“Do you have the time?”
I looked up from my iPhone, startled, and scanned him: 50-something, tattered clothes, messy hair. One arm.
“It’s 6:45,” I replied. The second New Haven Board of Alders meeting of February, on the 20th, was due to start at 7, and the man and I were both early. I walked through the double-doors to the meeting chamber, hoping to finish reading a breaking news article, and the man followed. He had other plans.
“You from Yale?” he asked, apparently interested in having a conversation.
“I am. What about you?”
“Just New Haven. This is my first time at one of these things.”
I asked him if he was planning on speaking tonight during the public comment period, a mainstay at Board of Education meetings back home and presumably a part of tonight’s meeting as well.
He told me he wanted to and asked if I knew any of the alders.
“I know the one from Ward 1, Haci. He’s a Yale student. Have you heard of him?”
He hadn’t, despite what had seemed like endless press coverage in the months leading up to election night. I filled him in on the junior in Davenport College, just inaugurated to the board in January. Then he told me he wanted to give me something.
“You’re from Yale. Make sure the right people get this,” he said as he pressed three sheets of paper filled with single-spaced, typed text into my hand.
I told him I’d try. He told me his name was Chuck and that it was nice to talk with me. I told him my name and stuck my hand out to shake his. Chuck, instead, turned his hand into a fist and bumped mine.
Board President Tyisha Walker-Myers, alongside her counterpart, Democratic majority leader Richard Furlow, needed this meeting to be quick; Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro was scheduled to meet with the alders at 7:30.
After the meeting was called to order and Walker-Myers took attendance, she and Furlow ticked through the meeting agenda rapid-fire style. Walker-Myers read off a resolution, stated “discussion” (presumably meant to be read as, “discussion?”), and Furlow affirmed the motion without skipping a beat. Each interaction took about 10 seconds, tops. Exactly zero alders interrupted the back-and-forth, repeated nearly verbatim 20 times as the two checked off each agenda item. It’s quite the spectacle.
As it’s all happening, I flip through the papers Chuck gave me. “WE THE PEOPLE,” the essay is titled. It is, objectively, a jumbled mess. But the themes are clear: Chuck feels that the bonds Americans share are breaking, and that vital to rebuilding those bonds is civil discussion. He cites “arenas thousands of years ago, in Greece, Rome, Jerusalem, etc.” which served as centers for dialogue and debate and argues that these kinds of spaces may do Americans well.
As Walker-Myers sped through her agenda — which, shockingly, did not include public comment — I couldn’t help but wonder what Chuck thought of it all, because this meeting certainly didn’t include the kind of debate in which he thinks Americans ought to engage more. It didn’t include discussion. It involved a homogeneous group of representatives going through a set list of motions, seemingly oblivious to the 50 or so constituents seated before them.
But that’s how it works in New Haven, where every single one of the 30 alders are Democrats. Because of that, legislating is relegated, deliberately, to Democratic caucus meetings and, to a lesser extent, black caucus meetings. Unlike full board meetings, those meetings are closed to the public.
In other words, nearly every decision of the Board of Alders is made without public comment and without public debate. That’s why the meeting lasted 20 minutes. The full New Haven Board of Alders meeting, held only twice per month, lasted 20 minutes.
Robert Dahl wrote in Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition that some of the “institutional guarantees” of a democracy are for constituents to “signify preferences” and “have privileges weighted equally in government.” It’s hard to square those characteristics with the way New Haven’s government works. A triad of factors — ideological homogeneity, a rock-solid black caucus, and powerful union leaders — have nothing less than transformed the Board of Alders from a deliberate, governing body into a veritable monolithic force. That matters because the kinds of issues the board deals with — road repair, snow plowing, community center funding — affect all New Haveners, perhaps even more than state and federal level work.
That’s not to say that New Haven’s government is wholly undemocratic. New Haveners are overwhelmingly left-leaning and majority-minority, and their representatives on the Board of Alders reflect that. It is true that many alders at least attempt to form solid connections with constituents in their respective neighborhoods. It is also true that the work of an alder is, frankly, thankless — each earns a mere $5,000 every two years.
Yet it’s hard to observe a Board of Alders meeting and call it a fully democratic process. An alder told me after the meeting that public comment “doesn’t happen here.” Perhaps pragmatism led the board to conclude that public comment periods aren’t useful — and, truthfully, they’re often messier than productive. But it’s the act of public comment, the act of debating in public, in front of constituents, the act of elaborating on agenda items beyond, say, “submitting an Order approving the execution of a tax abatement agreement,” that matters. Whether it’s the result of cynicism or complacency or plain laziness, New Haven’s Board of Alders has strayed from the core purpose of a public board meeting, which is to open a legislating body to constituents like Chuck.
That’s a lofty ideal, sure. But in the service of a government which should both reflect and react to its constituents, it’s an ideal that the board ought to return to. For now, decisions that affect every New Havener will be made in the dark, and the board will use its public meetings as a political charade to merely officiate pre-packaged decisions.
*Photo by Crew, “Small conference room” (Unsplash), Creative Commons Zero license.