Popular Science Monthly/Volume 85/October 1914/Home Rule the Hope of Municipal Democracy

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1581023Popular Science Monthly Volume 85 October 1914 — Home Rule the Hope of Municipal Democracy1914Oswald Ryan




IF the final test of democracy in America is to come in the cities, as Jefferson phophesied in his "Notes on Virginia," it would seem that the test should at least be a fair one. Yet the municipal machinery of the average American state permits anything but a fair trial of the democratic principle. For, every student of contemporaneous municipal conditions knows that, barring those progressive communities that have adopted some form of commission government, city government is still cursed with the curse of divided responsibility, is still in the hands of men who can not apply the rules of municipal efficiency because they are bound by the rules of the partisan game. In these cities men are still elected to office by national party organizations without regard to questions of local policy, and men are still appointed to municipal positions because of what they have done for their party rather than because of anything they can do for their city.

Deplorable as it is, the worst thing about this system of city government is that it is not the free choice of the cities that are the victims of it, but an imposition by an outside authority—the state legislature. For, under the ordinary state constitution, the city is not, in theory of law, a self-governing community, but a subject province exercising its limited powers by sufferance of the state legislature, and having this or that form of government as may be superimposed by the outside sovereign. The municipality does not even possess the right to its own existence; it exists only by grace of the state legislature, which, if it pleased to do so, could withdraw its lease of life at will.

Thus the city takes its right to existence, its form of government and its governmental powers from the state, and what the state can give the state can take away. The legal validity of any act by the city, such as the issuing of bonds, the contracting for a municipal waterworks or the granting of a municipal franchise, is not determined by the expressed desire of its citizens, but by the voice of the legislature as set out in some statute. The real seat of municipal authority, therefore, is not in the citizens, but in the state legislature; the city lives and moves and has its being in the will of the state. .

Under this system of constitutional law the cities exercise those powers that are enumerated in the state legislature grants, and only those powers. If the city wants to exercise a specific power of local government for the satisfaction of a local need, it must search the statutes for permission, and if the statutes are silent on the point, it must appeal to the state legislature for the requisite power. Thus, if a city in my own state of Indiana, for example, wishes to furnish ice to its citizens in the heat of summer, establish a pension fund for its teachers or institute a civil service test for its employees, it must make its humiliating appeal to the legislative Cæsar at Indianapolis; for these powers are not nominated in the bond. No wonder an exasperated Indiana city official was once led to remark that "the only creatures without rights under our law are outlaws, wild beasts and municipalities." Yet, that local communities shall have the fullest right of local self-government is a maxim of American institutions.

Not only must the city in the exercise of its enumerated powers keep strictly within the limits set by the state legislature, it must follow only such administrative methods as the legislature has prescribed. Even in the determination of the fundamental framework of their government the citizens have no legal voice. A certain city may desire the commission plan or the city manager plan; but, of its own action, it can not get what it wants. It must take what it gets from the state house, and in the large number of states of which I am writing it gets an antiquated form of city organization that renders increasingly difficult the municipal problem. And not only the general framework, but the minutest detail of the administrative machinery, is often prescribed by legislative act.

Generally the legislature groups the cities in classes according to their population, and then imposes a detailed plan of administrative organization and powers upon each class. This frequently means that a particular city is saddled with an administrative machinery ill-fitted to its local conditions, or with administrative methods ill-adapted to its local needs. Any one who is familiar with municipal conditions knows that even cities of the same general size often reveal the greatest diversity of conditions and needs, and that what is good for one city is often bad for another. Moreover, to imprison the city in the strait-jacket of uniform legislation checks its inventiveness, for it deprives it of the opportunity of wholesome experiment with municipal methods. It impairs its individuality, for it takes from it the chance to shape its own life and development. It lessens its sense of responsibility, for it relieves it of the responsibility of working out its own civic salvation. Common sense joins with the principle of local self-government in the demand that local institutions be permitted to conform to local conditions.

To meet the needs of modern social and economic development the American city without right of self-government is compelled by the state constitution to appeal at every turn to the legislature for relief; but that constitution never guarantees that the city's prayer shall be answered, or that it shall even be considered on its merits. Who can deny that politics-ridden legislatures have often refused to hear the appeal of the city for no other than a purely partisan reason? Who will deny that, just as burdensome laws have often been imposed upon the city for partisan purpose, so needed legislation has often been denied the city for partisan advantage? The legislative history of every state abounds with testimony to show that legislative dominion over municipal affairs has been as discreditable to the state as it has been unhealthy for the city.

Not only does the partisan character of the state legislature disqualify it for the function of guiding the administrative development of the cities, but the individual legislators have neither the time nor the knowledge of local conditions nor the proper sense of responsibility to the urban constituency necessary to a constructive treatment of the municipal problem. Members of the legislature are largely from the rural districts and can not in reason be expected to understand the perplexing problems of municipal government. Yet, to these men, untrained in the intricacies of municipal administration, unfamiliar with actual city conditions and busy with many problems of state policy, has been intrusted the tremendous task of controlling the city's administrative development. It is no reflection upon the ability or intelligence of our legislators to say that they are ill-fitted for this task of absentee law-making.

Aside from making impossible an effective solution of the municipal problem, this legislative dominion over the city impairs the efficiency of the legislative members in the other work which they have to do. In Indiana, for example, the legislative desks for years have groaned under the burden of bills having for their object to grant to cities relief from the restrictive provisions of our state constitution and laws. During the past few sessions a perfect flood of measures dealing with matters of a purely local nature engrossed legislative time and energy that should have been put upon important matters of general state policy. We have rid ourselves by a federal constitutional change of one great obstacle to legislative efficiency—the indirect election of United States Senators; it now remains to rid ourselves by state constitutional change of another great obstacle—the legislative regulation of municipal affairs. This can be done by writing into the state constitution provisions for municipal home rule. Already several states have adopted this needed reform.

What does "municipal home rule" mean? It means, in the first place, a reversal of the existing legal presumption against the powers of the city. Instead of possessing only such powers as are granted to it by the state legislature, the city, under the "home rule" system, is invested by the constitution with all powers of local government consistent with the general laws of the state. In this way is created an unmolested sphere of local self-government in which the city may exercise all powers necessary to its own complete development, without the necessity of recourse to any outside authority and without the danger of interference from any outside authority. Municipal home rule means further that the city may determine its own form of government, or as Herbert Bigelow put it, "may cut out its own municipal suit of clothes." Thus the city decides for itself, by means of a charter convention and ratification election, whether it will have the commission plan, the city manager plan, the mayor-and-council system or any other form of municipal organization.

And why not? Who know better than the citizens of Indianapolis the needs of Indianapolis and the administrative agencies that are adapted to those needs? Who can determine better than the citizens of Lexington, Kentucky, the activities of public welfare in which the government of Lexington should engage? If Terre Haute, Indiana, wants a non-partisan form of city government why should not Terre Haute have that form? There appears to be no reason for excepting cities from the operation of the principle of self-government that does not apply with equal force against the principle of democracy itself.

Ours are the only English-speaking cities in the world that are denied the right of self-government. One can not imagine, for example, legislative intermeddling in the affairs of an English city, which is permitted by Parliament to develop in its own way and according to its own ideas of administrative organization. English cities since 1832 have been among the best governed in the world and American cities have been among the worst governed. What accounts for this difference between the municipal experience of two English-speaking peoples? The main reason is that English cities are self-governed and American cities are state-governed. The citizens of Birmingham govern Birmingham; the legislature of Indiana governs Indianapolis.

Home rule for cities means municipal self-government, but it does not mean municipal independence in the sense that there are created independent sovereignties within the state. It does not mean that the state government loses its control over matters that concern the general state welfare. Thus home rule does not require that the state surrender entirely its control over elections in which state officers are chosen, for the people of the commonwealth as a whole are vitally interested in maintaining the purity of the ballot and in the prevention of corrupt and fradulent practices. It does not mean that the state resigns its power to pass laws relative to the health, safety and general welfare of its citizens. The state at large is vitally interested in the prevention of crime and disease and in the education of the people, and, although it may leave the city free to provide its own administrative machinery and allow a wide diversity in methods, it must maintain a general supervisory control over these subjects. In other words, the city government is not only an organ for the satisfaction of local needs, but an agent of the state for the performance of state functions. The doctrine of home rule recognizes this. It renders to the city the things that are the city's, and to the state the things that are the state's.

So defined—and it has been so defined by the states which have written it into their fundamental law—the principle of municipal home rule may be regarded as the first step in the direction of a responsible and efficient city government. Wherever it has been put into the constitution of a state a larger municipal vision has been created and a new brand of municipal administration has appeared. Thus it is a significant fact that many of the most advanced forms of city government have grown up in the cities which have enjoyed constitutional home rule. Given the right to determine its own destiny, the city becomes the hope, instead of the despair, of democracy. And the test which democracy receives will be a fair one.