On Charter Reform that Would Marry NRZs to the City Council
June 12, 2008
If city leaders wanted a realistic attempt at charter reform for November’s ballot, when we would have enough voters to reach a quorum, now would have been the time to consider proposals.
Of course, the proposals major democratic reforms are too tricky for our democracy, so instant runoff voting (IRV) or publicly financed municipal elections are off the table.
Even more pedestrian measures like expanding the size of City Council cannot gain an audience with the powers that be.
If Mayor Perez took seriously democracy and people power, he would push the city to expand city council, and assign councilors to district representation. Councilman Ken Kennedy has suggested something similar, but his ideas unfortunately have been ignored.
Suppose we made those districts the same as the NRZs, and made the city councilors the paid heads of the NRZs. Understanding that only 13 NRZs service the 18 recognized neighborhoods in Hartford, suppose we created a few new NRZs to deal with those areas, and perhaps, we added a few at large members of council.
New Haven and Waterbury, both cities smaller than Hartford, have respectively 29 and 15 people serving on their Boards of Aldermen.
Perhaps if we expanded the legislative scope of Council, the elected officials could better serve neighborhood concerns.
Most importantly, it could counteract the hoard of executive power in the Mayor’s Office. Essentially, City Councilors would not only deal with the decisions of city governance, but their offices could become paid organizing centers for building neighborhoods.
An analogy would be community policing, but community governing, and creating centers of political gravity on the streets, not just Main Street. As important, the city would create a farm system of political talent to serve in the legislature, the mayor’s office, and other elective seats.
Right now, we don’t have much of a democratic training ground other than town committee, wealth, law school or just raw ambition. What if we expanded the ways that people could involve themselves with their city, and bring the government to the people?
“You have to have engaged citizens on all levels,” said City Councilman Matt Ritter. “NRZs can grow and push issues, but the onus has to be on elected officials. The onus cannot be all on the NRZs. Charter reform is not a problem solver.”
Charter reform could cost up to $100,000, which is the equivalent of two-well paying jobs, Ritter said. He doesn’t think it needs major reform.
Our democracy isn’t sick, he said, even though we have such small turnout. His aide, Andrea Comer, who sat in on the interview, said it was more about poverty. Ritter noted charter reform may not be able to address that.
While concepts like IRV have merit in making voting more accessible, we have to look at the system holistically. I challenged him that incumbents can never do that because they benefit from low voter turnout.
“I don’t agree that incumbents always want to suppress votes,” Ritter said.
Yet he acknowledged worry about fiefdoms that people in power might accumulate if we expanded council, and he expressed concern about the potential dilution of power from the nine-member body now.
Generally, he said he was hesitant to bring more people into city council.
“I like that the minority plays a role in a 9-person council,” Ritter said. He said he liked campaigning across the city and exploring the diversity of Hartford.
“You would lose that if you have a city councilman who could be elected with 400 votes,” Ritter said, adding a concern that you couldn’t have a donor base with that small a base.
“The Working Families Party raised $60,000 for their candidates this year,” Ritter said, looking to defend the system as bringing in other voices.
Logistics have to be considered in the question of growing council.
Would we need 18 executive assistants for the new city councilors? What about financing any expansion, and growing full time salaries of councilors? It could run easily into the millions.
“Even to increase city council salaries from $15,000 a year to $27,000 a year, it is an annual cost of $250,000,” Ritter said.
Questions about the size of City Hall, and its ability to fit that many people arise, too. Consolidating City Hall offices from across the city and building a new one would be great to accommodate new officials, but it doesn’t seem feasible, Ritter said.
Such a citywide issue might not get play, Comer said. She suggested that neighborhood concerns might take too much precedence in a council-by-district system.
Bernie Michel, chairman of the Asylum Hill NRZ, recognized the need to make the neighborhoods coalesce and work together, but his solution looks more towards regionalism, and not towards growing NRZs.
NRZs originally started small, he said.
“The idea of NRZs as originally formulated as an advisory group, to make sure city government had a more thourough connection to the street,” Michel said. “That way people had a direct venue through which to contact both city government and other entities.”
He’s lived in Hartford for 15 years. As a transplant from the Midwest, Michel said his first impression of the Northeast was provincialism, and that local culture might prevent councilors by district.
People identify themselves through their neighborhoods. People might say I’m from Asylum Hill rather than Hartford, Michel said.
“To set city council on that level, councilmen competing with one another, and making it that they are only elected if they were from that neighborhood,” is too small,too microcosmic, he said.
“It is too much of people not looking at the big picture,” Michel commented. “What benefits Hartford, benefits East Hartford, and West Hartford. So we need more Capital Region Council of Government style cooperation rather than less.”
Besides that, having paid staff at NRZs could put them in the precarious position of something like AHOP – the defunct and formerly corrupt Asylum Hill Organizing Project, Michel said.
“We don’t work as fast as I’d like,” he said. “I’d like paid staff, part-time staff to help us with things. But I want to be real careful. One of the reasons we managed to survive longer than AHOP was that we didn’t have anything to fight over in terms of money. I’m not sure I’d take that if it meant having to get involved in city politics.”