Intro to Local Politics

Intro to Local Politics

A ristotle said that man is by nature a political animal, but getting involved in local politics may not come so naturally. It takes work to find out what’s happening in New Haven and where you fit in. But making your concerns heard is important, says Board of Alders president Tyisha Walker-Myers. “If you have an issue, or if you want to be involved in something, you have to bring your own voice,” Walker-Myers says. “We’re all really busy… But if there’s something you care about, you’ll make time.”

The best place to start may be in your own neighborhood. The city is divided into 30 wards, each represented by one elected alderperson. But it’s also divided into 12 Community Management Teams, or CMTs. CMT meetings, led by elected volunteer chairs who live in the neighborhood, are often the first place where alderpersons hear about concerns from their constituents.

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On a recent Monday evening, the East Rock/Prospect Hill Community Management Team gathered in the community room at mActivity on Nicoll Street. Folding chairs were set up for the crowd of about 30 residents, who were joined by four of their five alderpersons, three New Haven police officers and representatives from other neighborhoods as well as Yale and Albertus Magnus. They discussed a range of neighborhood concerns including traffic calming, taxes, a fire at the fire station, fraud targeting seniors and Yale’s plans to purchase a private home, among others.

David Budries has chaired this CMT for three years. Each neighborhood team has a similar “flavor,” he says, but their operations can vary. Budries aims for the meeting to “not just be a place for people to come and gripe but also a place for people to come and find out what’s going on in the community.” In other words, it’s a two-way street: Alders share information from the city, and residents bring their concerns to the alders. Police representatives also share information, answer questions and collect concerns. Neighbors learn from one another, too. Some of the “artificial barriers” between specific neighborhoods break down in the meetings, Budries says, and discussions can help people “understand we’re part of a bigger organism.”

Another entry point into local politics is attending a meeting of one of the 10 Board of Alders committees: Aldermanic Affairs, City Services and Environmental Policy, Community Development, Education, Finance, Human Services, Legislation, Public Safety, Tax Abatement and Youth Services. This is where public testimony is taken on issues that will eventually come up for a vote before the Board of Alders. At the beginning of each committee meeting, citizens with a concern or a question can sign up to speak. Even if you miss the initial signup, Walker-Myers says committee chairs will ask during the meeting if anyone wants to bring business to the table. For committee meeting dates, times, locations and many agendas, you can check the schedule on the city’s website, call the Office of Legislative Services information line at (203) 946-6483 or watch for notices in the New Haven Register or New Haven Independent. Minutes of past meetings are harder to come by; many are listed as “not available.”

The public can also attend the twice-monthly meetings of the full Board of Alders, held at 7 p.m. in City Hall on the first and third Monday of each month (first Monday only in the summer). But don’t expect to participate or even to hear much business discussed. Much of the final discussion and decision-making appears to happen behind closed doors in a Democratic Caucus meeting right before the public-facing Board of Alders session. In a different city, Democrats and Republicans might caucus separately in order to solidify their stances before entering a public meeting. In New Haven, 28 of 30 alders are Democrats, with the remainder independent.

As a result, the Board of Alders meeting I attended in mid-April galloped along with rubber-stamp speed. The four-page, single-spaced agenda was covered in 35 minutes. The highlight of that meeting was the Black and Hispanic Caucus State of the City Address, delivered by Alderperson Dolores Colón of Ward 6, who identified herself as the longest-serving alder with 17 years on the board.

After Colón spoke, approval of the previous meeting’s minutes was followed by the quick dispensation of several agenda items, with majority leader Richard Furlow calling out actions and votes taken briskly. Only two brief points of information were brought up by alderpersons for “discussion,” and the meeting ended with several “points of personal privilege”—in this case, announcements of city events. Like committee meetings, meetings of the full board are listed on the city’s website along with agendas and supporting documentation. Also like committees, most of the board’s minutes have not been posted. Citizens who want access to unposted minutes have to contact the Legislative Services office directly. New Haveners can also find out whether their alderperson maintains an email newsletter for constituents by—what else?—sending them an email.

Other options for civic engagement are available via 45 boards and commissions under the purview of the mayor’s office, staffed by citizen volunteers and addressing issues from aging to zoning. These meetings are also open to the public, and some of these groups do a better job of posting their documentation.

Hundreds of New Haven residents volunteer countless hours to keep the city’s political machine humming, or at least grinding. Even those who are paid earn paltry compensation for their time—in the case of the alderpersons, a little over $2,000 annually, according to the 2017-18 city budget. Frustrations abound, from a better-but-imperfect city website to unreturned phone calls and emails to missing records. Nevertheless, as alderperson Jill Marks puts it, if you start showing up, “you [won’t] just be a talker… you’ll be a doer.”

New Haven City Government
New Haven City Hall – 165 Church St, 2nd Fl, New Haven (map)
Community Management Teams | Board of Alders | Mayor’s Office

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Photographed by Dan Mims. Image depicts New Haven’s aldermanic chambers.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is Daily Nutmeg’s associate editor. She’s also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter at KathyLeonardCzepiel.com. Her favorite New Haven scene is a packed summer concert on the Green with dinner from the food trucks, and she loves that there’s always something new to discover here.

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