Page:EB1911 - Volume 27.djvu/675

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.

expenditure. In 1810 the annual budget of New York city—with a population of 100,000—was $100,000; to-day an average city of 100,000 population has an annual expenditure of from $1,000,000 to $2,000,000, and the total expenditure of the city of New York in 1909 exceeded $150,000,000. Municipal government is therefore a matter of high concern to America, and plays a large part in any study of American political institutions.

The historical origin of American municipal government is to be found in certain boroughs which had been chartered in the colonial period, after the fashion of English boroughs. These American corporations had the usual English system of borough government, consisting of a mayor, aldermen and councilmen, who carried out the simple administrative and judicial functions needed for the then small communities. The basis for the government of each American city is still a charter, but since the Revolution these charters have been granted by the state legislatures, and are subject to constant change by statute. The charters of cities have shown the same process of increasing length and detailed regulation as the state constitutions; and in details there are many differences between different cities. In some states cities are now permitted to enact their own charters. (See American Commonwealth, chs. l.-lii.)

As a rule, one finds (1) a mayor, elected directly by the voters within the city, who is the head of the administration; (2) administrative officers or boards, some directly elected by the city voters, others nominated by the mayor or chosen by the council; (3) a council or assembly, consisting sometimes of two, but more frequently of one chamber, elected directly by the city voters; and (4) judges, usually elected by the city voters, but sometimes appointed by the state.

The mayor is by far the most important official in the city government. He is elected usually for two years, but sometimes for one, three or four (in New York his term is now four years). He has almost everywhere a veto on all ordinances passed by the council, modelled on the veto of the Federal president and of a state governor. In many cities he appoints some or all of the heads of the administrative departments, usually with the approval of the council, but in some important cities the mayor has an absolute power of appointment. As the chief executive officer, he preserves the public peace. In practice he is often allowed to exert a certain discretion as to the enforcement of the laws, especially those providing for Sunday closing, and this discretion has sometimes become a source of mischief. He usually receives a considerable salary, varying with the size of the city.

The practical work of municipal administration is carried on by a number of departments, some under single heads, and some under boards or commissions. The number and classification of these departments vary widely in the different cities. The board of education, which controls the public schools, is usually largely independent of the council, and in some important cities has an independent power of taxation. In Boston, St Louis, Baltimore, and some few other cities, the police board (or commissioner) is appointed by the governor because police matters had been mismanaged by the municipal authorities and occasionally allowed to become a means of extortion and a door to corruption.

The city councils pass local ordinances, vote appropriations, levy taxes and generally exert some control over appointments to administrative positions. The recent tendency has been, however, to decrease the powers of the council and to increase those of the mayor. In some cities the mayor has received an absolute power of appointment; the departments, especially the boards of health, have large ordinance-making powers; statutes passed by the state legislature determine (excepting the states where cities can make their own charters) the principal lines of municipal policy, and the real control over appropriations and taxes is occasionally found vested in a board of estimate, consisting of the mayor, comptroller (the chief financial officer), and a few other administrative officials. In New York City, where the council had lost public confidence, and in some other places, the only important power still possessed by the council is that of granting franchises to street railways, gas companies and the like. In the smaller cities, however, the councils have retained a wider measure of authority. In 1902 the city of Galveston, in Texas, adopted a new form of municipal government by vesting all powers in a commission of five persons, elected by the citizens on a “general ticket,” one of whom is mayor and head of the commission, while each of the others has charge of a department of municipal administration. A similar plan, differing in some details, was subsequently introduced in the city of Des Moines, in Iowa; and the success which has attended this new departure in both cities has led to its adoption in many others, especially, but not exclusively, in the Western states. In 1910 more than seventy cities were so administered. Under it administration would appear to have become both more pure and more efficient. The functions of city government may be distributed into three groups: (a) Those which are delegated by the state out of its general coercive and administrative powers, including the police power and the granting of licences; (b) those which, though done under general laws, are properly matters of local charge and subject to local regulation, such as education and the relief of the poor; and (c) those which involve no questions of policy, but are of a purely business nature, such as the paving and cleansing of streets, the construction and maintenance of drains, the provision of water, &c.

It is here proper to advert to a remarkable extension of direct popular government which has in recent years been Initiative, Referendum and Recall. applied both to states and to cities. Several state constitutions now contain provisions enabling a prescribed number (or proportion) of the voters in a state or city to submit a proposition to all the registered voters of the state (or city) for their approval. If carried, it takes effect as a law. This is the Initiative. These constitutions also allow a prescribed number of voters to demand that a law passed by the state legislature, or an ordinance passed by the municipal authority, be submitted to all the voters for their approval. If rejected by them, it falls to the ground. This is the Referendum. Some cities also provide in their charters that an official, including the mayor or a member of the council, may be displaced from office if, at a special election held on the demand of a prescribed number of the city voters, he does not receive the largest number of votes cast. This is the Recall. All these three institutions are in operation in some Western states and are spreading to some of the Eastern cities. Their working is observed with lively interest, for they carry the principle of direct popular sovereignty to lengths unprecedented except in Switzerland. But it is not merely to the faith of the Western Americans in the people that their introduction is due. Quite as much must be ascribed to the want of faith in the legislatures of states and cities, which are deemed too liable to be influenced by selfish corporations.

IV.—The Federal System.

§ 13. When, in 1776, the thirteen colonies threw off their allegiance to the British Crown and took the title of states, they proceeded to unite themselves in a league by the Articles of Confederation of 1781. This scheme of union proved defective, for its central authority, an assembly called Congress, was hopelessly weak. It had neither an executive nor a judiciary, nor had it proper means of coercing a recalcitrant state. Its weakness became so apparent, especially after the pressure of the war with Great Britain had been removed, that the opinion of the wisest men called for a closer and more effective union. Thus the present Constitution was drafted by a convention in 1787, was ratified by nine states (the prescribed number) in 1788, and was set to work under George Washington as first president in 1789.

§ 14. The Constitution is a document of the first importance in the history of the world, because it has not only determined The Federal Constitution. the course of events in the American Republic, but has also influenced, or become a model for, other constitutions, such as those of Switzerland (1848 and 1874), Canada (1867), Australia (1900), besides Mexico and the numerous republics of South and Central America. It was in substance compromise effected between those who wished for a centralized government and those who desired to leave very wide powers to the component states; and many subsequent difficulties arose from the omission to settle certain points, and from the somewhat vague language in which other points were referred to. Of these omissions and points left vague, some were inevitable, because an agreement could not have been reached, some were due to the impossibility of foreseeing what difficulties the future would bring with it. But they were, considering the conditions under which the instrument was framed, comparatively few, and the Constitution, when one regards it as a piece of drafting, deserves the admiration which it has received from nearly all American and most foreign critics. It is, on the whole, admirably clear, definite and concise, probably superior in point of technique to all the documents since framed on its model.

As respects substance, the Constitution, being enacted by and expressing the will of the people, who are the ultimate source of political power, is the supreme law of the land over the whole Union, entitled to prevail over all laws passed by Congress, the legislature which it creates, as well as over all