By Josh LaBella
The recent release of recommended charter alterations by the Charter Revision Commission has coincided with a particularly contentious mayoral election in which five candidates (three Democrats and two Republicans) vie for West Haven’s top spot.
The commission worked on its recommendations for more than a year before turning them over to the City Council for review earlier this summer. By far, the biggest change the city would see if the revised charter passes through the different clearing stages, is a shift to a manager-council style of government. Terms for all elected officials would also be extended from two years to four and the number of voting districts would be lowered from ten to three.
All candidates agreed a revision in the city’s charter is necessary. Incumbent Mayor Nancy Rossi said she started the charter revision process shortly after being elected mayor knowing the process would take time to complete.
“The charter has not had major updates over the last 50 years and needs to be brought up to date and modernized,” said Rossi.
Republican mayoral nominee Michele Gregorio said the charter should be reviewed periodically.
“Charter revision allows for updating those rules and regulations that are legally in place for city governance,” said Gregorio, “and should reflect any changing environments (either political, city operations, demographic or alignment with state laws).”
Regarding the change to a manger-council system, Gregorio said she sees a city manager as a kind of chief financial officer for the city.
“This individual should have both the education and experience needed and required for such position,” said Gregorio. “City managers in other municipalities have proven effective in running a municipality similar to a business with the intent of eliminating any undue political influence, contrary to an elected position which can be subjective to outside parties.”
Steven Mullins, a Republican who is primarying Gregorio for the party’s nomination, said having a manager that has earned degrees in public administration and or public policy and earned the appropriate certificates will allow West Haven to be managed by a professional.
Contrarily, former mayor Ed O’Brien, who is running against Rossi and City Clerk Debbie Collins for the Democratic nomination, did not support the change.
“A City Manager is only answerable to the council whereas as the chief elected official, the mayor is accountable to the voters,” said O’Brien. “A city manager structure creates another layer of political influence that limits input from residents.”
O’Brien also disagreed with the extended terms, saying two years was enough time to decide if the mayor was doing a good enough job to be reelected.
“While it can take more than two years to accomplish everything on his or her agenda,” said O’Brien, “it is pretty clear in one term if the Mayor is capable of delivering on their campaign promises.”
Rossi, on the other hand, said she did not think two years was enough time to put together a team, introduce their agenda, and make changes necessary to improve the city.
“In my case,” said Rossi, “we have needed to make so many changes and although we are seeing great progress, I believe a four-year term would give voters enough time to evaluate a mayor and all of our elected officials.”
Mullins also did not think the two-year terms were adequate for a mayor to create meaningful change.
“Any mayor with the best of intentions would find it difficult to accomplish much in just two years,” said Mullins. “Said mayor would continue to find him or herself in a non-stop campaign situation with the current arrangement.”
Gregorio supported the prospective change. She said the political landscape is such that a mayor is campaigning every two years and that it was not enough time to be effective.
Gregorio went on to say she supported the voting districts being brought from ten to three. She pointed to Richard DePalma being the only Republican on the City Council and said the current districts do not allow for a “clear representation of minority policy.” She said she believed the change would allow for that.
Rossi also believed the alteration would allow for better minority party representation.
“I think three districts would work,” said Rossi. “It would give at least one seat in each district to the minority party and ensure that all the sections of the city are properly represented. The more checks and balances that are in place the better.”
Mullins supports the restructuring as well. He said the change would also be good for the Board of Education.
“The board, too, will be separated into the three districts with three members representing each section of the city,” said Mullins. “With the current system, in theory all Board of Education members could live in one section of the city, and may not choose to be attentive to schools outside of the geographical area of their respective neighborhoods. The proposed arrangement would have all schools (especially the six elementary schools) represented relatively equally.”
O’Brien called the move a mistake, which would consolidate political power.
“I think it’s better to have 10 districts working to build a consensus,” said O’Brien. “However, I do think we should make the districts for state/federal and municipal elections the same. It is very confusing to the voters on Election Day to know where they should vote. This limits voter participation by complicating the process.”
Both Mullins and Gregorio said they supported the proposal that city clerk, treasurer and tax collector be appointed positions and require credentials.
Rossi echoed that opinion and said she liked the increase in budget completion dates. She said it will allow “the mayor and City Council to know what the actual state aid and educational grants will be before approving a budget.”
O’Brien said he has spoken to many residents about the charter as he goes door to door. He said citizens need to be to be thoroughly informed on the issues so that they can make an educated decision.
“My greatest concern is that they will not be aware of all sides and will not vote,” said O’Brien. “This is our democracy in action and the basis on which our country was founded. We need to make sure the proposals receive the appropriate attention and voter education. We’ll have to live with this for years to come.”
Debbie Collins did not respond to questions by press time.