Charter-Making in America
CHARTER-MAKING seems to have become a fixed habit with most American communities. New York may be said to have a perennial charter commission in session. The subject has been conspicuously before Chicago for at least a dozen years. Minneapolis has prepared and rejected four charters within a decade. At the present time the question is up for active discussion in a score of leading communities, and, judging from the number of articles on the Galveston and Des Moines plans, there is a national interest in those two striking experiments in municipal management. Indeed, for the past score of years, charter-making has been a most fruitful theme of municipal reformers and administrations. So general and so persistent has been this interest, that one perforce must ask what it all means, and what it portends.
On the one hand, it is a struggle for adjustment; and on the other, the fight of the American people for the right of local self-government. The average citizen does not always recognize it, in either of these forms, as a part of the perpetual fight for democracy, but in essence the movement means these two things. For the first hundred years of our national existence the people were busy with problems of conquest, expansion, and certain pressing national problems. These were solved one by one, or rather simultaneously, but at the expense of the cities, which were left, like Topsy, to grow just as they pleased, and they pleased to grow “ every which way; ” but grow they did, and at a rate which startled student and official alike when they began “ to take notice.” There was no state or national policy as to cities such as has prevailed in England since 1835. One could often find in a single state as many forms of city government as there were cities in it, and a city charter frequently more nearly resembled a crazy patchwork quilt, than anything else. Indeed, to call such an instrument, or conglomeration of acts, a charter, was a euphemism.
The “ charter ” of Boston, that “hub of the universe,” that “ Athens of America,” consisted a few years ago of seven hundred and fifty separate acts, and I have no doubt that the number has been increased since that count was made. No wonder that during the past year we have heard serious suggestions that Boston be placed in the hands of a receiver. The proposed plan, as set forth by the Boston Transcript, which is not for a moment to be suspected of levity, was: Suspension by the legislature of the powers of the city council over appropriations and loans; the transfer of these powers, for a certain period, to the Finance Commission, to be exercised subject to an absolute veto by the mayor; the grant of power to the mayor to consolidate, rearrange, and abolish, at the recommendation of the commission, any part of the city’s government; the grant of power, on the same terms, to suspend ordinances; the authorizing of the commission to prepare and recommend charter amendments with a view to a permanent reorganization of the municipal administration. And no less a statesman than United States Senator Henry Cabot Lodge is reported by the Boston Herald, in a campaign speech at Chelsea, in the autumn of 1907, as saying: —
“ They are charging that I have advocated the government of Boston by a state commission. I have never mentioned the word ‘ commission ’ in connection with Boston in any speech that I have made. I do not believe, myself, in taking the government of Boston out of the hands of its people and placing it in the hands of a state commission. I am too strong a believer in the right of local self-government.
“ What I have said, and what I now repeat, is this, that the condition of Boston under the present city administration is deplorable; that Boston, if an ordinary business corporation, would be in the hands of a receiver; and that there is every reason to believe, from the revelations already made by the Finance Commission, that there is a great deal of corruption in the city government.”
Naturally, the suggestion of a receiver attracts general attention in over-taxed, politics-ridden, and financially crippled cities; but there is not much likelihood of its being adopted in Boston or any other city, even though it may be as badly needed as Senator Lodge averred it was, and most of us believe it was, in Boston, under the administration of Mayor Fitzgerald. The people themselves applied a practical remedy when they chose George A. Hibbard as his successor; but a still further remedy is needed, and that is a larger measure of home rule.
In 1773 Boston set the colonies an example of independence when it held the famous “ tea party,” refusing to use tea which had been taxed by a body in which it had no representation. Its present subjection to the Massachusetts Legislature, however, is far more subversive of the fundamental principles of local self-rule. Boston constantly looks to the State House for relief from ills, rather than to the City Hall, where, under any proper system of municipal government, it should. If an Englishman finds anything going contrary to his sense of right or justice, one does not find him running off to the Parliament in London; he goes directly to the local council, and seeks his relief there, where he should and does find it. In America, however, in every one of the states east of the Mississippi, and in a majority of those to the west, the offended citizen or the reformer proceeds to the state legislature in session at the state capital. So strong is this tendency that it is no exaggeration to say, as I pointed out some years ago, and the same remains true to this day, that the bulk of the work of the average state legislature is the consideration of measures relating to municipal affairs.
For the five years preceding the sitting of the Fassett Investigating Committee in New York, the New York State Legislature passed 1084 bills relating to the cities in the state. The latest New York Charter Revision Committee is authority for the averment that between 1897 and the revision of 1901, 58 separate acts amending the charter of 1897 became law. Since the 1901 revision, 207 sections have been amended, and 46 new sections added. Apart from these numerous amendatory acts, there have been passed since 1897, approximately 650 separate and special acts, each directly affecting the property, government, or rights, of the city, 322 of them since 1901, and none of these is included in or made a part of the charter. In 1906, 556 local acts affecting New York were introduced into the legislature; and in 1907, 631. These bills are all part of the persistent desire for charter-rebuilding (and the proportion is no doubt the same in other states), and are efforts to adjust the old conditions to the new, and to substitute improved governmental machinery for the old and antiquated.
The trouble, as I shall point out later on, cannot be cured by frequent recourse to an outside body, but must be cured by home application. Nevertheless the various efforts, crude and awkward though many of them may be, are mostly in the right direction, and although the progress may be slow, it is on the whole sure. As the London Municipal Journal pointed out, in reference to the recommendations of the Charter Revision Committee of 1907, “ A number of important recommendations are made by the recently appointed New York Charter Revision Committee, which has reported with commendable promptitude notwithstanding the magnitude of its task. New York, like London [which is the one exception to the English rule of simplicity and directness in municipal government], has a very obsolete form of government, a much-patched and cumbrous fabric, and any improvement the virtual metropolis of America is able to effect should certainly be a stimulus, and may possibly afford a lesson, to ourselves. The existing charter of New York dates back to the eighties, though it has been a good deal amended since. Yet the net result of the Commission’s deliberations is that ‘ experience demonstrates that the present Charter, even as revised in 1901, has not worked satisfactorily.' All the proposals of the Commission are put forward with the object of securing unification and concentration of administration, and a more definite fixing of responsibility. ‘ The distribution of functions and location of powers,’ says the Commission, ‘ are incoherent, illogical, and unpractical, which results in conflict of jurisdiction and extravagance.’ The Commission makes numerous recommendations designed to end this state of affairs. Where one department can better do the work of three or four of the same kind, it desires the abolition of the latter; it wants greater power conferred on the mayor and other executive officers, so that responsibility can be plainly allocated; and it wishes the city to control and arrange its own finance without the thrusting on it of mandatory appropriations by outside authority. The Commission also desires either to abolish or greatly restrict the power of the board of aldermen, and to lessen the opportunities of the constituent boroughs to hamper the administration of New York as a whole,” — a purpose which the Charter formally recommended by the Commission of 1908, and introduced into the 1909 session of the New York Legislature, carries out, there-by providing for more efficient and direct means of communication between the people and the central government.
Chicago is likewise fighting for her freedom. In some directions she has made a longer step forward than most of her sister cities, because she has to a measurable extent improved the personnel of her local legislative body; but like the average American city, she is tied to the tail of the state legislative kite. Under the Illinois Constitution of 1870 the legislature was required to pass a general incorporation law to govern all cities, and special legislation Was forbidden. It is almost needless to add that this management did not work well for Chicago, whose needs and desires were totally different from those of any other city in the state. She had two million, and no other city had even a hundred thousand inhabitants. The disparity was distressingly great, and the conditions so radically different, that municipal legislation suited to the needs of the one was totally unsuited to those of the others.
In 1904 the Constitution of Illinois was so amended as to give the metropolis of the State a special charter. To draft this special charter, a Charter Convention was provided for by an ordinance of council, to be composed of seventy-four members, and made up of aldermen, state legislators, representatives of various local government bodies, and thirty citizens, one-half appointed by the governor (Deneen), the rest by the mayor (Dunne). This convention, after a year’s hard work, came to a substantial agreement. The instrument agreed upon had to run the gauntlet of the legislature, in 1907, in the usual American way, and with the usual results. It made numerous changes, notably in refusing to sanction important provisions designed to promote political independence. The legislature also struck out the direct primary feature which had been adopted by the Charter Convention. It also refused to make any concession whatever to the demand for the elimination of the party circle from the ballot in municipal elections. The charter, however, was especially notable for its broad grant of home-rule powers to the city of Chicago and its city council. Rural critics of the bill even said that its effect would be to make of Chicago a separate state.
As a matter of precaution, the existing enumerated powers of the city were repeated, but the dependence of the charter-makers was upon the grant to the city, in general terms, of the broad power to do all things necessary for the government of the city, except such as might be in conflict with the provisions of the Constitution or of general laws; and herein it was in harmony with the best modern thought on the subject. General laws hereafter passed relating to cities were declared not to be construed as applying to Chicago unless specifically so stated. The aim of the framers of the charter was to give Chicago power to work out its own local problems in its own way, so far as possible free from legislative interference or the necessity of appealing continually to the legislature for additional powers.
The legislative eliminations and alterations, however, were such as to arouse the antagonism of the truly independent elements, of the foreign-born population, and of the Democratic organization, and the result was defeat; well-merited defeat some said, because of the unnecessary political interference of the legislature. These same critics, many of them thoughtful students of the problem, do not hesitate to say that the defeat was in reality a victory for self-government, as it means that in the future the state legislature may be less likely to deny the formal demands of the city as embodied in a carefully chosen charter convention. The present session of the Illinois Legislature will show whether this view is well founded, as a new charter proposition has been submitted.
Washington, the capital city of our nation, instead of affording, as it should, the most striking model of self-government in the whole country, is as a matter of fact a most horrible example of just the reverse. The city has a fair measure of good government, but it is not democratic good government. It is imposed upon the city. It does not come as the self-conscious deliberate effort of the people who are affected. Congress governs the city absolutely, and the people have nothing to say about the personnel of their governors or the form of their government. The President, by and with the advice of the Senate, determines one; and Congress the other. We never hear of charter reform in Washington, except when Congress or the President starts the discussion; and this former President Roosevelt did, appointing, not a charter convention of residents. but an expert from New York in the person of James Bronson Reynolds. There are few better equipped men for the task, but the recommendations are his, not those of the people whose interests are involved. With nearly all that Mr. Reynolds suggests, one is likely to be in entire sympathy, especially with what he has to say about administration: —
“ The present administration of the affairs of the District of Columbia by three commissioners has the advantage of the intimate association and frequent conference of three executives of equal rank. But it has the inevitable defects of divided responsibility, confusion of authority, and of administration by a board instead of by a single responsible executive. While in certain respects the District has the government of a territory, it is, in fact, a large city, and its administration should conform to the methods adopted in other large cities in this country. After careful consideration of the subject, and conference with many citizens of the District, and of other cities, I recommend a serious consideration of the substitution of a single chief executive for the present Board of Commissioners. For this official the title of governor has been suggested, as he would be governor of the District of Columbia as well as mayor of the city of Washington, the duties of both officers now devolving upon the three District Commissioners. He should receive compensation in proportion to the importance of the office and the arduous duties which it would impose.
“ I also recommend that eligibility for the office of governor be extended. Of the present district commissioners, ‘ two must have been actual residents of the District for three years next before their appointment, and have during that period claimed residence nowhere else.’ The third is detailed from time to time from the engineer corps of the U. S. Army by the President of the United States. While residents of the District should naturally have preference, I believe the President should be free to consider the availability of successful and experienced mayors in other cities of the country who might be especially qualified to become the chief executive officer of the national capital.
“ It is, I think, generally recognized that the best governed cities of the world are those of Germany. In that country the mayors of the larger cities are selected from the mayors of smaller cities who have demonstrated their knowledge of municipal affairs and their executive efficiency. The present Mayor of Berlin, for instance, served very successfully as mayor of two smaller cities before he reached his present position. The present mayors of Frankfort and Leipzig had also distinguished records as mayors in other cities.
“Those who are familiar with municipal progress in our country are aware of the increasing number of able municipal executives who are being developed in our large cities. Such executives, at the end of one or two terms, have no further opportunity for public service in the line of their successful experience. From them might be chosen an executive worthy of the high honor of being the chief executive of the national capital. I therefore recommend that eligibility be extended to include those who have served not less than one term as mayor in a city of not less than fifty thousand inhabitants.”
These recommendations are in the line of efficiency, and are worthy of the most careful consideration. I hope the experiment will be tried, as I believe it will prove of far-reaching value and influence throughout the country; but its value will be very largely diminished, because it is not a democratic experiment, that is, one entered upon by the people of the District with a full sense of their responsibility. If successful, it will be imposed good government; and this, happening at the seat of a nation which boasts of its democratic government, constitutes a solecism of the first magnitude. For even Mr. Reynolds does not suggest suffrage, but, instead, a citizens’ committee of one hundred to represent all general civic interests, saying and arguing in behalf of this recommendation, —
“ The importance of the service of civic organizations in the District of Columbia is emphasized, not diminished, by the absence of the right to vote. On the material side, such service is rendered by the Board of Trade, the Business Men’s Association, the Jobbers and Shippers’ Association, and various sectional associations. These organizations have also shown an interest in the general civic concerns of the District. There does not, however, exist any strong organization charging itself primarily with the disinterested promotion of the general public welfare. Such an organization is greatly needed, and I suggest the propriety of your naming a committee of one hundred, to be composed of representatives of all elements, and to express the varied interests of the District in relation to all questions of social reform and administration. It would differ from commercial organizations, whose primary interest is material and personal, in that its primary interest would be civic and general. The recommendations of such a body would undoubtedly have weight with the President with Congress, and with the administrative officers of the District; and its conferences would furnish a forum for discussion and the expression and enlightenment of public opinion.”
A very clear idea of the problem of charter reform and revision in an average growing American city can perhaps be best gathered by recounting the quite recent experience of Kansas City, Kansas, which sought to avail itself of the recently enacted Kansas law, which makes it possible for any city in the state to adopt the commission (Galveston) form of government. The letter from which I quote was not written for publication, but it tells so well the story of a city’s problems and its struggle for their solution, that I avail myself of it, rather than attempt a description of my own: —
“The law under which Kansas City sought to overthrow the ward system and establish government by commission, was passed by the legislature in March, 1907. The plan has been voted down in Coffeyville and Wichita, and adopted in Leavenworth. In the latter city it was adopted after a very hard fight last spring, and went into effect in April. So far it has proved successful. The proposition has been revived in Wichita, and will be voted on again August 4, at the time of the general primary.
“The Kansas law is similar to the Texas law, and in some respects is an improvement upon it, although it does not contain the newer features of the later Des Moines law, such as the recall and the mandatory referendum of utility franchises. Some amendments have been drafted, which will be presented to the next session of the legislature.
“ To understand all the reasons for the defeat of the proposition in Kansas City, some knowledge of conditions is necessary. The city is divided into six wards, and is a consolidation of three cities. The first ward, formerly Kansas City, Kansas, was chartered in 1868. The sixth ward was formerly the city of Armourdale, chartered in 1882. The other four wards developed from the original ‘ City of Wyandotte,’ which was founded at the juncture of the Kaw and Missouri rivers in 1857. Each ward is represented by two members in the council, composed of one body, one councilman being elected from each ward each year. The mayor is elected at large every two years. The first ward has a large foreign population, and has long been largely dominated by one man and his friends, sending the same men to the council year after year.
“ We have circulated 100,000 copies of a pamphlet giving the history of the fight for the closing of the liquor ‘ joints ’ in this city, and the results of law enforcement, to answer the charges that the city was bankrupted by the closing of the saloons. All of these things had a bearing on the commission fight.
“ In the campaign which ended in our defeat by about 750 votes, we were opposed by the following elements : —
“ Residents of the first and sixth wards who feared they would lose their representation. These wards went heavily against us. We carried, by smaller majorities, the third,fourth, and fifth wards;
“ Nearly the entire large negro vote in the city went against the commission. The negroes were told that the plan was against their interests, because it originated in Texas. The man who helped ‘ turn this trick,’ by the way, is a corporation lawyer;
“ A very conservative element that conscientiously feared the workings of commission government, arguing that it placed too much power in the hands of a few men. Their position was strengthened by the fact that the law does not contain a recall provision, or any provision whereby the city may return to the old system if it desires;
“ Nearly all the city employees and smaller politicians;
“ The element unfriendly to law enforcement, and especially the enemies of the man who closed the joints and is personally unpopular.
“That many citizens did not become familiar with the plan within the short time the campaign was carried on, or remained indifferent to it, was shown by the fact that only about one-third of the voters went to the polls. Many stayed at home because they thought the plan was certain to win on its merits. The business men did not become thoroughly aroused.
“ These are the principal reasons why the proposition was defeated. The fact that we were able to carry three wards was a big surprise to the city administration politicians, and has given encouragement to the friends of the plan. Within a day or so after the election (June 2) a movement was begun to procure some amendments to the law at the next session of the legislature, which meets in January, and fight for the adoption of the law again in the spring. An organization was formed and several amendments drawn, including the following: the recall; provision allowing resubmission after six years; a general non-partisan primary and ticket, following the Des Moines law; mandatory referendum of all franchise renewals, and a five per cent referendum on all other franchises; a modified initiative.
“ Letters have been sent to all the candidates for the legislature, asking them to define their position upon the amendments.”
Certainly the fight for charter reform is one of readjustment, and is therefore a most difficult one. We see it in metropolitan New York, where five huge boroughs have been consolidated; and in Kansas City, Kansas, where three small communities have been merged in one. We find the liquor question and the foreign population a prominent factor in the latter, and in cosmopolitan Chicago. Wherever we go, north or south, east or west, we find the same sort of difficulties, the same sort of complications (the principal difference being one of degree), and the same strenuous, persistent effort at adaptation and adjustment.
No small part of the rapid rise and spread of the Galveston-Des Moines plan is due to its simplicity and ready adaptability to varying conditions. Moreover, it represents a further, practical concentration of responsibility, which is daily coming to be more and more demanded. Five men representing the whole city can be so much more easily watched and followed than half a hundred representatives, a score, or a dozen, elected from numerous wards.
To digress just a moment, it is interesting and instructive to note the size of some American municipal councils. According to the figures given by Dr. Fairlie, in his Essays in Municipal Administration, New York has 79 municipal legislators, Chicago 70, Boston 79, Providence and Hartford 40, Cleveland 33, Cincinnati 32, and very few (excepting, of course, those that have adopted the Galveston-Des Moines Plan) have less than ten. The tendency, however, is very decidedly toward smaller legislative bodies, and toward the election of them to represent the city at large, rather than arbitrarily appointed districts.
The Galveston plan, it will be remembered, was adopted just after the flood of 1900 had crippled the resources of the city, as some thought beyond repair. However, as we are told in the Two Gentlemen of Verona,
Experience is by industry achieved,
And perfected by the swift course of time. And Galveston worked out a scheme of municipal government that has set the country talking, and has served as a model in fully a score of cities. It is based, consciously or otherwise, on the county commissioner system so widely prevalent in the United States in the management of county affairs. It provides for
(1) A commission of five men, constituting the governing body of the city, instead of the usual mayor and council of the ordinary American city. This commission is the municipal government of the city. One of the commissioners is called the mayor-president, and presides at all meetings; he votes as one of the five, and a majority settles every question, but he has no veto. His duty is to oversee the city business as a whole, and he must give at least six hours a day to the discharge of his municipal duties. Of the other four, one commissioner has charge of the police and fire departments; one is commissioner of streets and public property, including lighting and street-cleaning; one is water-works and sewerage commissioner; and the fourth is commissioner of finance and revenue.
(2) To these five men is given power (а) “ to appoint all officers and subordinates in all departments of said city;” (b) “ to make and enforce such rules and regulations as they may see fit and proper for . . . the organization, management, and operation of all of the departments of said city and whatever agencies may be created for the administration of its affairs;” (c) “to make all laws and ordinances not inconsistent with the constitution and laws of this State, touching every object, matter, and subject within the purview of the local government.”
In brief, the Commission makes, by a majority of votes, all local laws and ordinances; appoints and removes all employees; determines all salaries and qualifications; and grants all franchises.
According to the city’s own official statement, on taking charge the Commission found an empty treasury, a city without credit, employees paid in scrip, which was subject to a large discount for cash, and a floating indebtedness running back for several years. The personnel of the Commission, together with the heads of departments, inspired confidence, and the city was soon put on a cash basis, her credit restored so that she could go into the open market and buy supplies on the same terms and prices as the best merchants or wealthiest citizens; and the outstanding scrip was being taken up with the surplus cash as it accumulated in the treasury.
“ The result of the commission form of government met the expectation of its most ardent friends, and was the pride of every patriotic and civic-loving citizen. Every detail worked without any friction or hitch until a drayman was arrested and fined ten dollars by our Recorder, for violating a sanitary ordinance. The case was appealed to the Criminal District Court, upon the ground that our whole city government was unconstitutional, hence the Recorder had no authority whatever to impose a fine; and the ground for such action was that, a majority of our Commission being appointive, the citizen was deprived of the right of ballot guaranteed him by the constitution. The Criminal District Court affirmed the verdict of the Recorder, but the case was again appealed to the Supreme Criminal Court of the state, and to the great astonishment of our people that court, by a vote of two to one, pronounced our form of government unconstitutional, on the ground that our citizens had no voice in the selection of the officers who were administering the government. Later, the Supreme Civil Court held that the appointive feature was constitutional; thus our Commission was constitutional in civil matters, but had no police jurisdiction. There was but one thing to be done, and that was to apply to the Legislature, then in session and nearing its close, for a change in our charter eliminating the appointive feature, which was the weak point, as decided by the Supreme Criminal Court. We regretted to give up this feature of our charter, because we believed that the very best material for our city government could always be had by the appointive clause it contained.
“ The emergency required quick action, and, upon application of our Board, joined by our citizens, the seemingly objectionable part of our charter was revoked, the entire elective feature substituted, and in just two days this act was passed by both branches of the State Legislature, signed by the Governor on March 30, 1903, and election of five commissioners under the new charter was ordered.
“ Our city was again fortunate in getting the consent of the original five commissioners to run for their respective offices, and all were elected by handsome majorities, and our city is to-day under the control of the same five commissioners and heads of departments, with the exception of Mayor-President Austin who died in November, 1905, City Attorney Scott, who died in January, 1904, and City Engineer Sias and Secretary Artz, both of whom resigned soon after appointment to accept other employment.”
At first an imposed form of government, the Galveston plan was made elective, and if that city enjoys good government, as she now certainly does, the credit lies at the doors of the electors who select the right sort of men to execute it.
Some idea of the spread of the Galveston plan may be gathered from the fact that Houston, Fort Worth, Waco, San Antonio, among Texas cities, are considering its adoption or have already adopted it. Iowa, Kansas, and South Dakota have recently passed laws providing for a system of municipal government based upon the Texas idea, giving the communities therein the option of having it applied to their affairs. Chelsea, Massachusetts, in the east has adopted the plan. In November last I noted that the plan was under consideration in Salt Lake City, in Salina, Leavenworth, Kansas City (Kansas), Davenport, Des Moines, Cedar Rapids, Sioux City, Omaha, Los Angeles, Owensboro (Kentucky), Buffalo, Concord (New Hampshire), and Natchez (Mississippi); and since that time the list of cities has been materially lengthened.
Professor Munro of Harvard, in discussing the plan before the National Municipal League, pointed out that the crucial question is really whether, under the commission system, cities could permanently secure better men in municipal office. For an interval after the establishment of the new system this might very well be achieved; it has been so in Galveston. But would the standard be permanently maintained ? Almost every important change in the framework of city government has been accompanied by a spasm of efficiency, but this has invariably been followed by a lapse into former conditions. “ Too much emphasis ought not to be laid upon Galveston’s experience, for Galveston found herself face to face with conditions which were very unusual. A receivership may be the best means of putting an insolvent business corporation upon its financial feet, but it does not logically follow that all solvent corporations should permanently adopt this method of doing business. Galveston conditions are not even yet normal; and it remains to be seen whether the system will prove wholly satisfactory when matters become so, and when the novelty of the new régime has completely worn off. Nevertheless the system of government by commission has established a prima facie case in its favor, and while no one who properly appreciates the complex character of American municipal problems will expect to find in it a panacea for all municipal ills, it points the way to some simplification in the machinery of civic administration. A sympathetic trial on a sufficiently broad scale ought to be welcomed, as serving to demonstrate what the real merits and defects of the system are.”
While sympathizing with Dr. Munro’s cautious views, one must not overlook the important and significant fact that the system is generally working well, and that by reforming methods we ofttimes can best reform the electorate, that is, ourselves.
The Des Moines plan combines all the desirable features of the Galveston system, with non-partisan nominations and elections; the initiative and the referendum, including the submission of all franchises to the people; the recall, and the merit system for all employees. It has too recently gone into effect to speak with positiveness, but there are certain features of the Galveston-Des Moines plan that are of the highest importance and value — the simplification of governmental machinery, the elimination of ward lines, and the concentration of responsibility.
President Eliot highly commends the plan because it means city government by fewer men. “ We have an advantage in New England,” he believes. “ We have seen and known for centuries an almost perfect form of municipal government — the town government. Can not we get back to it with modifications ? I should prefer to call what we seek, government by selectmen. That is exactly what we want. How many selectmen are there in a good Massachusetts town today? Three. Now, the city is larger than the town: we might ask for seven selectmen to govern, if you please, the city of Boston.” President Eliot is a distinguished man, indeed he is one of the most distinguished men in America today, but I am doubtful if his analysis of the municipal situation and his proposed remedy are sufficient. Surely municipal affairs involve much that is not business, for all that he so stoutly maintains that they are “ nothing but business, pure business.” If for no other reason than that they are not run for profit, the management of cities is more than business, it is a government function of the first importance.
There are not wanting those who believe that the New England town meeting will prove to be the via media by which we shall reach the solution of our municipal ills, and the Newport plan is an adaptation based on that idea. It is an ingenious extension of the representative principle in government, and as such, is in character intermediate between the Galveston and the Des Moines plans. A representative council of 195 members is elected, each member for three years: 39 members from each ward, one-third of them going out yearly. The electorate for the council, by a proviso of the Rhode Island Constitution, consists of those voters only who pay a property tax on not loss than $134. Of the 5400 voters of Newport, about 1400 are by this rule disqualified from voting for members of the council, or on any proposition to impose a tax or to spend money. Therepresentative council is a legislative body having, in general, the powers of a New England town meeting. The executive power is vested in a mayor and five aldermen, elected for one year, and having in general the powers of a board of selectmen. A committee of twentyfive members of the council prepares the annual budget, which must be printed and distributed to all tax-paying voters at least a week before its consideration by the council. The council can be called together at any time upon the written request of twenty-five members, or upon the request of the Board of Aldermen. Its meetings must be open, and all its records must be open to public inspection. It elects city officials, fixes salaries, and defines duties. By a two-thirds vote of all its members, it may remove an officer for misconduct or incapacity.
There are still others who believe in the town-meeting idea pure and simple.
Arthur W. Spencer, editor of the Brookline Chronicle, has prepared a very interesting article on Brookline’s solution of the problem of municipal government, entitled, “ Back to the Town Meeting.” He believes that every city which is perplexed by the problem of improving its government should seek to utilize as much as it can of everything in the town meeting that is any way adaptable to its conditions. “To return to the town meeting will mean a renewal of the vigor and vitality of its institutions.” He admits, however, that his views differ radically from those of Mr. Charles Francis Adams, whose knowledge of conditions in Quincy, before that Massachusetts community became a city, prompted him to write: —
“Just in the degree in which civic population increases . . . the town meeting becomes unwieldy and unreliable; until at last it has to be laid aside as something which the community has outgrown. It becomes a relic, though always an interesting one, of a simpler and possibly better past. Moreover, the indications that the system is breaking down are always the same. The meetings become numerous, noisy, and unable to dispose of business. Disputed questions cannot be decided; demagogues obtain control; the more intelligent cease to attend.” 1
Charter-making in America proceeds apace, taking various routes, but always in the direction of greater adaptability to American conditions, and of a larger and still larger measure of local self-government.
Ten years ago the National Municipal League, in its “ Municipal Programme,” described the fundamental principles which must underlie successful municipal government. The lapse of time and the consequent experience have only served to confirm and strengthen them. We find their adoption in an increasing number of charters. Although in nowise speaking for the National Municipal League, Governor Hughes has given a clear and concise description of the now almost universal demand for municipal home rule: —
“ I am impressed with the diversities that exist in the mechanism of local government throughout the State, and the constant legislative tinkering that seems to be needed to bring these mechanisms into accord with the wishes of the citizens of the various administrations seems an idle dream. And the constant legislative interference to meet naturally recurring exigencies makes of our charters a sorry patchwork. Legislation breeds legislation. Restrictions upon local administration are made only to be altered as emergencies arise. And where restriction is absent it is thought necessary to provide it.
“ I am convinced that the way of improvement lies in the direction of simplicity of charters, providing a framework of government with a grant of appropriate general powers and with guarantees of fundamental rights. The minutiæ of administration should be governed by bylaws or ordinances enacted directly by the community through its representatives, without interference by the Legislature.
“ Of the steps which would be necessary to accomplish this result, I shall not attempt to speak at this time. But the success of democratic government in meeting the increased demands of ourgrowing urban population must depend upon our broadening and strengthening its base. It must rest upon the appreciation by the individual citizen of his responsibility for the welfare of the community in which he lives, and upon the quickening of his interest in the conduct of its affairs. Every city should be a school of statesmanship. There should be taught the lessons of civic honor and of devotion to the public weal.
“ There should be found the sacrifices of patriotism in times of peace. There should be the training for the wider responsibilities of state and nation. And there should be developed that sense of the dignity and worth of citizenship which will bring to naught the devices of those who twist our republican forms of government to suit their petty despotisms, and who seek to control for purposes of tribute the highways of our political life.
“ The source of political power is more and more to be found in our cities. And there also, in an awakened feeling of responsibility with regard to matters which directly concern the lives of the citizens, may be found the needed purifying force.
“ We cannot have progress unless we have security; we cannot have security unless we have respect for law and order; we cannot have that respect if administration be bent by caprice, or the powers of government be corrupted to serve a favored few. As we search the records of the past and learn the lessons of our history, may we appreciate more fully our obligations to the future, and may we unreservedly devote ourselves to the cause of liberty established by laws conserved in a spirit of justice and impartially administered.”
To date the fullest embodiment of the principles of the Municipal Programme is to be found in the Charter recommended by the Boston Finance Commission, and now pending before the Massachusetts legislature. It is clear and direct in form; it establishes a simple plan of government, and places that plan within the easy and immediate control of the people of Boston.
Charter reform, with some, means more than readjustment; more than a fight to break the shackles which bind American cities; more than an effort to establish municipal self-government. To them it means an attempt to reform conditions through the operation of law. There are those who fully believe that, if you improve the system, all will conform to the new order. There is a considerable measure of truth in this position. We cannot have a complete and lasting change in conditions unless we change the forms and methods of our governmental machinery. A city can no more keep up with modern conditions while maintaining antiquated methods, than can a manufacturing concern. American cities must learn the value of the scrap-heap, but they must never forget what the lamented William E. Russell once pointed out, that “ no philosopher’s stone of a constitution can produce golden conduct from leaden instincts. No legislative manipulation can eke out an insufficient morality into a sufficient one. No administrative sleight of hand can save us from ourselves.” The most that good laws can do is to make it more difficult for the reactionary elements to promote evils, and easier for the progressive elements, not only to prevent or cure them, but easily and effectively to advance the general welfare of the community.
The Galveston Commissioners, in the official statement which I quoted from, a short way back, naïvely pointed out that while the city administration has accomplished much, and the accomplishment is attributable perhaps to the change in form of government, “ the reform and beneficial changes in our county government have been phenomenal, and this has been accomplished under the old system, which is the same as in every county in the State. Our people were again fortunate in getting good men to serve as commissioners [i. c., County Commissioners], men who were honest and capable, who at once set to work putting our county’s affairs on a business basis; they stopped the leaks, they inaugurated system and method, displacing chaos and confusion, soon getting every fund upon its proper cash basis.”
Whatever view, however, we may take, it is an encouraging one. The machinery is being improved, and the engineers are becoming more competent. We are slowly but surely awakening to the fact that it is a crime to place a delicate mechanism in charge of an incompetent or a novice; and that it is almost equally blameworthy to give a capable mechanic poor or dull or antiquated tools.
- Three Episodes of Massachusetts History ; vol. ii, 976.↩