IT is everywhere asserted that in the government of large cities the American democracy finds its severest test, and manifests most plainly its shortcomings. Thousands of pages have been written about these shortcomings by the keenest students and critics, and there has been denunciation of municipal corruption, discussion of particular municipal departments or functions, suggestion for municipal reform, to the verge of weariness. One aspect of the matter, however, has generally been overlooked. There has been little attempt to set forth comprehensively what service is rendered by a great city to its citizens, and what is the quality of the service. Commonly we take municipal government for granted ; we are irritated by its failures, perhaps we are proud of one of its successes, but seldom do we try to estimate the worth of our municipal service as a whole, in comparison either with some abstract, standard of our own or with the municipal government of some other country or time. What we get from the city, and what we pay for it, is the principal subject of this article. To have much value, a description of municipal service must be verified by experience. The statute-book, which tells what a city may do or ought to do, cannot be trusted, nor can the rose-colored official reports of the city’s magistrates. On the other hand, it is not always safe to infer that the citizens are ill served because their servant’s character is not all that it should be. As the workings of municipal government differ from city to city, I propose to take the city of Boston, the fourth in size in the United States, and consider briefly, and without regard to the public or private character of its officials, what it does for its citizens. The experience of one city, I believe, will throw more light upon the government of American cities in general than will a discussion of municipal service in the abstract. Within the compass of a magazine article it is not possible to enter into considerable detail: the work of the several departments must be estimated summarily ; statements must be made unsupported, which it would take pages to prove ; in disputed matters the better opinion must sometimes be expressed too absolutely; to some people not a few judgments will seem colorless, to others they may appear extravagant. I believe, however, that the following review of Boston’s municipal service will be recognized as accurate in substance. How far Boston’s service is typical of that of American cities I cannot say ; there are differences of detail, with strong resemblances of type. The complaints of the misgovernment of Boston are the same in kind as those made elsewhere in the United States, though they may be slightly less in degree. Boston’s citizens are profoundly dissatisfied with the present condition of things.
The first duty of government, the protection of life and limb, Boston discharges, on the whole, pretty well. The peaceable individual is here as secure against violence as he is anywhere in the world; indeed, I cannot now recall an acquaintance with anybody, except a policeman, whose person has been injured in Boston by willful crime. The danger to the person from the reckless use of the streets by vehicles and street cars will be considered later.
The protection of property against crime is not nearly so absolute as that afforded to the person. How the protection here given compares with that given by European cities cannot be stated precisely, but the difference is not great. Even the citizen of Boston most disposed to complain of municipal misgovernment finds little fault with the police in the discharge of their ordinary duties.
The conduct of the police in matters not immediately connected with the protection of persons and property, especially in the enforcement of the liquor laws and the laws against prostitution and gambling, is less satisfactory. Bribery is not unknown, but it is not common, and does not increase. It should be said, also, that in Boston the laws on these subjects are strict, compared with those of European countries, and even with those which govern other great American cities, and the vices aimed at are probably repressed as closely as in any other great city.
Passing from the first necessities of government, we come to the services which are next demanded of a city by its citizens, — water, sewers, streets, fire department, schools, and the care of paupers.
When municipal water - works were first established, about fifty years ago, the source of supply was excellent in quality and abundant in quantity. This condition lasted a long time, but an additional supply, afterward obtained from an inferior source, proved decidedly unpleasant in color and taste. At no time, however, were the impurities of a sort to endanger health, and the color and taste of the city’s water are now fairly good. Within a year or two the metropolitan district will have its principal source of supply in the Nashua River : the quality of the water will then be excellent, and its quantity abundant for the needs of a generation. This last great work is carried on by a commission appointed by the governor of the commonwealth, which in time will largely direct Boston’s watersupply, though the distribution of the water will still be under local control. The cost of the water-works has been paid by the water-takers, and not from the general taxes ; that is to say, the water-rates have paid the cost of annual operation and interest on the money borrowed, and have established a sinkingfund which will pay off the loans at maturity. In time, therefore, the city should own a valuable water-plant fully paid for. As a business venture, in spite of occasional jobbery and corruption, the Boston water-works have been fairly but not brilliantly successful. The rates are still high compared with those of other American cities, but recently they have been much reduced ; the mains have been extended into the newly built parts of the city with reasonable dispatch.
The sewers of Boston have been improved with increasing knowledge of sanitary matters, and are now satisfactory. No use is made of the sewage; its profitable use by a city situated like Boston is of doubtful possibility. The attempt to collect from those who use the sewers any considerable part of their cost has not been successful; this cost is defrayed mostly from the general taxes. A part of the system has been constructed and is operated by a metropolitan sewer commission appointed by the governor.
The streets of Boston, like those of nearly all European cities, were originally laid out haphazard, and numerous hills made them more than ordinarily crooked and narrow. Much has since been done to widen and straighten them, but often with insufficient foresight. How far the inadequacy of the streets is due to their unexpected occupation by street cars, how far to lack of traffic regulations, is hard to say. Not a little of the trouble is due to the nature of the case rather than to the direct fault of the municipal government.
The sidewalks of Boston afford to foot-passengers convenient passage ; in a rapidly growing suburb they sometimes lag behind other improvements, but usually accommodation is provided nearly as soon as it can reasonably be expected. The cost is largely borne by the abutter.
The pavement of the streets, as it is usually laid, is such that travel over it is safe and convenient at first, but the repair is by no means equal to the original construction. Street repair should be constant; and if trifling repairs be made daily, costly reconstruction will be needed but seldom. Not only is the pavement of various sorts suffered to wear out, but it is also torn up frequently in order to suit the convenience of municipal departments, of private individuals, and of corporations using the streets, such as the gas company and the street railway. The law requires that the pavement be replaced in its former condition by the individual or corporation benefited ; but this is a physical impossibility. Again, the use of the streets permitted by law and custom is wasteful of space, and not infrequently dangerous to life and limb ; regulation of the traffic is lax or wanting, and vehicles are allowed to block a street in Boston which, under the regulations enforced in London, would afford convenient passage to twice as many. This evil, however, is due rather to the temper of our citizens than to the fault of the municipal government itself. Proper control of traffic is commonly deemed oppressive, at any rate when first introduced, and we prefer to widen a street rather than to regulate its use. The watering of macadamized streets, required by the climate of New England, is done by the city to an increasing extent. The work is difficult and the results are not altogether satisfactory, but within two or three years there has been a marked improvement. Both the mud and the dust are nuisances, in some degree inevitable so long as the citizens prefer macadamized streets to those paved with stone blocks, in some degree caused by the imperfect repair and the disturbance just mentioned. Of the cleanliness of the streets it is difficult to speak definitely, as cleanliness is largely a matter of individual opinion. Boston’s condition in this respect is not altogether satisfactory, but, except in a few localities, it is generally fair, and has improved within five years. Considering the extent of Boston’s territory, the streets are pretty well lighted.
The buildings of Boston are like those of other American cities, and hence fires are frequent and destructive, much more so than in Europe. The cost of European construction is so much greater, however, that Americans choose to pay higher insurance rates and larger bills for a fire department rather than incur this increased cost. If we bear in mind these limitations, we shall find the fire department of Boston reasonably and increasingly efficient.
To pronounce authoritatively upon the schools of Boston would be difficult for an expert, and presumptuous in any one else. A few of the oldest schoolhouses do not meet the modern requirements of ventilation and arrangement. At the opening of the school year a few schools are overcrowded, until some of the children have been distributed among neighboring schools. In general, however, the accommodations are at least fairly good, and better than those of the most expensive private day-schools. That the teaching also is fairly good may safely be asserted; earnest attempts to secure better results naturally produce dissatisfaction with existing methods, and this noble dissatisfaction is considerably felt, but the teachers are intelligent, and zealously strive to raise the standard of instruction. We boast of our schools less confidently than we used to do, but we may recognize, if we will, their great improvement.
An investigation of the pauper institutions of the city, made three or four years ago, showed that their administration was free from serious abuse, though its methods were somewhat antiquated, and though it suffered from that rarest vice of a great American city, excessive frugality. This administration has since greatly improved, and the paupers of Boston are now maintained as generously as those of a great city have ever been in the history of mankind. The administration of the penal institutions is not altogether so satisfactoiy.
Passing to those municipal services which are commonly regarded as desirable or ornamental rather than essential, we find that Boston admirably maintains the greatest public library in the world, the efficient administration of which can hardly be over-praised. The system of parks, including those of the so-called metropolitan system, is very extensive and beautiful, in variety probably unequaled, and the best landscape architects in the country have been little trammeled in laying it out. Until recently there have been no public baths, except for summer use, but one or two have just been opened. The city hospital is excellently administered, and one of its newer buildings has received the highest expert commendation.
The enterprises undertaken by the city with the hope of profit or recompense have had a varied fate. Mention has been made of the water-works. The ferries between the island of East Boston and the mainland have done, at the lowest rates, all that can be done by ferries, but their net cost to the city has been heavy, and does not diminish. In order to relieve the congestion of the streets by putting the street cars underground, a subway has been built at public expense. This has been leased for twenty years to a street railway company, at a rent sufficient to provide for repairs and for interest on the bonds issued to defray its cost, together with a proportionate contribution to a sinkingfund for the retirement of these bonds at their maturity in forty years. A forty years’ lease could have been made which would have provided for the complete retirement of the bonds, and thus would have delivered the subway free of cost to the city at the termination of the lease, had public opinion approved tying up the city’s property for so long a term. This successful business venture of more than six million dollars has stimulated an extension of the subway system.1
What, then, is the general conclusion from these details ? Regardless of cost, how does the service given by Boston compare with that which might be expected, not of an administration of seraphim, but of a business enterprise directed by the ability which successful private corporations must command ? Judged by this standard and irrespective of cost, Boston’s municipal service in respect of its police, water, sewers, hospital, fire department, schools, public library, and parks is good, in respect of its public charitable institutions pretty good, in respect of its highways distinctly faulty. In estimating the quality of municipal service, there is danger, as was pointed out by Mr. Godkin in the November Atlantic, that we shall take existing conditions for granted, and so set for ourselves too low a standard. There is like danger as regards our railroads and our dwelling-houses, our manners and our morals. Doubtless it is better to be unduly dissatisfied with ourselves than to boast, but there is danger also of indiscriminate complaint which shall discourage improvement instead of helping it, and shall waste upon minor shortcomings the energy which is needed to cure the gravest evils. To expect that municipal service will be better in quality than the service which hope of gain secures from individuals or business corporations is idle, and with the latter service municipal service should be compared. It may be said that there are services, other than those mentioned, which the city ought to furnish, but does not, such as public transportation and the furnishing of light to individuals. None of these, however, are generally recognized as obligatory upon a municipality. The variety of Boston’s service is continually increasing, and most of the severest critics are of opinion that the city now undertakes too much rather than too little.
About a year ago there was published a study of the administration of Glasgow, written in a spirit of respectable pride by two of its officials. On comparison of the statements of this book with the condition of affairs in Boston, it appears pretty clearly that in the matter of police, water, and fire department the service of one city is about as good as that of the other. Glasgow excels in the laying out and care of its streets and in its public baths, Boston in its sewers, parks, schools, and in the care of its poor. Glasgow has no public library, and apparently has no hospital supported by the municipality; it has a municipal art gallery and museum, institutions provided and administered in Boston by private generosity. Glasgow operates a gas - plant with success, and has purchased and improved a considerable tract of land; Boston has constructed and leased the subway on advantageous terms. The experiment of Glasgow in operating a tramway has been carried on for so short a time, upon so small a scale, and with such doubtful results that no valuable conclusion can yet be drawn from it. Upon the whole, the public service of Boston is rather more extensive than that rendered by Glasgow, and in quality would seem to be quite as good.
Thus far I have considered municipal service regardless of its cost; cost, however, is of the first importance. To compare the burden of taxation under one system with that under another is difficult. The nominal tax-rate of New York, for example, is very much higher than that of Boston, but in the former city the valuation of real estate is much lower, and other property escapes taxation almost altogether. New York, again, can hardly be taken as setting a sufficiently exalted standard of municipal administration. This much may be said for Boston: its tax - rate is lower than that of the great majority of the rural towns of Massachusetts governed by the town meeting, and it is no higher than it was ten or fifteen years ago. In comparison with the selling value, the assessment of real estate is now little higher than it was then, and the assessment of personal property is distinctly lower. If the present annual expenses of the city were defrayed from the present annual tax-levy, they would not impose on the citizens what is considered, in the United States, to be an undue burden of taxation. Unfortunately, this is not the case. About twelve years ago a law was passed limiting the tax-rate which Boston might impose, and the amount of money which it might borrow. The limitations were fixed in order to secure economy, but they have failed to accomplish their object. The tax - rate, indeed, has been kept almost within the limit fixed, but the city has not only borrowed up to the debt limit for various purposes, but has obtained from the legislature permission to borrow outside it for parks, schoolhouses, court-house, public library, and so forth. So often has this been done that the debt outside the limit (exclusive of the water debt, which was excepted by the original act) is now nearly as large as the debt inside the limit. Beyond all this debt, the metropolitan commissions, which deal with the water, sewers, and parks of the metropolitan district, have incurred a large and increasing debt in the name of the commonwealth, the larger part of which must be reimbursed by Boston. It is safe to say that many of those concerned with the government of the city now expect to meet extraordinary expenses for permanent improvements with money borrowed outside the debt limit, the money borrowed inside the limit being used to defray expenses which should be paid at once by annual taxation.
Summing up, we find that Boston’s municipal service is extensive, and, on the whole, of a pretty good quality ; that thus far its cost has not been a very heavy burden upon the taxpayers, but that it has been procured by reckless borrowing, rendered possible by the fall in the rate of interest and by various juggling with accounts. How far has this great expense been required in order to provide municipal service of the present extent and quality, and how far is it the result of inefficiency and dishonesty ? Granted that we are to have the service, how much more do we pay for it than we ought ?
This, of course, is a hard question, to which intelligent persons would give very different answers. In general, we may fairly say that there is, or has been, more or less of extravagant, unbusinesslike, or corrupt method in nearly all the city’s departments. In some the waste has been large, in others much less. Had all existing public works been established and maintained efficiently and economically, the city’s debt would now be considerably less than it actually is, but it would still be alarmingly large. The very best administration known to this country could not have provided the citizens with their water, sewers, fire department, parks, hospitals, library, and the rest without a much larger yearly tax or a dangerous mortgaging of the city’s future. Though Boston’s return for money spent is no doubt less than that of a successful business corporation, it should be noted also that there are few great corporations — few railroads, for example — which in half a century of existence have not at some time and in some way suffered materially from extravagant, inefficient, and even corrupt management.
In an article published in The Forum for November, 1892, Mr. Joseph Chamberlain, a man equally familiar with local and with national administration in Great Britain, compared the governments of Boston and Birmingham in respect of their economic efficiency. According to his figures, a dollar in Birmingham produces about five times the result that it produces in Boston. This conclusion is startling, and arouses our incredulity. It is easy to pick out in Mr. Chamberlain’s comparison not a few errors of detail almost unavoidable by a foreigner, and the ratio which he fixes at five to one can be reduced to about three to one without much difficulty. Though his opinion is otherwise, his article makes it clear that the municipal service of Birmingham is considerably less extensive than that of Boston : its public library, its city hospital, and its parks, for instance, are manifestly of a class quite different from that of Boston’s corresponding institutions. When all allowances have been made, however, the difference in the economic efficiency of the two governments is very disquieting to a citizen of Boston. Wherein does the difference lie ?
In wages it is very great. The cost of day labor to the city of Boston is about twice as high as its cost to Birmingham, partly because of the higher general scale of wages in this country, and partly because the wages of municipal laborers here are higher in proportion to those paid by private employers than is the case in England. The difference between wages paid in England and in America to those employees who rank above the day laborer is equally great. The policemen of Birmingham receive about four hundred dollars a year, those of Boston about a thousand dollars. The tendency to fix the rate of wages paid by the municipality above that which is paid by other employers has begun to manifest itself in England, according to Mr. Chamberlain, but it has not advanced there as far as it has done here. The salaries paid to the heads of departments are about the same in both cities.
Birmingham, again, profits by the valuable executive work performed without pay by the members of its city council, while the city council of Boston is forbidden to discharge executive functions. A good deal of this excellent unpaid work is done in Boston by commissioners and members of boards of trustees, but Birmingham, apparently, saves much of the money spent in Boston on elaborate administrative staffs. Here, as in other respects, the service of Boston is more extended, but this greater extension does not account for all the difference of cost. On the other hand, unpaid service in some city departments has been tried by us and found unsatisfactory; and, as will be shown further on, there is reason to suppose that the English system may not work so well in the future as it has done in the past. It should be said that, in spite of our less economic efficiency, the water-works of Boston, its largest municipal undertaking, seem to yield a net profit to the city much larger than do those of Birmingham. How the waterrates compare I do not know. A closer study of Mr. Chamberlain’s figures may further affect his conclusions, but such figures as his are well worth detailed examination and comparison by our municipal reformers. Beside such examination and comparison, generalized rhapsodies on the excellence of European municipal government are quite insignificant.
It is often said that, in addition to the loss arising from extravagance and corruption, from higher wages and elaborate administrative machinery, Boston has suffered great loss by neglecting a proper source of revenue. No appreciable return is now received from the use of the streets by gas and electric companies, by street railways and the like, and the omission is set down to corruption of the city’s officers by the corporations. Doubtless this is the case to some extent, but there are concurrent influences much more powerful. Compared to the use of the streets made by street railways, the use made by other corporations is almost insignificant. It would be absurd to exact rent from a gas company while charging a street railway nothing. The proposal to make street railways pay for their occupation of the streets by their tracks has been bitterly resisted by the traveling public, which desires the cheapest possible transportation. That the city should largely subsidize a street railway to carry passengers at less than actual cost seems to many passengers a desirable use of public money. The city should collect rent, as I believe, from all to whom is granted a peculiar or exclusive use of the city’s property, but the failure to obtain this rent is due far more to public opinion than to greedy corporations and venal officials.
I have said that, even with economical management, the existing municipal service could not be established and maintained without larger annual taxes or an inordinate debt. This expensive service, we are told, is demanded chiefly by those citizens who are not assessed for taxes, and by the city’s officials who wish to pocket a share of the money spent. To some extent the assertion is true ; even honest officials magnify the importance of their several departments, and the poorer citizens always favor large appropriations, failing to recognize that they pay, though indirectly, their full share of the taxes. Nearly or quite every large expenditure of the public money has been urged, however, not only by the classes just mentioned, but also by large taxpayers and public-spirited citizens. These have often petitioned the legislature to permit the city to borrow money outside the debt limit for a favorite project, — for the public library, parks, highways, and schoolhouses; indeed, the opposition to large expenditures and to borrowing outside the debt limit has ordinarily been insignificant. If the suffrage in the city had been confined, let us say, to the richer half of the citizens, I doubt if a single municipal luxury would have been foregone, though possibly the money raised might have been made to go further. Even subsidizing the street railways by exemption from rent for the use of the streets is often advocated by the well-to-do, though seldom by those who are distinctly rich.
The result of our inquiry is this : We have extensive and pretty good service, for which we pay more than we ought, but which, though it were procured with the best economy yet attained in this country, would still be so expensive that we should insist upon charging its cost to posterity. We have a debt, appalling in size after all proper deductions have been made, and increasing at a tremendous rate, its size and its increase partly concealed by devices of bookkeeping. This is a condition of affairs neither satisfactory nor hopeless, one which calls for discriminating action rather than for indiscriminate abuse. Our debt, it seems, is much the greatest of our municipal dangers, — a danger to be dreaded the more because it has been incurred with the approval of practically all our citizens, and not chiefly through the wiles of a corrupt government.
Thus far little has been said about that which is usually most emphasized in the discussion of American municipal government, to wit, the corruption of the city’s officials. The principal object of this article is to consider the quantity and quality of municipal service. Occasionally, at least, it is well to put out of sight personal considerations, and to devote our attention exclusively to the qualities of things. But if we pass from the service itself to those who are the city’s agents in rendering it, we find, as we should expect, marked varieties of character among Boston’s officials. The quality of the members of the city council is distinctly poor. Doubtless it has recently contained some honest, well-intentioned members, but in it have sat many men without ostensible means of support, and very few of the men who are naturally chosen to manage large and important private business. Moreover, it is pretty clear that the membership of the city council is not only poor, but deteriorating.
The executive departments, on the other hand, have recently contained many men not only respectable, but of marked ability and of the highest standing in the community. On the boards which govern the public library, the city hospital, the insane asylum, and the children’s department, among the overseers of the poor, on the park commissions, both city and metropolitan, on the transit commission (which is building the subway), at the head of the fire department, and in other places, have been men who would naturally be chosen to fill the highest positions of private and corporate trust. Their presence accounts for much of the good service which has been described. It must not be supposed, of course, that all the executive officers of Boston are of the last - mentioned sort. No business corporation in the country is served in all its departments by men of first-rate ability. Within the past few years, moreover, some of the city’s departments have been directed by men far below the minimum standard of honesty and efficiency established in successful business affairs. Under a man of this kind, a department has sometimes become generally inefficient and corrupt; sometimes it has continued to discharge its functions pretty well by means of respectable subordinates and clerks. In spite of these shortcomings, all too numerous and in some cases utterly disgraceful, the executive officers of the city are far superior in character and ability to the members of the city council.
The cause of this general difference between the executive departments of the city and its legislature is not far to seek. Before 1885 much of the administration of Boston was in the hands of committees of the city council, as is still the case in most other cities of Massachusetts. In 1885, partly because of the unsatisfactory work of these committees, and partly because of a theoretical preference for a separation of powers, the state legislature deprived the city council of its administrative functions. Hardly any one recognized then, and but few recognize now, that nearly all municipal functions are administrative. The annual legislation of the city, as set out in its ordinances, is unimportant. The tax rate is limited by statute, and the money obtained by it, for the most part, is pledged to meet the needs of the several departments, so that the city council has very little money left in its disposition Almost the only considerable legislative function remaining is the authorization of loans. This function certainly is most important, and far too little attention is now given to its discharge, but it cannot provide two legislative chambers with business for some forty sittings apiece. These sittings are spent chiefly in idle discussion, and in the attempt, usually vain, to hamper the executive. Service in these bodies is not only disagreeable, but profitless, and the quality of their membership naturally deteriorates. Without a sense of responsibility men can do little that is good. Considerable power is a prerequisite of serious responsibility. The municipal legislature of Boston is almost powerless, and is therefore incompetent to discharge properly even those few functions which still belong to it. Frequent and frantic appeals are made to the citizens to elect better men to the city council; but intelligent and busy men cannot be expected to give days and weeks of their time to membership in an irresponsible debating club.
It will naturally be asked if the executive has improved while the legislature has been deteriorating. I think that it has, on the whole. Inefficiency and corruption are found in some executive departments, but though the city is much larger than it was twelve years ago, and though its functions are more numerous and complicated, its administration has improved. The changes made in 1885, and similar changes made since, have been of very great advantage. They have given us better service and more honest and efficient administration than would have been possible in our growing city under the old system. Notable improvement has been made, for example, in respect of the police, the city hospital, the public charitable institutions, and the city’s building operations. Compared to what we have gained, an increased rate of deterioration in the already deteriorating city council is felt to be a small thing.
It may be urged that in Great Britain executive power is entrusted to the municipal legislature with excellent results. We should observe, however, that until within a short time municipal suffrage in Great Britain has been very limited, and the traditions of the old order of things have not disappeared. Even now municipal suffrage is not universal, in our sense of the word.
Again, Mr. Chamberlain’s remark that dishonesty and corruption do not exist in England has received sad contradiction within the past few years, — a contradiction so strong that we must needs doubt if the remark was ever quite justified. The recent experience of the London County Council Indicates that Great Britain not improbably has before it an era of municipal misgovernment like that from which we are trying to emerge. Never, in the United States, have the supposed exigencies of partisan politics led to more cynical excuses for shameless dishonesty. The corruption discovered in London not long ago is by no means so remarkable as the indifference with which its discovery was received.
The consideration of American political problems is usually so much taken up with moral exhortation, and with the exhibition of some panacea for existing evils, that a mere statement of things as they are is deemed colorless and profitless ; yet surely a study of existing conditions is valuable preparation for reforming them. No nostrum exists which will secure either perfect municipal government or the perfect administration of a railroad. Good government and good administration are the slowly produced results of watchful study, intelligent observation, and patient experiment. The most zealous devotion cannot attain to it in a hurry. It was the fashion, a century ago, to believe that good government was secured by the sudden adoption of a political system based upon human nature in the abstract, and upon the Eternal Fitness of Things. Now we know better than this; but we have fallen into another error, less fundamental, but still considerable. Many people think that political improvement is synonymous with the election to office of good men. Doubtless this is a thing ever to be desired, and personal moral earnestness among electors and elected is the strongest and safest motive for reform. Not only, however, must we shape the method and machinery of our choice so as to lead naturally to the selection of the best men, but we must also face the practical certainty that even with the best methods the best men will not always be chosen to office, and therefore we must make preparation for the inevitable. Institutions have their importance as well as men, and we have to establish conditions which will enable the saint to do the maximum of good while restraining the sinner to the minimum of harm. Still greater is the importance of giving to the average official, who is neither saint nor sinner, his best opportunity of useful public service. This sort of reform, involving nice considerations of political judgment, and therefore less attractive to many men than an electoral campaign fought on moral issues, has lately made considerable progress in Boston, over and above the beneficent changes made in 1885. The trustees of the public library and of the city hospital, elected by the city council, Were not satisfactory. An attempt to improve the choice under the laws then existing would probably have failed, so the power of appointment was transferred to the mayor with great advantage. The administration of the police was unsatisfactory ; the power of appointing the police commissioners was transferred to the governor, and, although scandal has not been altogether avoided, the improvement in administration has been marked. Twice within two years the form of government of the city’s charitable institutions has been radically changed, each time with good results. The carrying on of several great public works, like that involved in the water-supply of the metropolitan district, has been entrusted to commissions appointed by the governor, which have shown as great economy, efficiency, and promptness as could be hoped for from the best private management.
It has been objected that these commissions are imposed upon the city or the metropolitan district from without, and that their responsibility to any body politic is hard to fix. There is weight in the objection. Local home rule is an attractive cry, and some small evils had better be borne until the people of a given locality have themselves found out the cure. The government of great modern cities, however, is distinctly in the experimental stage, and it may be that, for a time at least, certain functions, hitherto commonly discharged by municipalities, should be undertaken by the state. In any case, it is safe to say that, until the critics can find a method of combining greater local responsibility with equal efficiency, these commissions will find favor in the eyes of reasonable men. Good municipal service is the end sought, and the Anglo-Saxon race has always preferred to submit its political methods to the test of practical working rather than to that of logical completeness.
The following observations are suggested by a review of Boston’s municipal service. The service itself is worst in respect of the highways. If our streets were well laid out, well paved, and well repaired, and if the traffic through them were properly controlled, the citizens of Boston would have no very severe complaint to make of the quantity and quality of the municipal service. If, however, the people of Boston expect that this service is to be maintained, extended, and improved, they must be prepared to pay considerably higher annual taxes than those now exacted. A more honest and efficient administration will make a dollar go further than it goes now, but it cannot furnish even the existing service without incurring a debt much too large, The greatest danger to be feared from the present course of Boston’s municipal administration is a crushing debt. We must go without some of our luxuries, or we must put our hands into our pockets and pay for them. The election of good men to office will not keep the debt within proper limits. Its size is due, not chiefly to maladministration, but rather to the demands made upon the city by all classes of citizens. Municipal frugality is needed, not alone or principally on the part of the city’s officials, but on the part of the whole people.
Finally, economical and efficient administration, and so cheaper and better service, is to be obtained through better executive officers and a better executive organization. The best man for mayor, who shall have the discretion and courage to select the best subordinates, and the executive ability to coördinate and organize the several departments of the city, is the thing most to be desired. Public-spirited citizens can be most useful by accepting office under him, by devoting much time and attention to doing the city’s work, and, both in office and out of office, to studying how best that work can be done. The personal equation in elections and appointments is important, but methods of appointment and machinery of administration should not be neglected. As to the municipal legislature, it is become an anomaly. It does little good, and no great harm.
No plan for abolishing it has yet been devised which commends itself to the judgment of the community. Until that plan is discovered and accepted, we must bear with our city council as men bear with an internal organ called the vermiform appendix. Physicians tell us that this has no discoverable present use except to become the seat of disease, though it is supposed to have been necessary at an earlier period of human development.
How far the experience of Boston is typical of that of other American cities it is hard to say. In detail it has differed greatly ; a loving son of Boston may be pardoned the belief that it has been somewhat more fortunate than that of New York or Chicago, but, on the whole, it probably has been much the same.
Francis C. Lowell.
- Students of American municipal government should study carefully The City Government of Boston, a valedictory address delivered by Mayor Matthews in 1895, perhaps the most authoritative statement concerning municipal government ever made in this country.↩