The Unofficial Government of Cities

THERE is probably no subject to which, during the last few years, the attention of public - spirited Americans has been more carefully directed than that of municipal government. It is admitted that the government of great cities in the United States is in many respects unsatisfactory. This result is attributed partly to the defective machinery provided by law, and partly to defects in administration. The real cause of the evils which all deplore appears to be this: The American people, with their characteristic conservatism, have adhered to forms of government which were suited well enough to the conditions existing seventy-five years ago. Then our population was more homogeneous, the distinction between rich and poor less marked, the relations of the different members of society were more intimate ; and consequently, individual citizens were able to, and did in fact, coöperate more effectively to administer the government of cities, as they had done that of their towns. Moreover, many subjects, which have since come to be recognized as a proper or even necessary part of municipal administration, were then left entirely to individual direction and control; so that organizations which were suited well enough to the simpler requirements of the social conditions of that time might well have proved inadequate to the more difficult task which is now required of city governments, even if the other obstacles alluded to had not multiplied.

It is no part of my purpose to underrate the evils to which I have referred, but I desire to point out some of the ways in which they have been mitigated or obviated altogether.

One of the characteristics of the AngloSaxon race is its indisposition to consider theoretical objections, and its willingness to adopt methods which for the time being are convenient and adequate, even though they may be subject to many such objections. In no respect is this more manifest than in the means which have been adopted for dealing with these admitted evils of municipal administration. Individual citizens, without sharing in the official administration of the city government or holding offices mentioned in its charter, in many cases discharge duties which are now recognized as being incumbent upon any intelligent government of a great civilized city ; and that, too, in cases relating both to criminal and to civil administration. Very little attention, apparently, has been paid to this amelioration of conditions which has been produced by the voluntary action of public-spirited citizens. Experience shows that when a person loses his sight his sense of touch becomes more delicate ; if he lose a hand, the other hand becomes more dexterous, and supplies, as far as may be, the deficiency. In like manner, individuals have stepped in and performed voluntarily the duties that, theoretically and in the ideal city, would be performed by the officials of the local government.

It would seem that nothing could be more distinctively the function of public officials than the enforcement of the laws. This duty is devolved by the charter of all cities upon certain officers mentioned therein. Yet in practice, private corporations, chartered by the legislature, but receiving no pecuniary aid from the state, do in fact discharge a very considerable and important part of the functions which by charter are devolved upon officials. Among the oldest and most notable instances are the Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which are to be found in all our important cities. The New York association was incorporated in 1866, “ to enforce all laws which then were or might thereafter be enacted for the protection of animals, and to secure by lawful means the arrest and conviction of all persons found violating such laws.” This parent society (which is indeed designated as the “ American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals ”) has authority, under its charter, “ to provide effective means for the prevention of cruelty to animals throughout the United States.” But in practice, as stated in its last report, “ the organization and influence of the American Society soon led to the establishment of local societies in all parts of the Union, and in other countries on the American continent and elsewhere. The number of local societies incorporated in the United States is now 209, and in other American nations eleven societies have been established and incorporated since 1866, making a total of 220.” To quote again from its last report: —

“ The officers of the society are clothed with ample police powers. They wear a distinctive uniform, and patrol the streets by day and by night. They have full power to arrest and prosecute offenders against the laws relating to animals. In addition to the uniformed police, the society has nearly two hundred special agents in different parts of the state, clothed with the same authority, and engaged in enforcing the laws for the prevention of cruelty. In the boroughs of Manhattan and Brooklyn, the society has ambulances for the removal of injured, sick, and disabled animals; appliances for the rescue of drowning animals and animals which have fallen into excavations ; and a patrol wagon which carries with it the necessary apparatus and medicines for rendering aid to injured animals in the streets.”

Yet this society, which thus aids essentially in the performance of some of the recognized functions of municipal government, “ receives no appropriations from the city or state, and is dependent upon voluntary donations and bequests.”

A similar Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children was incorporated in 1875. A Society for the Prevention of Vice has since been incorporated in New York, which is charged with the enforcement of other laws of the state which, theoretically, should be enforced by the district attorney and his subordinates, and by the police.

Indeed, to such an extent are these societies recognized as an unofficial but actual part of the city government that in the Criminal Court House one of them has an office, in which an officer, employed by it, is regularly stationed, who has come to be considered as really a part of the municipal organization.

On the civil side of municipal administration, a still more notable development of this unofficial government is to be noted. This is more marked in some cities than in others. For example, in the city of New York, the entire duty of providing public circulating libraries is performed by private corporations, chartered under state laws for that purpose. These are under the supervision of the regents of the university, and receive aid from the city, pursuant to a general law of the state. But their officers are not selected by the city authorities. In Boston, however, the Public Library is managed by the municipal authorities. In Washington the Library is under the control of Congress. It would be unreasonable to say that either method is practically better than the other.

One great fault of constitution and charter makers is to assume that a method which is advantageous in one locality is necessarily the best for another. It might as well be said that because a suit of clothes fits one man, it must therefore fit every other. This Procrustean method of compelling the sleeper to fit the bed was laughed at long ago by the Greeks, and ought to be the subject of ridicule in every intelligent community.

The New York system has two distinct advantages. In the first place, it tends to encourage private liberality. The entire plant of the public libraries in that city, including the buildings which they occupy and most of the books which they use, has been furnished without expense to the city, by private benefactions.

Again, in a polyglot city like New York or Chicago, the tendency of the foreigners who come there is to form colonies in particular localities. In New York city, for example, the Italians are mostly in one quarter, the Bohemians in another, the Chinese in another, the colored people in still another. In Buffalo the Poles occupy a separate district. Each neighborhood has its distinctive requirements, and intelligent librarians in each district, administering a library founded for the requirements of that locality, are far more likely to meet the special needs of that neighborhood than public functionaries appointed by a central authority, necessarily chosen under general rules and without adequate attention to individual needs.

The provision of museums of art and natural history, zoölogy, and similar subjects has also come to be recognized as an appropriate function of a city. Such museums exist in many large cities, and are supported to a great degree at public expense. Yet experience in this country has shown that these museums are more intelligently conducted by private corporations chartered by the legislature, and under the management of publicspirited and art-loving citizens, than they would be if directed by committees of the board of aldermen. The truth is (and no intelligent reforms can be accomplished in municipal government without the recognition of this truth) that the official government of our large cities is democratic, founded upon universal suffrage. Each voter likes to feel that there is somebody in the city government who represents him. This is the reason why the democracy has clung so persistently to the district system of electing members of one branch, at least, of the city council. The alderman is alderman of the district. He represents his constituents, not merely in his functions as a member of a municipal legislature, but in all his relations with the constituted authorities. It is very well that it should be so, and that voters should feel that there is some official personage to whom they can directly appeal, and who does distinctly represent the people of his district.

It is equally natural that these voters should elect a representative of their own kind. The fact that a man is very much wiser and better educated than the majority in his district is rather a disqualification for this kind of representation. On the other hand, the voters are intelligent enough to know that the representative they elect for their particular district is not necessarily qualified to discharge all the duties that might theoretically be intrusted to the municipal legislature. To devolve general legislative functions upon a municipal council elected on the district system is one of the absurdities of theoretical charter-makers, and a blunder into which no one should fall who has studied the subject of municipal government intelligently and practically, and is not misled by the ordinary vice of charter-makers, who want to turn out a pretty piece of work, all shining with the last gloss of the most recent theory.

Another very important function of municipal government is the administration of public charities. In all cities there are hospitals and asylums which are supported at the expense of the public, and managed by officials who are either elected by the people or appointed by those who are so elected. It must be said that in the administration of these charities something is lacking of that personal tenderness and thoughtful care which ought, if possible, to attend ministrations to the sick, to the insane, and especially to young children. The mortality among infants in public institutions in the city of New York, for example, is certainly greater than it is in the best private institutions. How this may be in other cities I have no means of knowing. But it is almost inevitable that the causes which have produced these results in one city should, to some extent at least, produce similar results in others.

These deficiencies in public charities are to a large degree supplied by private institutions. Any one who is at all familiar with the feeling of the plain people must be aware that, as a rule, they are more willing to be sent, in case of sickness, to a hospital managed by a private corporation than to one managed by the public. Yet a vigorous agitation to abolish all public aid to private charities has been lately set on foot by many wellmeaning citizens, who, it seems to me, look at the subject too exclusively from a theoretical standpoint. On the other hand, as the supervisor of Catholic charities in New York city has very well put that side of the question, the “ private institutions give the use of their grounds, buildings, and equipments to the public without charge, and in addition do the work cheaper than it could be done in public institutions.” Mr. Kinkead then takes as an instance the work of the New York Foundling Asylum, and puts the case for this institution so clearly that it is worth quoting as an admirable illustration of the point under consideration : —

“ The public wards of this institution are paid for by the city only while they are in the institution or being nursed at its expense. At the age of three or four years, or even younger, these children are placed in good permanent family homes, where for at least twelve or fifteen years longer they are under the supervision of the institution ; and the institution receives no compensation for this long after-care. It costs an average of $1000 for each group of about fifty children sent to homes in the West, and for the supervision of those already placed. Several of these trips are made during the year, yet the institution is not reimbursed for its outlay. Thus the city has been relieved, during thirty years, of the care and maintenance of thousands of children for whom it could not have provided in the same manner without maintaining a force of officials at great expense in other states, — a thing evidently impracticable.”

The argument against the continuance of this unofficial system is based largely upon abuses that have grown up in its administration. These abuses do undoubtedly exist, and ought to be prevented. No private institution should claim exemption from the most rigorous public inspection. Its accounts and its management should at all times be open to the examination of the public authorities. Because it is an unofficial part of the government of the city, it should not therefore claim to be free from public control. But such control is equally necessary for public institutions, in which similar and even greater abuses have frequently been discovered. It is trite to say that the possibility of abuse is no argument against the existence of a system. The question always for the lawmaker to determine is, not whether abuse is possible, but whether, on the whole, under existing conditions, one system is more likely to produce satisfactory results than the other. It is quite possible that, in the future development of municipal government, some of the functions that are now discharged by unofficial agencies may be performed by public officials; and this change will come when the public is ready for it, and when the administration of the municipality so improves that the change will be desirable. For example, it is not more than twenty years since many residents of the city of New York paid private persons to clean the streets in front of their houses more frequently and more efficiently than the city was prepared to do it, and employed a private watchman to patrol the street in which they lived, because patrol duty was not done efficiently by the public police. So great an improvement has taken place in the management of the street - cleaning department and of the police department that these private agencies have gone out of use.

There is another branch of the unofficial government of cities that deserves consideration, but which has had an entirely different origin from those already referred to. In all large cities, political leaders, holding no municipal office, perform a very important part in the selection by the public officials of their subordinates. These leaders very frequently determine that one proposed public improvement shall be undertaken, and another postponed or rejected. It is to them, as well as to the public officials, that persons having dealings with the city government go in order to get business done to their satisfaction. A great deal of invective has been bestowed on these “ bosses,” as they are commonly called, and certainly there is no occasion to enter upon a defense of their acts. Yet candor compels the admission that in some cases these political leaders give very intelligent directions, which are distinctly beneficial to the public, and that in many respects public business is better done through their influence than it would be without it. The great point on which good citizens should insist is, that these political leaders should perform their functions with more regard to the public interest. The machinery of party government, from which municipalities have not yet been freed, gives to citizens some opportunity of punishing the selfish actions of political leaders, and of securing for legitimate public uses at least the larger part of the money raised by public taxation. But the indiscriminate abuse of political leaders tends to dishearten the average man, and to quench his purpose to better the administration of the city in which he lives. It is in the public interest to give even the devil his due, and to perceive that during one campaign a political leader may be sincere in his expressed desire to elect honest and capable candidates, even though at another election his influence has been thrown into the opposite scale.

The wise reformer should be an opportunist. He should “sow beside all waters,” and “ mitigate where he cannot cure.”

The explanation of the facts to which attention has thus been drawn is this; In large cities the function of a pure democracy has been indeed to give to the humblest citizen a right to vote, and by means of his vote to protect, according to his choice, his personal liberty and individual rights. But these democracies, as yet, have not proved themselves equal to the task of administering, even to their own satisfaction, the complicated functions of municipal government. It is by the consent of the people, through their chosen representatives, that all the associations before referred to have been incorporated, for the discharge of functions which might very well have been performed by public officers elected or appointed for that specific purpose, had these proved adequate to the task. These associations have actually become a part of the de facto government of our cities. They constitute an essential part of it. Functions recognized by all thinking men as essential to the completeness of municipal government are performed solely by them. It is of great importance that the actual situation should be appreciated, and that these associations should realize the responsibility of their position, and should be satisfied that the duties they perform, though unsalaried and not compensated in any way out of the public treasury, are just as necessary a part of the administration of the city and of the state as if they were specified in the charter and paid by the public.

It is interesting to notice that, centuries ago, the same conditions, in wealthy and prosperous cities, produced the same results. The free cities of Italy, during the Middle Ages, while their government continued democratic, were the abodes of wealth, the homes of literature and art, the centres of thriving commerce and manufactures. Their organization was as complicated as ours, and their democratic governments proved as inadequate as ours to discharge all the complex municipal functions that were devolved upon them. To use the language of Armstrong in the Life of Lorenzo de’ Medici: —

“As the functions of government in Florence became more extensive, its constitutional forms proved inadequate. The predominant feature was the fear of a strong executive, the elimination or emasculation of ability by division of authority, by rapid rotation in office, by an intricate tangle of checks and councils, by the substitution of lot for selection, by the denial of military power. Thus it was that when vigor and experience, secrecy and rapidity, were needed, they must be sought outside the official government. This is the secret of all Florentine history until the republic became a principality. This, therefore, was the secret of that unofficial organization the ‘ Parte Guelfa,’ which, when the conflict with the Ghibellines was closed, still continued to control the state, possessing large independent resources and a highly organized executive.”

Walter B. Scaife, in his monograph on Florentine Life during the Renaissance, thus describes the Parte Guelfa:

“ For a time the Guelph party was so powerful in the affairs of the city that it may almost be said to have exercised an imperium in imperio. They had their own captains, who were the mouthpiece and executor of the will of the party.... As their power increased, the pride of party leaders waxed apace, and their insolence toward the remainder of the citizens became almost intolerable. They were feared more than the signoria, and the decisions of their court appear to have been more respected than those of any other body of men in the Commonwealth. . . . The party was composed largely of the ancient nobility, who in this guise continued for a long period to be among the leaders of the city.”

No doubt the condition thus described by the historian was largely due to the party feuds in these mediæval republics, which were even more fierce than those which prevail in modern cities. These feuds exercised an important and sometimes a disastrous influence upon the administration of the government. Their parties were organized as thoroughly as our own. The description which Hallam gave of the condition of Milan was true of other cities, and is equally true, in substance though not in form, of New York and Chicago : —

“ Milan had for a considerable time been agitated by civil dissensions between the nobility and inferior citizens. These parties were pretty equally balanced, and their success was consequently alternate. Each had its own podesta, as a party leader, distinct from the legitimate magistrate of the city.”

The American word “boss” is a very good vernacular translation of the Italian word mentioned by Hallam. The existing facts in municipal history, when compared with the past, show plainly enough that history repeats itself, and that the same conditions in human life and character produce similar results in successive epochs.

The Anglo - Saxon race has usually been indifferent to the logical construction of its government, provided its practical results were satisfactory, or even tolerable, and has constantly utilized legal forms for purposes very different from those for which they were originally intended. We need not be apprehensive that these ancillary associations upon which so many important duties have been devolved by law will be deprived of power, if they use it well. Notwithstanding all the imperfections in the government of American cities, we may rationally hope that if public spirit continues to be vigorous enough to maintain these various associations in active life, and they use fearlessly and well the powers given them by their charters, the aggregate result of municipal administration will become more and more satisfactory. The development may be slow and uneven, but it will be continuous.

Everett P. Wheeler.