1922 Encyclopædia Britannica/City Government

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CITY GOVERNMENT (United States).—Lord Bryce's American Commonwealth (1888) may be said to mark the turning point in the consideration of city problems in America. From the end of the Civil War in 1865 to 1888 the United States was engrossed in problems of readjustment, reconstruction, transportation and internal development. Municipal affairs, where not wholly neglected, were at low ebb and in the hands of selfish political organizations, whose interests were wholly those of personal aggrandizement and profit. Lord Bryce's criticism stung the country into consciousness of the shortcomings.

A national conference on city government was held in Philadelphia in 1894, out of which grew the National Municipal League. Its early meetings were devoted to a statement of conditions and to a discussion of the lessons they taught. Publicists and students were not in a position to agree upon a statement of belief, mainly because they had not given to general plans the necessary attention and study; their experience had been purely local. There was no regular form of American municipal government, and the greatest diversity of types, although the general tendency was toward a federal plan modelled on that of the national Government with a division of functions (legislative, administrative and judicial). Out of the League's efforts grew a “municipal programme” the fundamental features of which were that every community should have the right of self-government in local affairs without the interference of outside governmental or party machinery; that the city's public property in land, and especially its franchise rights, should be preserved unimpaired; that all barriers should be removed which prevented the popular will from expressing itself freely and effectively; that municipal administration should be conducted in the main by a class of public servants who by reason of experience and special training were particularly fitted for their official duties; that official responsibility should be so placed, through simplification of governmental machinery and full publicity of accounts, that the people could hold their public servants to the execution of the public will with the least possible delay and uncertainty.

In the year in which this programme was adopted (1900) the Galveston flood nearly destroyed that city. Among other things swept away was the typical old-style mayor and council form of government, which was replaced by a commission of five men appointed by the governor of Texas. This commission worked so swiftly and efficiently, and with so much less annual cost, that, after the emergency passed, an attempt was made to continue it with a commission of five members, three appointed by the governor and two chosen by popular vote. A court decision declared such appointments to be unconstitutional and the entire commission forthwith became elective. To the surprise of many observers, no demoralization ensued, and through successive elections the changes in the personnel were slight.

In 1908 Des Moines adopted the Galveston plan, with the addition of the initiative, referendum, recall and non-partisan primary. This broader plan was widely copied, and 481 cities and towns of 2,000 and over by Jan. 1 1921 had adopted it.

The following cities of more than 50,000 inhabitants (census of 1920) were in 1921 operating under this form: Buffalo, N. Y.; Dallas, Tex.; Erie, Harrisburg, Wilkesbarre, York, Lancaster, McKeesport and Reading, Pa.; Jacksonville, Fla.; Kansas City, Kan.; Lawrence and Lynn, Mass.; Newark, N. J.; New Orleans, La.; Portland, Ore.; St. Joseph, Mo.; St. Paul, Minn.; Salt Lake City, Utah; Seattle, Spokane and Tacoma, Wash. There were in the same year 56 cities and towns in Illinois under commission government; Texas followed with 48; Kansas had 42; New Jersey 38; Pennsylvania 32; Oklahoma 23; California 17; Michigan 17; South Dakota 16; Alabama 13; Louisiana 13; Tennessee 13; Florida 12; Iowa, Missouri, North Dakota and Washington 10 each. The number per state gradually decreased until in Arizona, Connecticut, Maine, Maryland and New Mexico there was one each. There was none in New Hampshire, Vermont, Rhode Island, Delaware, Virginia, Georgia, Indiana, Arkansas, Wyoming, and Nevada.

Few changes of importance were made in the Des Moines model for several years after 1908 (except the preferential ballot first added by Grand Junction, Colo., 1909) until the appearance in 1913 of the first modification providing for a city manager. Out of this grew a city-manager form of commission government, which the National Municipal League recommended to charter-makers, then multiplying in great numbers due to the growing dissatisfaction with existing conditions. A second “municipal programme” formally adopted by the National Municipal League in 1914, definitely embodied the city-manager plan and later recommended that the council or legislative body be elected on the principle of proportional representation.

The city-manager movement is justly regarded as the best fruit of the movement for better municipal government. It embodies the short ballot, responsiveness to public opinion, concentration of executive power and responsibility, expert administration of city affairs, and elimination of legislative control over the administrative, all essential principles of sound governmental practice. The success of the plan has been abundantly proved, although here and there expectations, because unreasonable, have not been met. Like other governmental agencies it is open to change and improvement, but it stands as the big contribution to political science of the past quarter of a century. Moreover, its application to an increasing number of cities is developing municipal policies as perhaps no other single factor does. City-planning, zoning, budget-making, the preparation of adequate and carefully devised plans for transportation, intelligent housing, have all been stimulated by the introduction of experts in municipal affairs.

On Jan. 1 1920 there were 203 cities, according to the City Manager Association roll, operating in this form; Michigan leading with 27 cities; California, Texas and Virginia following with 19 each; Iowa and Ohio 12; North Carolina 9; Florida 8; New York 6; Pennsylvania and Georgia 5. There was none in New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Delaware, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, North Dakota, Nebraska, Alabama, Mississippi, Montana, Wyoming, Nevada, Idaho, Washington. The following cities with a pop. of 25,000 or more (census of 1920) were in 1921 administered by city managers: Alameda, Pasadena, Sacramento, San Diego and San José in California; Colorado Springs, Colo.; Tampa, Fla.; Dubuque, Ia.; Waltham, Mass.; Bay City, Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, Muskegon and Pontiac, Mich.; Niagara Falls and Watertown, N. Y.; Akron, Ashtabula, Dayton, Lima and Springfield, O.; Muskogee, Okla.; Altoona, Pa.; Beaumont, Tex.; Lynchburg, Newport News, Norfolk, Peterburg, Portsmouth, and Roanoke, Va.; and in West Virginia, Charleston and Wheeling.

Home rule for cities, a far cry when Lord Bryce's book appeared, was in 1921 the guaranteed constitutional right of the cities of one-quarter of the states in the Union and bade fair to become the policy of many more. It represented a great gain both for municipal government and for an efficient administration of state affairs. Improvements in the personnel of city officials have not kept pace with improvements in other directions, although substantial changes for the better are everywhere to be noted. There can be no lasting improvement in this connexion until the short ballot becomes an established fact. This change will come less quickly than the others because of the “vested interests” of the great political organizations, which will yield with the greatest reluctance, for the short ballot means the substitution of citizen management for party organization. Whether the latter would ever cease to be necessary was still in 1921 a question upon which there was a sharp difference of opinion. There is no doubt, however, that party ties, particularly in local contests, are far looser than they formerly were. “Municipal affairs” was in 1921 a phrase which included a multitude of things that a generation earlier were not discussed even academically. One has only to study the budget of the present-day American city to appreciate how manifold those affairs have become. Not only numerically but intrinsically they have grown in importance and this constitutes an important feature of the present public interest in them. The municipal activities of American cities are numerous and varied. Prof. Frank Parsons, in summing them up, declared that the following subjects were held to be proper public purposes and proper subjects of municipal ownership and control: “Roads, bridges, sidewalks, sewers, ferries, markets, scales, wharves, canals, parks, baths, schools, libraries, museums, hospitals, lodging houses, poor houses, police, jails, cemeteries, prevention of fire, supply of water, gas, electricity, heat, power, transportation, telegraph and telephone service, clocks, skating rinks, musical entertainments, exhibitions of fireworks, tobacco warehouses, employment offices.” The three decades following 1890 witnessed a steady growth toward responsible, efficient democratic government among American cities. (C. R. W.)