New Haven Register (Sunday) (New Haven, CT)
West Haven charter revision unlikely
Though there have been calls for change, last effort failed
WEST HAVEN — In 62 years, officials say the city’s charter has had some cosmetic work done but fundamentally is the same document.
A proposed 2020 charter revision that failed to pass with voters, called for changes to the city’s governance structure, such as implementing a town manager model.
John Carrano, who had served on the Charter Revision Committee as its majority leader, said most of the changes proposed at the time were not so drastic, such as changing language to give the city more flexibility — he said it would make the difference between some city departments being required to have a certain amount of employees and those departments having a suggested level of staffing.
Carrano said the question of whether the charter should be redone is an obvious yes to him. Whether it’s politically feasible to present an ambitious restructuring of government as the 2020 document did, he said, is another question.
“It’s a normal course of business in the corporate world to go in and adjust your policies and procedures. You learn things and change them,” he said. “We spent hundreds of hours researching other communities and you look at their charter and our charter and think, ‘Holy cow.’ We were just out of becoming a town back then, so it’s not at the level that a business person would look at this and think it was put together well.”
Ed Granfield, the chairman of the Charter Revision Committee that presented a revised charter to voters in 2020, said, “many of the current stipulations in the city charter are more than just antiquated.” That revised charter, which Granfield said required thousands of volunteer hours and represented a complete overhaul of the document, failed by 439 votes.
Last year, City Council Finance Committee Chairwoman Bridgette Hoskie, D-1, said she wanted to set the Charter Revision Committee in motion again. Although the council approved a budget for the 2023 fiscal year that appropriated no funding toward a revision committee, she said she wanted the reconvening of a committee to be on the city’s “to-do list.”
One year later, however, the item does not appear to be on the city’s radar — but Hoskie has not forgotten.
“It is absolutely time to broach the subject again,” she said.
She said any new efforts would need to be done differently from the time before, in which ambitious changes were presented to voters as an “all or nothing question.”
If the council were to appropriate any funding toward reconvening a committee, there would need to be some discussion first. Council Chairman Peter Massaro, D-6, said there are “more serious problems” in the city than revising the charter. Among those problems, he said, are the need to balance the budget, keep the city’s finance director role filled, and promote economic development.
“Sometimes the city has a problem following the present charter,” he said.
Mayor Nancy Rossi said that if a charter revision process were to be initiated, it would not be through a stroke of her pen.
“I have already put forth Charter Revision and held an Organizational Meeting on March 21, 2018. It cost the taxpayers thousands of dollars and it was voted down,” she said in an email. “No, I have no intention of bringing Charter Revision forward in this budget and I will not be funding it.”
Granfield said that, while the process did use some money, it was for the purpose of hiring outside attorneys to assist with legal research to free up the city’s corporation counsel of some duties.
“Certainly the effort we made and the proposals we submitted would’ve done a good job of upgrading how the city functions,” he said. “Nothing can legislate bad behavior or poor management, but what you can do and what we did try to do is up the bar and raise the standards of how the city operates so the problems we’re facing today could be minimized.”
In the time since the charter revision failed in 2020, the city’s financial processes and its adherence to its charter have come under increased scrutiny after former Democratic state Rep. Michael DiMassa was arrested in 2021 in connection with a wire fraud conspiracy that led to the theft of about $1 million by taking advantage of a lack of oversight and financial checks and balances.
The state Municipal Accountability Review Board, which last year placed West Haven under the highest level of oversight available under its statute, also repeatedly has criticized city leaders for violating the charter.
A spokesman for the state Office of Policy and Management declined to comment for this story.
Additionally, Granfield said putting the 2020 charter revision back before voters wouldn’t be instantaneous, either.
“We couldn’t just wake up tomorrow and say, ‘Let’s bring that proposal back,’” he said. That’s because the process would require several public hearings as well as some updates to language that make reference to dates.
The failure of the 2020 charter revision effort affected other elements of city governance. Chris Vargo, chairman of the city’s newly reconvened ethics commission, said the commission is seeking to pass a new code of ethics as an ordinance instead of enshrining it in the city charter, largely because it would be difficult to pass as a charter revision and difficult to modify.
In other municipalities, charters are reviewed regularly. New Haven convened a nine-member panel this year for the once-a-decade charter revision process. In Hamden, voters approved a revised city charter last November that lengthens mayoral terms, although the process was delayed by one year when the town’s Legislative Council voted it down by a narrow margin the year prior.