Last Tuesday, I attended the bimonthly New Haven Board of Alders public meeting. This meeting was not one of particular intrigue, the issues discussed would hardly be considered “hot button,” However, the routine nature of this meeting did not take away from the experience of interacting with local government. If anything, by being mundane in content, this meeting was all the more representative of how the Board of Alders functions as well as how it interacts with the community.
The aldermanic chambers are quite large, with space for the thirty alders in the front and public seating for about 300 people. On the Tuesday evening meeting that I attended, only a small fraction of the seats were filled. I was told later by one of the alders that on some days, when particularly contentious issues are being discussed, the room will fill completely, with an overflow crowd standing around the perimeter. On that night however, it was clear that a much narrower portion of the population was interested in these particular proceedings.
As the meeting proceeded, I began to think more about the people around me and their reasons for attending the meeting. No singular topic could be picked out as particularly life-changing–only two bills were actually voted on, one for the procurement of funds to demolish an old building and another to enter New Haven into the Sustainable CT Municipal Certification program. Several other resolutions and motions were listed through, but the meeting seemed to be just that: a list. A proposition for appointing an individual to a board position would be brought up, quickly noted and then the next topic, a procurement order or a citizen petition, would have its own brief moment in the rapid succession of points on a list.
In essence, the meeting seemed to be nothing more than a way to meet the formality of presenting initiatives to the public. I had expected that this event would be a personalization of the democratic process–a way to get in touch with the processes that run our country, but I came away with some mixed feelings about what the meeting meant for local democracy.
In many ways, the meeting did give an impression of humanization, surely, the workings of government are very much demystified when you are presented with a list of all the mundane resolutions that are necessary to run a city on a day to day basis. Beyond a listing of procedure, it was humanizing to see and hear the alders in person. While they may not have engaged in serious debate, they did stray off the script of the bullet point list from time to time, and one alder in particular cracked several jokes through the course of the short meeting.
Going to this meeting gave a connection to the realness of these local lawmakers and made it clear that those who run the behind the scenes of local life are truly not much different from the average citizen. In this way, the government comes off as quite representative, I could imagine effectively any individual from the New Haven community as a member of this board.
At the same time that there were signs of open representation, the meeting also seemed to hint at a closed political process: there was no debate, no audience participation and all voting decisions seemed predetermined. I got to talk to one of the alders, my friend Haci Catalbasoglu, and he confirmed my suspicion of a closed process.
All decisions of importance are made in the closed Democratic caucus meeting right before the public meeting. As the Democrats hold every position on the board, they have the power to set the meeting’s entire agenda beforehand. By keeping all debate internal, it allows the Democrats to give an outward impression of being united and strong. However, this is done at the risk of suppressing the proper expression of a diversity of opinions that makes democracy functional. Now of course, meetings do not have to be public to be democratic, but the way that the New Haven Democratic Caucus exerts its dominance does seem to be somewhat anti-pluralist.
It’s hard to know exactly what to make of what I saw at the New Haven Board of Alders meeting. A primary reason for this may be that I simply did not see much. It was a very brief meeting and the content presented was very limited in depth. To get a real sense of the state of New Haven’s democracy would require a much deeper research of the history and procedures of the Board of Alders.
The most important thing that I would take away from the meeting I attended is that it is very important to actively engage with government of all levels to ensure that it reflects the democratic values key to American society. I like to think that most local politicians want to be involved in government because they want to help their communities, but as Schumpeter argues in his theory of democracy, the inherent competition of democracy can lead to incentives for exclusion of political opponents. A precondition for this competition turning democracy sour could be a party that has complete power to set the legislative agenda, just as exists in New Haven. Again, that is not to say that the Democratic Caucus of New Haven is authoritarian in any way, but it is a cautionary note to say that our conception of democracy doesn’t just happen of its own accord, it is dependent upon the actions of individuals to ensure that it flourishes. Particularly on the local level, it seems there can be a lack of official oversight. The magnitude of power in local bodies may not be great, but they are still significant as they are the most basic building block of the political society that governs our nation. Because of this, the way these bodies function is important, and by connection, it is important that these bodies are overseen by those who would uphold democracy. I came to conclusion that this was in some part of the purpose of the citizens of New Haven who attended the meeting that night: they are the most basic gatekeepers of democracy, who, with open ears and eyes, ensure that their government retains its democratic ideals.