brazenly attempted several times to use charter commissions to increase the already-substantial power of the mayor’s office, attempts that were mainly thwarted by voters despite Lee’s overwhelming popularity, a useful reminder that most charter referendums end in failure. Other charter revision commissions have been convened with the express purpose of overhauling the structure of schools governance (see Bridgeport in 2012) or for some other specific project, usually determined by the mayor. In other cases, a charter revision commission takes on a particular focus through a more organic or accidental process. To take a benign view, the task of amending an arcane and bewildering document like the charter can be rendered more manageable by adopting a particular rubric, no matter how arbitrary.
Whether by design or by accident the charter commission that was convened in December 2012 to revise ‘New Haven’s Magna Carta’ took as its primary goal, its overarching frame of reference, the need to rebalance power between the mayor and the Board of Aldermen. This goal seemed to become more explicit as the commission’s work progressed. The commission pursued many unrelated things — e.g. eliminating anachronistic language in the charter and making the document gender-neutral — but most of its major proposals, from introducing two elected seats on the school board to giving the aldermen confirmation authority over ALL board and commissions (including the Board of Education and the two planning and zoning bodies) to codifying the civilian review board (which until now has existed solely by virtue of executive order) have all had the effect, if not the explicit intention, of limiting the mayor’s power, increasing the power of the Board of Aldermen, or both. At times the overriding impulse to empower the legislature at the expense of the executive led to perverse decisions, such as giving the Board of Aldermen the power not merely to confirm members of the Board of Zoning Appeal, but to actually appoint two members of the BZA. The commission adopted this change very late in the process in response to public testimony about conflicts of interest on the BZA. Instead of reducing the number of city officials eligible to serve on the BZA (in order to balance the power of both mayor and aldermen against the power of average citizens), or beefing up the Code of Ethics, the charter commission adopted a change that no member of the public had asked for, and that some of the groups with concerns about the BZA actually opposed. The change in BZA appointment procedure is not inconsequential, and the fact that it has has been amalgamated into an omnibus ballot question will ensure it receives very little scrutiny by the public.
The point is that not every aspect of the charter can be fit into the procrustean bed of mayoral versus aldermanic power; but when all you have is a hammer, everything looks a nail. If you think a good charter commission needs to be more of a fox than a hedgehog — that it’s okay to pursue many small changes without some overarching (or overreaching) mission — then you might conclude that despite its good intentions and its laudable procedural openness this commission has been a failure.