Separating the powers
For forms of government, let fools contest. Whatever is best administered is best. – Alexander Pope
>From the aldermen and councillors of colonial America to the mayors, councilmembers, commissioners and managers of the 20th century, local government in the United States has passed through a variety of incarnations. The history of city and county management is rooted in parliamentary England, but it has evolved into a uniquely American balancing act between elected and appointed officials.
In the beginning
The first American cities were legal corporations with special charters granted by the governor or a proprietor who acted in the name of the English Crown. Those early boroughs (a traditional English term) or cities (an honorary title granted to boroughs that possessed a cathedral) operated under a unicameral council consisting of: * an alderman and councillors or * assistant aldermen presided over by a mayor who typically had full voting privileges.
The mayor and the recorder (a city attorney or corporation counsel) were chosen annually by the council or the governor, and they often had limited judicial powers. Councilmembers, on the other hand, were elected by property holders or other taxpayers who qualified as voters.
At the same time, the open town meeting was being employed in Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Maine, Massachusetts and Vermont. Originating in the Massachusetts Bay Colony of the late 1620s, the town meeting form of government functioned unquestioned until the 1780s, when Boston began to explore incorporation and the establishment of a town council. In 1822, the city adopted a charter that replaced the open town meeting with a mayor and council, and other Massachusetts jurisdictions followed suit. Nevertheless, town meetings are still prevalent in New England.
By 1746, roughly 22 municipalities, including New Amsterdam (New York) and Philadelphia, had been incorporated, but no additional charters were granted until after the Revolutionary War. At that time, new state leaders asserted their claims to power, and state legislatures pre-empted the rights of English governors and took control of the municipal corporations. In Massachusetts, for example, the state constitution prohibited the imposition of municipal charters on towns that did not give their consent – an act that paved the way for home rule charters.
While the mayor-council hierarchy was in place at America’s inception, separation of powers and a system of checks and balances were not introduced until 1797, when Baltimore established the country’s first bicameral council. The lower house consisted of 16 members – two representatives from each of eight wards – who were elected for one-year terms. Additionally, one representative was elected in each ward to form the upper house.
Baltimore’s voters also chose members of an electoral college who selected a mayor. The mayor had the power of veto, which could be overridden by a two-thirds vote in each house of the council. Although the concept of the mayoral veto spread slowly, it was commonplace by the 1830s. However, Baltimore’s method of selecting a mayor through an electoral college did not catch on. In fact, despite their newfound autonomy, during the early 1800s, many U.S. municipal governments still followed the English practice of gubernatorial selection of the mayor. That began to change in 1822, when St. Louis revised its charter to provide for direct election of the mayor. It paved the way for direct elections in Detroit (1824), Philadelphia (1826), Baltimore (1833) and New York (1834).
Corruption and change
Along with direct elections came new power for the nation’s mayors. For example, mayors began to appoint committees, and, combined with their authority to preside over councils, the mayors had significant influence in policy development. With the advent of Jacksonianism, however, municipalities sought to decentralize their governments, separating powers between the mayor and the council and extending public ballots to allow direct election of administrative officials (e.g., ward assessors, tax collectors, clerks, constables, treasurers and corporation counsel/city attorney).
Services changed, too. Initially, taxes funded fire and police protection, public schools, and basic welfare and water provision. By 1860, however, as local governments faced a half-century of unprecedented growth, they juggled demands for road construction, development and building code enforcement – specialized expertise that could not be provided by councilmembers alone.
Seemingly overnight, partisan city bosses emerged, indulging in nepotism, patronage and the exploitation of the municipal funds over which they were granted control. In response to public discontent (primarily voiced by citizens in rural towns and the small communities that surrounded the cities), progressive reformers fought for – and won – a series of reforms that prompted a number of organizational experiments in local government.
In the 1870s, New York’s Committee of Seventy – one of the country’s earliest nonpartisan “good government” associations – overthrew the corrupt Tweed Ring that controlled Tammany Hall, the dominant political organization in the city. Philadelphia later formed a similar group, and the two organizations met at the Conference for Good Government in Philadelphia in 1894. That meeting paved the way for the establishment of the National Municipal League in 1895, which joined 46 reform groups from across the country.
In an attempt to stem the corruption and waste that characterized many city governments, reformers began developing charters that centralized bureaucratic responsibility with the mayor. The National Municipal League endorsed that practice when, in 1898, it approved the first model city charter, which concentrated municipal power in the elected executive.
Under that model, mayors were given full appointing authority, a line item veto and budget responsibility. However, policy duties often were incompatible with the mayor’s operational duties, prompting reformers to experiment further with the local government hierarchy.
A push for commissions
In particular, reformers began looking for ways to incorporate the administrative organization of U.S. corporations into that of local government. The commission form of government, which was formally introduced in 1901 in Galveston, Texas, was one of the first – and initially one of the most popular – models to emerge from that search.
Applying the organizational and administrative techniques of private business, the unicameral commission rejected the large, ward-selected council in favor of a smaller group of seven or fewer members elected at large on a nonpartisan basis. Reformers later added the populistic initiative, referendum and recall that became known as the Des Moines version of the commission plan.
The Des Moines plan garnered support from the National Short Ballot Organization, a group founded by a young Yale graduate and advertising executive, Richard Childs. Childs fervently believed that the power of the boss machines could be overthrown by significantly reducing the size of party ballots, thus limiting the number of administrative positions that could be elected and forcing citizens to focus on just a few officials directly responsible for the government’s administration.
The concept spread quickly and was adopted by nearly 500 cities by 1917. However, despite its popularity, the commission form was flawed; it discarded all the checks and balances established under the executive-mayor-council form. Furthermore, the commissioners – usually elected for their political rather than administrative skills – assumed full-time administrative roles as department heads, despite their lack of qualifications.
Eventually, the prevalence of the commission plan declined. The number of new commissions dwindled, and nearly 90 percent of cities that had adopted the model abandoned it.
Birth and rebirth
As many cities experimented with the commission concept, others looked for ways to incorporate the practices of private sector management into a system that preserved separation of powers. Staunton, Va., would be pivotal among that group.
In 1906, Staunton became a first-class city under Virginia state law and reorganized its government as a bicameral council – the Common Council – consisting of 22 members. However, the municipal government was placed under the direction of numerous committees, which brought the city’s capital projects to a complete standstill. John Crosby, former clerk of the board of supervisors in Augusta County, Va., served on the Common Council and suggested a remedy to Staunton’s local government bottleneck. “I was a clerk of the Board of Supervisors, which is the governing body of the county,” Crosby later wrote. “As I kept the records and attended to all the business under the jurisdiction of the board, reporting directly to them in carrying out its instructions for the government of the county, I was in a sense the general manager or executive officer for Augusta County.
“I could see no reason why the business affairs of the city should not be managed in the same manner as that of the county,” he explained. “If the affairs of Augusta County were operated with a governing board of six members and an executive secretary, why was it necessary to have a bicameral council of 22 members and 12 standing committees to operate the affairs of the city of Staunton?”
Crosby encouraged the Common Council to recommend that the city hire a general manager, and, in 1908, the mayor approved an ordinance that put the council’s report into effect. That year, Charles Ashburner became Staunton’s – and the country’s – first city manager.
Recognizing that delegating administrative duties to a trained individual could be the key to reviving his commission model, Childs reintroduced the commission plan. Under that plan, all local government power was concentrated in an elected, part-time council. Citizens became stockholders; councils became boards of directors; and a principal elected official – usually the mayor – assumed a significant role of activism and coordination. The manager was appointed and terminated at the will of the council.
In 1912, Sumter, S.C., became the first city to adopt the commission-manager form of government. Within one year, 11 other cities adopted the model.
The first formal gathering of U.S. city managers was held in Springfield, Ohio, in 1914. It led to the establishment of the City Managers Association, which was designed to address the needs of individual managers who wanted to share their expertise and the challenges of managing the day-to-day operations of the country’s communities.
A question of authority
Under the first council-manager and commission-manager plans, the manager was granted the authority of administrative functions, including the development of related policy, free from interference of the elected body. The difficulty was in structuring the system to compel councils to let the manager exercise that authority.
Eventually, the National Municipal League and the City Managers Association jointly developed the Model City Charter, which mandated that the council allow the city manager to exercise certain responsibilities without interference. That position differed from the one put forth by the National Short Ballot Organization, creating a schism between the three organizations.
At the same time, the mayor-council form of government was undergoing similar changes. Most mayor-council municipalities expected their chief executive to coordinate some administration among departments. However, as the 1800s came to a close, cities began appointing chief administrative officers, sometimes subject to council approval, to serve as operations officers. That move afforded the mayor more time to focus on political leadership and policy development, and it ensured the continued growth of the mayor-council model.
Through the years
In its first 100 years, city and county management – in all its forms – was marked primarily by the struggle to clearly define local government responsibilities; preserve a system of checks and balances; and ensure that policy, services and operations were administered by qualified officials. That era ended with the establishment of government models (mayor-council; manager-council/commission; etc.) that have remained essentially unchanged. However, another century of social and economic shifts have further shaped the manager’s role.
The 1920s heralded the “cult of efficiency” among local governments. Based on the recommendations of the Taft Commission on Economy and Efficiency, scientific budgeting, personnel management, classification systems and efficiency ratings techniques used in federal government experiments were adopted by locals.
In 1924, the City Managers Association changed its name to the International City Managers Association and adopted its first Code of Ethics. The code required members to commit to providing quality public services for all citizens and to support representative democracy, as directed by the community’s elected officials.
1940s and 1950s
After World War II, the cult of efficiency and the local government obsession with business and corporate ideals had waned. At the same time, Americans moved to suburbia, stretching the boundaries of core cities and ratcheting up the demand for new infrastructure and service delivery.
A notable shift also occurred in the way citizens viewed their civic responsibility. Unlike John Adams’ deliberative public, which had worked together to achieve a shared community vision, the post-World War II suburbanites quickly became focused on the maintenance of their own communities. The suburbanization of the country sowed the first seeds of democratic discord as citizens looked less frequently beyond the immediate boundaries of their own neighborhoods.
Following the turbulence of the 1960s, neighborhood activism became an even greater force throughout the country. According to a Christian Science Monitor poll, by the late 1970s, 20 million Americans be-longed to neighborhood organizations. Those groups – generally organized as a result of a specific incident or situation taking place within the community – worked directly with their local governments to solve problems.
The effort to help neighborhood groups find their voice in public decision-making also led to one of the most controversial vehicles in local politics.
In 1976, Howard Jarvis, a representative of a group of apartment building owners, formed a partnership with a real estate agent and former car salesman to establish the framework for one of the country’s most renowned tax-revolt initiatives, California’s Proposition 13. The initiative signified the beginning of the popular referendum.
In its final report, issued in 1995, an ICMA-established task force of local government managers, assistant managers, academics and other participants articulated a vision of the future of local government: “The trend toward government by initiative and by state and federal mandate will continue. Metropolitan development patterns will continue to change what we think of as a city. Economic, racial and age diversity will exert increasing pressure on the political process, and the perception of the effectiveness of various forms of government.”
According to the task force, managers would become highly sensitive to political issues and would help mayors deal with councils more effectively. The p artnership between manager and mayor would become essential to the community’s political and administrative future, including citizen involvement in local government decision-making.
The task force’s predictions appear to be accurate. During the past several years, observers have witnessed dramatic changes in local government structures that affect the responsibilities, duties and authorities granted to mayors and appointed professional managers. For example: * Citizens in Oakland, Calif., recently supported their newly elected mayor’s proposal to abandon the city’s 68-year history of council-manager government while entrusting responsibility for day-to-day operations to a nationally recognized professional manager. * In Miami, a major scandal involving numerous city officials (including the city manager) dominated the headlines a few years ago. The newly elected mayor immediately appointed a veteran city manager to serve as interim chief administrative officer. * In Cincinnati, following the second form-of-government challenge in four years, voters adopted a proposal to retain the city’s 73-year tradition of council-manager government while strengthening the mayor’s role to become one of the most empowered mayoral positions among council-manager communities.
Today, of the U.S. communities with populations of 2,500 or more, roughly 3,285 have adopted the council-manager structure of government, and 2,978 operate under the mayor-council form. The remaining 543 employ the commission, town meeting or representative town meeting forms.
As the demand for services and global competition among communities continues to rise, the need for visionary political leadership and effective administrative management will as well. In the end, what happens to local government in the United States will be determined by the unique needs of the communities served.
Michele Frisby is the public information officer and deputy director, communications and information, for the International City/County Management Association, Washington, D.C.