Front Page Titles (by Subject) chapter 50: The Government of Cities - The American Commonwealth, vol. 1
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chapter 50: The Government of Cities - Viscount James Bryce, The American Commonwealth, vol. 1 
The American Commonwealth, with an Introduction by Gary L. McDowell, 2 vols (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1995).
Part of: The American Commonwealth, 2 vols.
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The Government of Cities
The growth of great cities has been among the most significant and least fortunate changes in the character of the population of the United States during the century that has passed since 1787. The census of 1790 showed only five cities with more than 8,000, and only one with more than 33,000 inhabitants. In 1880 there were 286 exceeding 8,000, forty-five exceeding 40,000, nineteen exceeding 100,000; while the census of 1910 showed 774 exceeding 8,000, 228 exceeding 25,000, 50 exceeding 100,000. The ratio of persons living in cities exceeding 8,000 inhabitants to the total population was, in 1790, 3.35 per cent, in 1840, 8.52, in 1880, 22.57, in 1890, 29.12, in 1910, 38.74 per cent. And this change has gone on with accelerated speed notwithstanding the enormous extension of settlement over the vast regions of the West. Needless to say that a still larger and increasing proportion of the wealth of the country is gathered into the larger cities. Their government is therefore a matter of high concern to America, and one which cannot be omitted from a discussion of transatlantic politics. Such a discussion is, however, exposed to two difficulties. One is that the actual working of municipal government in the United States is so inextricably involved with the party system that it is hard to understand or judge it without a comprehension of that system, an account of which I am, nevertheless, forced to reserve for subsequent chapters. The other is that the laws which regulate municipal government are even more diverse from one another than those whence I have drawn the account already given of state governments and rural local government. For not only has each state its own system of laws for the government of cities, but within a state there is, as regards the cities, little uniformity in municipal arrangements. Larger cities are often governed differently from the smaller ones; and one large city is differently organized from another. So far as the legal arrangements go, no general description, such as might be give of English municipal governments under the Municipal Corporation Acts, is possible in America. I am therefore obliged to confine myself to a few features common to most city governments, occasionally taking illustrations from the constitution or history of some one or other of the leading municipalities.
The history of American cities, though striking and instructive, has been short. Of the ten greatest cities of today only three—Baltimore, New York, and Philadelphia—were municipal corporations in 1820.1 Every city has received its form of government from the state in which it stands, and this form has been repeatedly modified. Formerly each city obtained a special charter; now in nearly all states there are general laws under which a population of a certain size and density may be incorporated. Yet, as observed above, special legislation for particular cities, especially the greater ones, continues to be very frequent.
Although American city governments have a general resemblance to those English municipalities which were their first model,2 their present structure shows them to have been much influenced by that of the state governments. We find in most of the larger cities:3
What is this but the frame of a state government applied to the smaller area of a city? The mayor corresponds to the governor, the officers or boards to the various state officials and boards (described in Chapter 41) elected, in most cases, by the people; the aldermen and common council (as they are generally called) to the state Senate and Assembly; the city elective judiciary to the state elective judiciary.4
A few words on each of these municipal authorities. The mayor is by far the most conspicuous figure in city governments, much more important than the mayor of an English or Irish borough, or the provost of a Scotch one. He holds office, sometimes for one year, but now more frequently for two, three, or four years. The general tendency is toward a four-year term, as in New York, Baltimore, Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, and St. Louis. In some cities he is not reeligible. He is directly elected by the people of the whole city, and is usually not a member of the city legislature.5 He has, almost everywhere, a veto on all ordinances passed by that legislature, which, however, can be overriden by a two-thirds majority. In many cities he appoints some among the heads of departments and administrative boards, though usually the approval of the legislature or of one branch of it6 is required. Quite recently some city charters have gone so far as to make him generally responsible for all the departments (subject to the control of supply by the legislative body), and therewith, liable to impeachment for misfeasance.7 He receives a considerable salary, varying with the size of the city, and in New York City reaching $15,000. It rests with him, as the chief executive officer, to provide for the public peace, to quell riots, and, if necessary, to call out the militia. He often exerts, in practice, some discretion as to the enforcement of the law; he may, for instance, put in force Sunday Closing Acts or regulations, or omit to do so.
The practical work of administration is carried on by a number of departments, sometimes under one head, sometimes constituted as boards or commissions. The most important of these are directly elected by the people, for a term of one, two, or four years. Some, however, are chosen by the city legislature, some by the mayor with the approval of the legislature or its upper chamber. In most cities the chief executive officers have been disconnected from one another, owing no common allegiance, except that which their financial dependence on the city legislature involves, and communicating less with the city legislature as a whole than with its committees, each charged with some one branch of administration, and each apt to job it.
Education has been generally treated as a distinct matter, with which neither the mayor nor the legislature has been suffered to meddle. It is committed to a Board of Education, whose members are separately elected by the people, or, as in Brooklyn, appointed by the mayor, levy (though they do not themselves collect) a separate tax, and have an executive staff of their own at their disposal.8
The city legislature usually consists in small cities of one chamber, in large ones of two, the upper of which generally bears the name of the board of aldermen, the lower that of the common council.9 All are elected by the citizens, generally in wards, but the upper house occasionally by districts or on what is called a “general ticket,” i.e., a vote over the whole city.10 Usually the common council is elected for one year, or at most for two years, the upper chamber frequently for a longer period.11 Both are usually unpaid in the smaller cities, sometimes paid in the larger. All city legislation, that is to say, ordinances, bye-laws, and votes of money from the city treasury, are passed by the council or councils, subject in many cases to the mayor’s veto. Except in a few cities governed by very recent charters, the councils have some control over at least the minor officials. Such control is exercised by committees, a method borrowed from the state and national legislatures, and suggested by the same reasons of convenience which have established it there, but proved by experience to have the evils of secrecy and irresponsibility as well as that of disconnecting the departments from one another.
The city judges are only in so far a part of the municipal government that in most of the larger cities they are elected by the citizens, like the other chief officers. There are usually several superior judges, chosen for terms of five years and upwards, and a larger number of “police judges” or “city magistrates,” 12 generally for shorter terms. Occasionally, however, the state has prudently reserved to itself the appointment of judges. Thus in New Haven, Connecticut (population in 1910, 133,605):
Constables, justices of the peace, and a sheriff, are elected by the citizens, but the city courts derive existence directly from the State legislature. . . . The mode of selecting judges is this: the New Haven county delegation to the dominant party in the legislature assembles in caucus and nominates two of the same political faith to be respectively judge and assistant judge of the New Haven city court. Their choice is adopted by their party, and the nominations are duly ratified, often by a strict party vote. Inasmuch as the legislature is usually Republican, and the city of New Haven is unfailingly Democratic, these usages amount to a reservation of judicial offices from the “hungry and thirsty” local majority, and the maintenance of a certain control by the Republican country towns over the Democratic city.13
It need hardly be said that all the above officers, from the mayor and judges downwards, are, like state officers, elected by manhood suffrage. Their election is usually made to coincide with that of state officers, perhaps also of federal congressmen. This saves expense and trouble. But as it not only bewilders the voter in his choice of men by distracting his attention between a large number of candidates and places, but also confirms the tendency, already strong, to vote for city officers on party lines, there has of late years been a movement in some few spots to have the municipal elections fixed for a different date from that of state or federal elections, so that the undistracted and nonpartisan thought of the citizens may be given to the former.14
At present the disposition to run and vote for candidates according to party is practically universal, although the duty of party loyalty is deemed less binding than in state or federal elections. When both the great parties put forward questionable men, a nonpartisan list, or so-called “citizens’ ticket,” may be run by a combination of respectable men of both parties. Sometimes this attempt succeeds. However, though the tenets of Republicans and Democrats have absolutely nothing to do with the conduct of city affairs, though the sole object of the election, say of a city comptroller or auditor, may be to find an honest man of good business habits, four-fifths of the electors in nearly all cities give little thought to the personal qualifications of the candidates, and vote the “straight ticket.”
Early in the present century a new form of municipal government began to spread through the country. The city of Galveston in Texas had been struck by a tidal wave, which did frightful damage, and the people in order to deal with the emergency appointed three commissioners to handle city business ad interim. The plan succeeded so well that it was permanently adopted, and the Galveston charter of 1901 provides a body of five commissioners, elected by the voters at large for two years, one being mayor, president of the board, and each of the others having a special department of city business allotted to him. The commission as a whole passes ordinances, votes the annual budget, gives out contracts, and makes the principal appointments, upon the nomination of the commissioner in whose department the appointment lies. Under this form of government marked improvements have been effected in every branch of municipal work, and the whole floating debt has been paid off. The city owns its waterworks, sewer plant, and electric light plant. The large city of Des Moines in Iowa subsequently, under a general state law permitting cities to frame for themselves their schemes of government, enacted generally a similar plan in which the four commissioners who serve with the mayor have (1) accounts and finance, (2) public safety, (3) streets and public improvements, (4) parks and public property, as their several provinces. One-fourth of the voters can demand a recall vote, and all grants of franchises, as well as ordinances not of an urgent character, have to be submitted to a referendum vote. The example of these two cities has been so largely followed that in 1913 there were 371 cities, including some in the Eastern states, in which the plan was in operation, while several states have passed statutes permitting their cities to adopt it. So far, it seems to be working well, though the elections “at large” in which party has been to a considerable extent eliminated, sometimes give odd results.15
The functions of city governments 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, the granting of licences, the execution of laws relating to adulteration and explosives; (b) those which though done under general laws are properly matters of local charge and subject to local regulation, such as education and the care of the poor; and (c) those which are not so much of a political as of a purely business order, such as the paving and cleansing of streets, the maintenance of proper drains, the provision of water and light. In respect of the first, and to some extent of the second of these groups, the city may be properly deemed a political entity; in respect of the third it is rather to be compared to a business corporation or company, in which the taxpayers and shareholders, doing, through the agency of the city officers, things which each might do for himself, though with more cost and trouble. All three sets of functions are dealt with by American legislation in the same way, and are alike given to officials and (where the commission plan has not been adopted) a legislature elected by persons of whom a large part pay no direct taxes. Education, however, is usually detached from the general city government and entrusted to a separate authority,16 while in some cities the control of the police has been withheld or withdrawn from that government, and entrusted to the hands of a separate board.17 The most remarkable instance is that of Boston in which city a Massachusetts statute of 1885 entrusts the police department and the power to license, regulate, and restrain the sale of intoxicating liquors, to a special board of three persons, to be appointed for five years by the state governor and council. Both political parties are directed by the statute to be represented on the board. (This is a frequent provision in recent charters.) The city pays on the board’s requisition all the expenses of the police department. In New York the police commissioners were for a time appointed by the mayor, but in order to “take the department out of politics” an unwritten understanding was established that he, though himself always a partisan, should appoint two Democratic and two Republican commissioners.18 The post of policeman has been “spoils” of the humbler order, but spoils sometimes equally divided between the parties.
Taxes in cities, as in rural districts, are levied upon personal as well as real property; and the city tax is collected along with the county tax and state tax by the same collectors. There are, of course, endless varieties in the practice of different states and cities as to methods of assessment and to the minor imposts subsidiary to the property tax. Both real and personal property are usually assessed far below their true value, the latter because owners are reticent, the former because the city assessors are anxious to take as little as possible of the state and county burden on the shoulders of their own community, though in this patriotic effort they are checked by the county and state boards of equalization. Taxes are usually so much higher in the larger cities than in the country districts or smaller municipalities, that there is a strong tendency for rich men to migrate from the city to its suburbs in order to escape the city collector. Perhaps the city overtakes them, extending its limits and incorporating its suburbs; perhaps they fly farther afield by the railway and make the prosperity of country towns twenty or thirty miles away. The unfortunate consequence follows, not only that the taxes are heavier for those who remain in the city, but that the philanthropic and political work of the city loses the participation of those who ought to have shared in it. For a man votes in one place only, the place where he resides and pays taxes on his personalty; and where he has no vote, his is neither eligible for local office nor deemed entitled to take a part in local political agitation.
Among the great cities, one of those which have recently given themselves a new frame of government is Boston (population in 1910, 670,585). The main features of that scheme, which came into force in 1909, are as follows:
The government of the city is now in the hands of a mayor elected by the voters for a term of four years, and a single council of nine members similarly elected for a three-year term. Three councillors retire annually.
The Mayor. Nominations to the office of mayor may be made only by petitions signed by at least 5,000 qualified voters of the city, these signatures to be obtained upon official forms and verified by affidavit. No voter may sign more than one petition. The petitions must be filed with the election commissioners (who are appointed by the mayor) at least twenty-five days prior to the date of the municipal election. The signatures are then scrutinized by these election commissioners and not less than sixteen days before the date of the election the commissioners announce the names of those candidates whom they have found to have been validly nominated. Such names are then placed upon an official ballet, without party designation, and in an order of names determined by lot. The municipal election takes place on the Tuesday after the second Monday in January, and the city’s fiscal year begins on the first Monday in February.
Although the mayor is elected for a four-year term, provision is made for his recall (i.e., dismissal) at the end of two years. The regular state election is used to provide the machinery for this recall; but in order to be effective the recall must secure, at this election, a majority of the total enrolled votes, not merely a majority of the polled votes. This means in practice that about two-thirds of the polled votes are necessary in order to recall a mayor, and it ought to be emphasized that this recall may be put into operation only at one stage in the mayor’s term, namely, at the point where half his term has been served. The salary of the mayor is $10,000 per annum.
The mayor appoints all heads of city departments whose appointments are not otherwise provided for; and appointments made by the mayor are not subject to confirmation by the municipal council. But appointments made by him are not valid unless a certificate is obtained from the state Civil Service Commission “that the appointee is in its opinion qualified by education, training, and experience for the said office.” Any official appointed by the mayor may be removed by him at any time, but he must state “in detail the specific reasons for such removal.”
All recommendations for the expenditure of money must originate with the mayor, and while the council may omit or reduce any item of expenditure he recommends, it is not empowered to insert or increase any such item. Any resolution or vote of the council may be vetoed by the mayor and such veto is final.
The Council. The city council consists of nine members elected not by wards but from the city at large. Candidates are placed in nomination only by petitions signed by at least 5,000 registered voters, the regulations relating to the filing and verification of these petitions being in all respects similar to those prescribed in connection with nominations for the mayoralty. The names of candidates for election to the council are placed upon an official ballot in an order determined by lot and without any party designation. There is no provision for the recall of councillors before their three-year terms have expired; but three of the nine councillors go out of office each year. Councillors are paid $1,500 per annum.
The powers of the council include the making of city ordinances, the approving of appropriations including the annual budget, the authorization of loans, and the sanctioning of certain contracts extending over more than one year. All these powers are exercised, however, subject to the mayor’s veto power. Authority to grant privileges in the streets, and franchises, permits, and locations, is vested in a board of three street commissioners appointed by the mayor, but the city council, with the mayor’s approval, may fix the general terms upon which such privileges may be granted.
An interesting feature of Boston government is the Finance Commission, a body of five members appointed by the governor of the state. These commissioners are appointed for a five-year term, and one member retires annually. The chairman of the commission, designated by the governor, is paid $5,000 per annum; the other members are paid $3,000 each. The Finance Commission is given no mandatory or executive powers in any branch of city government; but it is empowered to investigate “any and all matters relating to appropriations, loans, expenditures, accounts, and methods of administration,” reporting the results of its investigations to the mayor, the city council, the governor, and the state legislature. The commission is authorized to employ experts to assist in its investigations, and in this connection may spend not more than $25,000 per year. It has power to compel the attendance of witnesses and the production of papers.
Administrative Departments. The administration of Boston is immediately conducted by some thirty different departments. Most of these have a single commissioner in charge; but some have boards of three men. Most of the heads of departments are paid; a few of the boards are unpaid. None are elected by popular vote, and none are appointed by the council. Nearly all are appointed by the mayor, the only important exceptions being the police commissioner, and the board of excise commissioners who are appointed by the governor, and the Trustees of the Franklin Fund who are appointed by the supreme court of the state. All judges, including municipal justices, are in Massachusetts appointed by the state governor with the confirmation of his council.
Metropolitan Commissions. Boston is the centre of a metropolitan district comprising over thirty municipalities with a total population of about a million and a quarter. In order that certain services throughout this area should be somewhat coordinated, a number of metropolitan commissions have been established, the members of these commissions being appointed by the governor of the state. The Metropolitan Water and Sewerage Board has charge of the main water supply and trunk sewers throughout the greater part of the metropolitan district; and the Metropolitan Parks Commission has created and maintains an extensive system of parks and boulevards. For carrying through various undertakings which concern two or more municipalities (including Boston) various ad hoc commissions have been established, such as the Charles River Basin Commission (composed of three members appointed by the governor); and the Boston Transit Commission (composed of five members appointed, three by the governor and two by the mayor of Boston).
School Administration. Quite distinct from the regular city administration is the Boston School Committee, composed of five members elected for three years with provision for one or two members retiring each year. These are elected by popular vote from the city at large, the rules relating to their nomination and election being in all respects similar to those applying in the case of municipal councillors.
As respect school administration, a branch of city work whose importance is more and more recognized, and which suffers, perhaps more than any other, from the application of machine and spoils methods, reference may be made to a change recently introduced into the government of the great city of St. Louis. Under a state statute of 1897 the board of education consists of twelve members chosen by the voters at large for six years, four members retiring every second year. Every member swears that he will consider merit and fitness only in making appointments. The functions of the board, which is by common consent divided equally between the two parties, are chiefly those of supervision, executive work being left to the superintendent of schools and other officials. By this method education is said to have been “taken out of politics,” and the efficiency of the schools has been raised.
St. Louis (population in 1910, 687,029), though it has latterly had upright mayors, and often a fair upper house of its city legislature, has suffered from deficient purity in its lower house; and in 1910 tried to use the power entrusted to it of giving itself a new charter. The draft was rejected by the people.
 The term “city” denotes in America what is called in England a municipal borough, and has nothing to do with either size or antiquity. The constitution or frame of government of a city is called its charter and is given by a state statute, general or special, or else is enacted by the city itself under powers given to it by the state.
 American municipalities have, of course, never been, since the Revolution, close corporations like most English boroughs before the Act of 1835.
 This statement would have been universally true before the recent adoption in a constantly increasing number of cities of the plan of government by a small board of commissioners.
 American municipal governments are of course subject to three general rules: that they have no powers other than those conferred on them by the state, that they cannot delegate their powers, and that their legislation and action generally is subject to the Constitution of the United States as well as to the constitution and statutes of the state to which they belong.
 In Chicago and San Francisco the mayor sits in the legislature.
 In New York and Boston the mayor appoints and removes heads of departments, and the tendency is generally toward an increase of his powers.
 Much complexity has arisen from the practice of giving special charters to particular cities, or passing special bills relating to them, and there is now a tendency to empower cities to make their own charters.
 There are some points of resemblance in this system to the government of English cities, and especially of London. The English common councils elect certain officials and manage their business by committees. In the ancient City of London the sheriffs and chamberlain are elected by the liverymen. Note, however, that in no English borough or city do we find a two-chambered legislature, nor (except as last aforesaid in London) officials elected by popular vote, nor a veto on legislation vested in the mayor. London (outside the ancient city which retains a separate government) is now governed by an elected assembly called the county council, and by the elected councils of the boroughs into which it is divided.
 Some large cities, however (e.g., Greater New York, Chicago with its thirty-six aldermen, San Francisco with its twelve supervisors), have only one chamber.
 In some few cities, among which is Chicago and (as respects police magistrates and school directors) Philadelphia, the plan of minority representation has been to some extent adopted by allowing the voter to cast his vote for two candidates only when there are three places to be filled. It was tried in New York, but the State Court of Appeals held it unconstitutional. So far as I can ascertain, this method has in Philadelphia proved rather favourable than otherwise to the “machine politicians,” who can rely on their masses of drilled voters, obedient to orders.
 Sometimes the councilman is required by statute to be a resident in the ward he represents.
 Sometimes the police justices are nominated by the mayor.
 “During the session of the legislature in March 1885 this argument was put forward in answer to a Democratic plea for representation upon the city court bench. ‘The Democrats possess all the other offices in New Haven. It’s only fair that the Republicans should have the city court.’ Each party accepted the statement as a conclusive reason for political action. It would be gratifying to find the subject discussed upon a higher plane, and the incumbents of the offices who had done well continued from term to term without regard to party affiliations. But in the present condition of political morals, the existing arrangements are probably the most practicable that could be made. It goes without saying that country districts are, as a rule, more deserving of political power than are cities. If the city judges were locally elected upon the general party ticket, the successful candidates would often be under obligations to elements in the community which are the chief source and nurse of the criminal class—an unseemly position for a judge.” —Mr. Charles H. Levermore in his interesting sketch of the Town and City Government of New Haven, p. 77.
 On the other hand, there are cities which hope to draw out a larger vote, and therefore obtain a better choice, by putting their municipal elections at the same time as the state elections.
 There are many varieties of the plan, the number of commissioners being sometimes larger than four. In some cities one commissioner is elected annually, so that the whole board never goes out of office together.
 Though sometimes, as in Baltimore, the city legislature appoints a Board of Education. Unhappily, in some cities education is “within politics,” and, as may be supposed, with results unfavourable to the independence and even to the quality of the teachers.
 So in Baltimore and St. Louis.
 Now under the new charter of Greater New York there is one commissioner appointed by the mayor.