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chapter 51: The Working of City Governments - 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 Working of City Governments
Two tests of practical efficiency may be applied to the government of a city: What does it provide for the people, and what does it cost the people? Space fails me to apply in detail the former of these tests, by showing what each city does or omits to do for its inhabitants; so I must be content with observing that in the United States generally constant complaints are directed against the bad paving and cleansing of the streets, the nonenforcement of the laws forbidding gambling and illicit drinking, and in some places against the sanitary arrangements and management of public buildings and parks. It would appear that in the greatest cities there is far more dissatisfaction than exists with the municipal administration in such cities as Glasgow, Manchester, Dublin, Hamburg, Lyons.
The following indictment of the government of Philadelphia is somewhat exceptional in its severity, and however well founded as to that city, must not be taken to be typical. A memorial presented to the Pennsylvania legislature some time ago by a number of the leading citizens of the Quaker City contained these words:
The affairs of the city of Philadelphia have fallen into a most deplorable condition. The amounts required annually for the payment of interest upon the funded debt and current expenses render it necessary to impose a rate of taxation which is as heavy as can be borne.
In the meantime the streets of the city have been allowed to fall into such a state as to be a reproach and a disgrace. Philadelphia is now recognized as the worst-paved and worst-cleaned city in the civilized world.
The water supply is so bad that during many weeks of the last winter it was not only distasteful and unwholesome for drinking, but offensive for bathing purposes.
The effort to clean the streets was abandoned for months, and no attempt was made to that end until some public-spirited citizens, at their own expense, cleaned a number of the principal thoroughfares.
The system of sewerage and the physical condition of the sewers is notoriously bad—so much so as to be dangerous to the health and most offensive to the comfort of our people.
Public work has been done so badly that structures have had to be renewed almost as soon as finished. Others have been in part constructed at enormous expense, and then permitted to fall to decay without completion.
Inefficiency, waste, badly-paved and filthy streets, unwholesome and offensive water, and slovenly and costly management, have been the rule for years past throughout the city government.1
In most of the points comprised in the above statement, Philadelphia was probably—and though she has been several times reformed since then, is still—among the least fortunate of American cities. He, however, who should interrogate one of the “good citizens” of Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, New Orleans, New York, Chicago, San Francisco, would have heard then, and would hear now, similar complaints, some relating more to the external condition of the city, some to its police administration, but all showing that the objects for which municipal government exists have been very imperfectly attained.
The other test, that of expense, is easily applied. Both the debt and the taxation of American cities have risen with unprecedented rapidity, and now stand at an alarming figure.
A table of the increase of population, valuation, taxation, and debt, in fifteen of the largest cities of the United States, from 1880 to 1905, shows the following result:
Looking at some individual cases, we find that the debt rose as follows:
Much of this debt is doubtless represented by permanent improvements, yet for another large, and in some cities far larger, part there is nothing to show; it is due to simple waste or to malversation on the part of the municipal authorities.
As respects current expenditure, New York in 1884 spent on current city purposes, exclusive of payments on account of interest on debt, sinking fund, and maintenance of judiciary, the sum of $20,232,786—equal to $16.76 for each inhabitant (census of 1880). In Boston, in the same year, the city expenditure was $9,909,019—equal to $27.30 for each inhabitant (census of 1880). In 1908 the total ordinary expenditure of New York was $156,545,148 (being $32.30 for each inhabitant); that of Boston, $17,464,573 (being $28.75 for each inhabitant).4
There is no denying that the government of cities is the one conspicuous failure of the United States. The deficiencies of the national government tell but little for evil on the welfare of the people. The faults of the state governments are insignificant compared with the extravagance, corruption, and mismanagement which mark the administrations of most of the great cities. For these evils are not confined to one or two cities. The commonest mistake of Europeans who talk about America is to assume that the political vices of New York are found everywhere. The next most common is to suppose that they are found nowhere else. In New York they have revealed themselves on the largest scale. They are “gross as a mountain, open, palpable.” But there is not a city with a population exceeding 200,000 where the poison germs have not sprung into a vigorous life; and in some of the smaller ones, down to 50,000, it needs no microscope to note the results of their growth. Even in cities of the third rank similar phenomena may occasionally be discerned, though there, as someone has said, the jet black of New York or San Francisco dies away into a harmless gray.
For evils which appear wherever a large population is densely aggregated, there must be some general and widespread causes. What are these causes? Adequately to explain them would be to anticipate the account of the party system to be given in the second volume of this work, for it is that party system which has, not perhaps created, but certainly enormously aggravated them, and impressed on them their specific type.5 I must therefore restrict myself for the present to a brief enumeration of the chief sources of the malady, and the chief remedies that have been suggested for or applied to it. No political subject has been so copiously discussed of late years in America by able and experienced publicists, nor can I do better than present the salient facts in the words which some of these men, speaking in a responsible position, have employed.
The New York commissioners of 1876 appointed “to devise a plan for the government of cities in the State of New York,” sum up the mischief as follows:6
They suggest the following as the causes:
This last-mentioned cause of evil is no doubt a departure from the principle of local popular control and responsibility on which state governments and rural local governments have been based. It is a dereliction which has brought its punishment with it. But the resulting mischiefs have been immensely aggravated by the vices of the legislatures in a few of the states, such as New York and Pennsylvania. As regards the two former causes, they are largely due to what is called the Spoils System, whereby office becomes the reward of party service, and the whole machinery of party government made to serve, as its main object, the getting and keeping of places. Now the Spoils System, with the party machinery which it keeps oiled and greased and always working at high pressure, is far more potent and pernicious in great cities than in country districts. For in great cities we find an ignorant multitude, largely composed of recent immigrants, untrained in self-government; we find a great proportion of the voters paying no direct taxes, and therefore feeling no interest in moderate taxation and economical administration; we find able citizens absorbed in their private businesses, cultivated citizens unusually sensitive to the vulgarities of practical politics, and both sets therefore specially unwilling to sacrifice their time and tastes and comfort in the struggle with sordid wire-pullers and noisy demagogues. In great cities the forces that attack and pervert democratic government are exceptionally numerous, the defensive forces that protect it exceptionally ill-placed for resistance. Satan has turned his heaviest batteries on the weakest part of the ramparts.
Besides these three causes on which the commissioners dwell, and the effects of which are felt in the great cities of other states as well as of New York, there are what may be called mechanical defects in the structure of municipal governments, whose nature may be gathered from the account given in the last chapter. There is a want of methods for fixing public responsibility on the governing persons and bodies. When the mayor jobs his patronage he can indeed no longer, under the new charters, such as that of New York, throw part of the blame on the aldermen or other confirming council, alleging that he would have selected better men could he have hoped that the aldermen would approve his selection. But if he has failed to keep the departments up to their work, he may argue that the city legislature hampered him and would not pass the requisite ordinances. Each house of a two-chambered legislature can excuse itself by pointing to the action of the other, or of its own committees, and among the numerous members of the chambers—or even of one chamber if there be but one—responsibility is so divided as to cease to come forcibly home to anyone. The various boards and officials have generally had little intercommunication;8 and the fact that some were directly elected by the people made these feel themselves independent both of the mayor and the city legislature. The mere multiplication of elective posts distracts the attention of the people, and deprives the voting at the polls of its efficiency as a means of reproof or commendation.9
To trace municipal misgovernment to its sources was comparatively easy. To show how these sources might be dried up was more difficult, though as to some obvious remedies all reformers were agreed. What seemed all but impracticable was to induce the men who had produced these evils, who used them and profited by them, who were so accustomed to them that even the honester sort did not feel their turpitude, to consent to the measures needed for extinguishing their own abused power and illicit gains. It was from the gangs of city politicians and their allies in the state legislatures that reforms had to be sought, and the enactment of their own abolition obtained. In vain would the net be spread in the sight of such birds.
The remedies proposed by the New York commission need not be enumerated, for the birds saw the net and refused to allow the amendments required to be submitted, so nothing was done at the time. Yet the reformers ultimately prevailed, for nearly all of their suggestions have by degrees been in substance adopted. The city was enlarged in 1902 by the inclusion of the great city of Brooklyn and the districts called Queen’s and the Bronx, and Staten Island, so Greater New York now consists of the five boroughs of Manhattan (the island on which New York City proper stands), Brooklyn, Queen’s, Richmond, and Bronx. Each of these boroughts has its own president and local administrative authorities, all being under the general authority of the mayor of the Greater City. Legislative power is divided between the aldermen and the Board of Estimate and Apportionment which consists of the mayor, the comptroller, the president of the board of aldermen, and the presidents of the five boroughs. It is the chief financial authority. The state constitution has been so amended as to limit the legislature’s power of passing special acts relating to cities. State and city elections have been separated. The city’s borrowing powers have been restricted and the functions of the mayor in appointing and removing officials extended. Thus though the new charter is far from perfect, it is admittedly much better than that of 1876.10
The most novel of the proposals made by the commissioners of 1876 and the one which excited most hostile criticism, that of creating a council elected by voters having a tax-paying (or rent-paying) qualification, has never been tried in any great city. It is deemed undemocratic; practical men say there is no use submitting it to a popular vote.11 Nevertheless, there are still some who advocate it, appealing to the example of Australia, where it is said to have worked well.
Among the other reforms in city government which I find canvassed in America are the following:
(a) Civil service reform, i.e., the establishment of examinations as a test for admission to posts under the city, and the bestowal of these posts for a fixed term of years, or generally during good behaviour, instead of leaving the civil servant at the mercy of a partisan chief, who may displace him to make room for a party adherent or personal friend.
(b) The lengthening of the terms of service of the mayor and the heads of departments, so as to give them a more assured position and diminish the frequency of elections.—This has been done to some extent in recent charters.
(c) The vesting of almost autocratic executive power in the mayor and restriction of the city legislature to purely legislative work and the voting of supplies.—This also now finds place in some charters, notably in the new one of New York, and has worked, on the whole, well. It is, of course, a remedy of the “cure or kill” order. If the people are thoroughly roused to choose an able and honest man, the more power he has the better; it is safer in his hands than in those of city councils. If the voters are apathetic and let a bad man slip in, all may be lost till the next election. I do not say “all is lost,” for there have been remarkable instances of men who have been sobered and elevated by power and responsibility. The Greek proverb “office will show the man” was generally taken in an unfavourable sense. The proverb of the steadier headed Germans, “office gives understanding” (Amt gibt Verstand), represents a more hopeful view of human nature, and one not seldom justified in American experience.
(d) The election of a city legislature, or one branch of it, or of a school committee, on a general ticket instead of by wards.—When aldermen or councilmen are chosen by the voters of a small local area, it is assumed, in the United States, that they must be residents within it; thus the field of choice among good citizens generally is limited. It follows also that their first duty is deemed to be to get the most they can for their own ward; they care little for the general interests of the city, and carry on a game of barter in contracts and public improvements with the representatives of other wards. Hence the general ticket system is preferable.
(e) The limitation of taxing powers and borrowing powers by reference to the assessed value of the taxable property within the city.—Restrictions of this nature have been largely applied to cities as well as to counties and other local authorities. The results have been usually good, yet not uniformly so, for evasions may be practised. The New York commission say: “The apparent prohibition, both as to taxation and the percentage of debt, could be readily evaded by raising the assessment. Such restrictions do not attempt to prevent the wastefulness or embezzlement of the public funds otherwise than by limiting the amount of the funds subject to depredation. The effect of such measures would simply be to leave the public necessities without adequate provision.” 12 And Messrs. Allinson and Penrose observe:
By the Constitution of 1874 it is provided that the debt of a county, city, borough, township, or school district shall never exceed 7 per cent on the assessed value of the taxable property therein. This provision was intended to prevent the encumbering of the property of any citizen for public purposes to a greater extent than 7 per cent. In its workings it has been an absolute failure. In every city of the State, except Philadelphia, the city is part of the county government. The county has power to borrow to the extent of 7 per cent: so has the city: so has the general school district: so has the ward school district—making 28 per cent in all, which can be lawfully imposed, and has been authorized by the Act of 1874. But there is still another cause of failure to which Philadelphia is more peculiarly liable. In order to evade the provision of the Constitution limiting the power to contract debts to 7 per cent, the assessed value of property in nearly every city of the State was largely increased—in some instances, incredible as it may seem, to the extent of 1000 per cent. It is therefore clear that no sufficient protection against an undue increase of municipal debt can be found in constitutional and legislative provisions of this kind.
—Philadelphia, a History of Municipal Development (1887), p. 276.
Nevertheless, such restrictions are now often found embodied in State constitutions, and have, so far as I could ascertain, generally diminished the evil they are aimed at.
(f) The introduction of methods for referring questions to the direct vote of the citizens in the three forms of initiative, where a prescribed percentage of the voters submit an ordinance for enactment by the citizens, referendum, where the city council is required, on the petition of a prescribed percentage of voters, to refer to the citizens at the polls an ordinance it has passed, and recall, whereby a prescribed percentage can demand the election of a successor to the holder of any elective office whom they seek to remove. —The holder is permitted to be a candidate at such election, and if he obtains the largest number of votes is therewith reelected. By these methods it is hoped to prevent the jobbing of contracts by city legislatures and to secure the good conduct of officials. They are drastic remedies, and their working is being watched with lively interest.13
(g) The supersession of the usual frame of government by a mayor and council by the creation of a small Board of Commissioners elected by ‘a general ticket’ vote over the whole city.—This so-called Galveston or Des Moines Plan has been already mentioned (supra, page 564). It is now (1910) spreading fast over the Union in various forms. It is expected, in its most advanced form, to reduce the power of the machine by nominations through open primaries (see note to Chapter 60 post) and by making the election on ‘general ticket’ instead of by wards, to secure due responsibility by concentrating power in very few hands, to keep officials up to the mark by the threat of a recall vote, to prevent jobs and corruption by letting the people as a whole vote upon the grant of franchises and to secure effective popular control by a referendum on city ordinances. It is the most sweeping of all the schemes of reform hitherto propounded or applied, but has not been long enough in operation for its possible defects to have yet fully revealed themselves.
I must not attempt to discuss the interesting question of the results of entrusting to city governments the supply of water, gas, and electricity, perhaps also street railways, because American cities are accumulating such a mass of experience on the subject that it could not be dealt with save at considerable length, while the wise still differ as to the general conclusions to be formed.14 The objections to placing this function in the hands of such men as rule most municipalities are obvious. One group of these objections will be found illustrated in a later chapter, describing the Gas Ring in Philadelphia. There are, however, some reformers sanguine enough to believe that when city councils obtain functions whose exercise has a strong and obvious interest for the citizens, the latter are roused to a more active and watchful control, and may be counted on to eject corrupt politicians from power. Nor must we forget that the plan of leaving the function to private corporate companies is open to evils scarcely less patent than those which flow from dishonest public management, because these companies when they prosper and grow large bring their wealth to bear upon the municipal authorities, and have even been known to scatter bribes widely among the voters for the sake of retaining or extending their monopoly. Each plan has its dangers. It is not the least among the many mischiefs entailed by the pollution of city governments that citizens who resent the high prices charged and poor supply given by private companies often prefer to bear these hardships and to wink at the impure methods which some companies employ rather than face the risk of throwing to the rings that control the larger municipalities the additional mass of patronage and additional material for jobbery which the business of water and gas supply carries with it.
The question of city government is that which chiefly occupies practical publicists in America, because they have long deemed it the weakest point of the country. That adaptability of the institutions to the people and their conditions, which judicious strangers have been wont to admire in the United States, and that consequent satisfaction of the people with their institutions, which contrasts so agreeably with the discontent of European nations, is wholly absent as regards municipal administration. Wherever there is a large city there are loud complaints, and Americans who deem themselves in other respects a model for the Old World are in this respect anxious to study Old World models, those particularly which the cities of Great Britain present. The best proof of dissatisfaction is to be found in the frequent changes of system and method. What Dante said of his own city may be said of the cities of America: they are like the sick man who finds no rest upon his bed, but seeks to ease his pain by turning from side to side. Every now and then the patient finds some relief in a drastic remedy, such as the enactment of a new charter and the expulsion at an election of a gang of knaves. Presently, however, the weak points of the charter are discovered, the state legislature again begins to interfere by special acts, or a “public service corporation” begins to seduce the virtue of officials; civic zeal grows cold and allows bad men to creep back into the chief posts; Federal issues are allowed to supersede at municipal elections that which ought to be always deemed the real issue, the character and capacity of the candidates for office. All this is discouraging. Yet no one who studies the municipal history of the last decades will doubt that things are better than they were twenty-five years ago. The newer frames of government are an improvement upon the older. Rogues are less audacious. Good citizens are more active. Party spirit is still permitted to dominate and pervert municipal politics, yet the mischief it does is more clearly discerned and the number of those who resist it daily increases. In the increase of that number and the growth of a stronger sense of civic duty rather than in any changes of mechanism, lies the ultimate hope for the reform of city governments.
Municipal Development of Philadelphia, by Messrs. Allinson and Penrose, p. 275.
 These totals of 1908 (census report of 1905 brought up to 1908 from city records) include all the ordinary expenditures, but not sums paid for investment securities or redemption of municipal debt.
 See Part III and especially Chapters 62 and 63. See also the chapters in Vol. II on the Tammany Ring in New York City, and the Gas Ring in Philadelphia. The full account given in those chapters of the phenomena of municipal misgovernment in the two largest cities in the United States seems to dispense me from the duty of here describing those phenomena in general.
 The commission, of which Mr. W. M. Evarts (now senator from New York) was chairman, included some of the ablest men in the state, and its report, presented 6th March 1877, may be said to have become classical. Much of it is as applicable now to great cities as it was in 1876; and I quote it not only in respect of its historical value, but also because no abler presentment of the facts has since appeared.
 The New York commissioners say: “The magnitude and rapid increase of this debt are not less remarkable than the poverty of the results exhibited as the return for so prodigious an expenditure. It was abundantly sufficient for the construction of all the public works of a great metropolis for a century to come, and to have adorned it besides with the splendours of architecture and art. Instead of this, the wharves and piers are for the most part temporary and perishable structures; the streets are poorly paved; the sewers in great measure imperfect, insufficient, and in bad order; the public buildings shabby and inadequate; and there is little which the citizen can regard with satisfaction, save the aqueduct and its appurtenances and the public park. Even these should not be said to be the product of the public debt; for the expense occasioned by them is, or should have been, for the most part already extinguished. In truth, the larger part of the city debt represents a vast aggregate of moneys wasted, embezzled, or misapplied.”
 In Philadelphia someone has observed that there were four distinct and independent authorities with power to tear up the streets, and that there was no authority upon whom the duty was specifically laid to put them in repair again.
 Mr. Seth Low has well remarked in an address on municipal government: “Greatly to multiply important elective officers is not to increase popular control, but to lessen it. The expression of the popular will at the ballot-box is like a great blow struck by an engine of enormous force. It can deliver a blow competent to overthrow any officer, however powerful. But, as in mechanics, great power has to be subdivided in order to do fine work, so in giving expression to the popular will the necessity of choosing amid a multitude of unimportant officers involves inevitably a loss of power to the people.”
 The Municipal Reform Movement continues active in certain directions. Important economics have been effected in New York, and an organization called the Bureau of Municipal Research works energetically for reducing the cost and increasing the efficiency of city administration.
See further as to New York municipal government the observations of Mr. Seth Low, ex-mayor of Greater New York, in Chapter 52.
 Though, as the commission pointed out (Report, p. 33), the principle that no one should vote upon any proposition to raise a tax or appropriate its proceeds unless himself liable to be assessed for such tax, was one generally applied in the village charters of the state of New York, and even in the charters of some of the smaller cities. The report repels the charge that this proposal is inconsistent with the general recognition of the value of universal suffrage by saying, “No surer method could be devised to bring the principle of universal suffrage into discredit and prepare the way for its overthrow than to pervert it to a use for which it was never intended, and subject it to a service which it is incapable of performing. . . . To expect frugality and economy in financial concerns from its operation in great cities, where perhaps half of the inhabitants feel no interest in these objects, is to subject the principle to a strain which it cannot bear. All the friends of the system should unite in rescuing it from such perils.” —Page 40.
 Another disadvantage is that such restriction may sometimes compel a public improvement to be executed piecemeal which could be executed more cheaply if done all at once. See Chapter 43.
 For a good example of these provisions see the charter of the city of Los Angeles, as revised and amended up to 1909.
In 1909 a demand for a recall vote for the office of mayor was submitted in Los Angeles, whereupon the existing incumbent of that office disappeared and a successor was elected.
A warm advocate of the recall, who has had wide experience of municipal misrule, has stated the case for that remedy as follows:
“From twenty-five to forty per cent of the income of most of our large cities is dissipated by extravagance, mismanagement and corruption, and (what is worse) the moral tone of the citizenship lowered thereby.
“This condition results from the rule of political machines.
“These machines are created and maintained by public utility corporations, liquor interests, gamblers and other disreputable elements of society aided by some eminently respectable business men who receive special privileges through reason of the existence of corrupt government, and by a large number of honest voters who, unfortunately, are narrow partisans always voting the straight ticket. All these, however, constitute a minority of the entire electorate, but owing to a complicated system of nominations, perfect organization, and enormous corruption funds supplied principally by public utility corporations, the machine is kept in power despite the fact that the majority of the electorate is honest and desires good government.
“Various panaceæ —increased power of mayors, civil service reform, election of councilmen at large, etc.—are of little avail, for with the Machine in full control these measures give it increased power. Even the election of good men to office (when through herculean efforts this is spasmodically achieved) frequently fails to produce any marked effect, because these men often cease to be good.
“This condition then confronts us: a minority controlling corruptly, while a majority of the electorate is honest. The remedy is plain and very simple. If it is desired to have a true representative and an efficient and honest government, give to the honest majority of the electorate the power to initiate legislation which their legislative bodies may refuse: this is the Initiative. Give to the honest majority the power to veto the undesired acts of their legislators; this is the Referendum, and give to the same honest majority the power to discharge from office at any time any inefficient or incompetent officer: this is the Recall.”
 Of about 160 cities with a population exceeding 20,000, water supply is in 59 left to private corporations, and in 101 belongs to the municipality.
See upon this subject the Report (1907) of the Civic Federation Committees on municipal ownership.