On March 5, New Haven’s Board of Alders conducted an open meeting—as they do twice each month—to review proposed legislation. With my own pew in the sparsely populated aldermanic chamber, I watched board president Tyisha Walker-Myers quickly run through the agenda, calling for voice votes on each item. Because the alders informally discuss and negotiate votes in committee before the public meeting, the all-Democrat board followed each of the president’s questions of “all in favor” with a swift and unanimous “aye.” Only one item begged a roll call vote: Order to read and file a request for a public hearing concerning moving public funds from Wells Fargo Bank.
With every headline corruption and scandal in the past year, public dissatisfaction with Wells Fargo persisted. In the Fall of 2016, news broke that bank employees created more than two million unauthorized customer accounts in an attempt to bolster performance results. The company’s leadership responded by terminating thousands of low-level workers. That same year, Wells Fargo allocated $467 million towards the construction of a the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), which spans 1,172 miles to carry crude oil from North Dakota to southern Illinois. The pipeline runs along the North Dakota’s Standing Rock reservation, which several tribes oppose due to concern it would pollute clean water supplies.
In response, citizens across the country called on elected officials to take action against the bank. In California, legislators in San Francisco, Davis, and Los Angeles held votes to divest funds from Wells Fargo. Seattle’s City Council followed suit, voting to not renew its contract with the bank. The treasurer of Illinois, Michael Frerichs, announced a state-wide plan to suspend business with Wells Fargo. In March of 2017, New Haven’s Mayor Toni Harp vowed to withdraw the city’s deposits from Wells Fargo in response to residents’ petitions.
As reflected in the Board of Alders’ vote in favor of a public hearing, activists in New Haven remained committed to keeping the city accountable to its divestment promises. Last September, protestors held a rally outside of City Hall to remove city funds from Wells Fargo, which the controller reports averages around $10 million on any given day. After the 45-minute rally, 50 demonstrators marched to Wells Fargo then turned back to City Hall to deliver a petition with 500 signatures.
New Haven moved three small accounts away from Well Fargo in the year following the demonstration. According to the New Haven Independent, the city controller’s office also began working on a draft Request for Proposal (RFP) to solicit offers from other banks interested in managing the city’s accounts. However, as Mayor Toni Harp previously discussed during a WNHH Radio appearance, finding an alternative proves difficult due to 17 other major financial institutions’ implication in funding DAPL. Nevertheless, New Haven residents continue to insert their priorities on this matter into city’s legislative agenda.
As an esteemed political scientist at Yale, the late Robert A. Dahl closely examined New Haven’s political system. He put forth the view that society’s power must come from multiple centers, which competed with the idea that American sovereignty was concentrated in business elites. As reported in the New York Times, Dahl argued that New Haven experienced a “a historical progression from patrician rule to a more contested form of government in which political parties and candidates of different ethnic and economic backgrounds competed.” In Dahl’s view, power comes from any individual that can get another individual to do something that they would not normally do.
From Dahl’s perspective, citizens share power with elites through institutions that hold decision makers accountable. That said, Dahl expressed concern over corporate managers’ ability to dictate company decisions without shareholder input, and therefore advocated for a stronger corporate governance. Decades later, Dahl’s writings on political discourse between citizens and elites continue to play out in the city of his research through the relationship between New Haven residents and their local government.
As movement towards divestment and New Haven has remained salient over the past year, the Board’s vote during the March 5 aldermanic meeting reflected small steps towards the activists’ goals. Written by several New Haven residents, the letter requests a public hearing on the city’s relationship with Wells Fargo, which would allow greater opportunities for public input and government accountability. A couple of months prior, city spokesperson Laurence Grotheer issued a statement on the proposed public hearing. As Grotheer wrote, “Mayor Harp continues working with Controller Daryl Jones and the rest of her financial team to see how the City can distance itself from Wells Fargo with a competitive bank that’s suitably equipped to safeguard the City’s assets and handle the high volume and complex transactions the City requires.” Although the Board of Alders still has yet to approval the public hearing, the March 5 meeting demonstrated favorable action for the activists as the Board unanimously voted to read the citizens’ request for public input.
After the roll call vote, the meeting continued as the Board unanimously voted on other items: a Yale University parking plan, an appointment to the human services department, and announcements for community events, among others. I found myself intrigued by the unceremonious nature of a vote relating to a topic of national scandal. Had the issue waned in saliency due to slow progress? While the city government could unilaterally decide to move forward with divestment, the Board’s vote whether or not to simply hear a request for the public to make comments reflected slower action of this issue.
That said, the strongly left-leaning political makeup of New Haven’s legislative body suggests a likely responsive outcome towards calls of divestment. Although the public did not speak in this Board of Alders’ meeting, the agenda items displayed enduring citizen input for legislative priorities. In this shared power system with a politically engaged citizenry, either the alders will act according to voters’ demands, or it will be up to the voters to hold their alders accountable.