Page images

"active" discussion in no less than thirty-three cities, representing twenty-five states. The system varies somewhat from city to city, but the fundamental principle is the same everywhere— the concentration of executive and legislative power in the hands of a small body, usually of five men, elected at large by the voters of the city. Several of the cities, notably Des Moines, Iowa,' have added a system of initiative and referendum and also a device whereby a certain percentage of the voters may "recall" any one of the commission that is, force a new election for the office. There is also a general tendency to abolish party methods of making nominations and substitute a non-partisan primary.


Commission government, as Professor Goodnow points out, is a return to the original type of city government in the United States in so far as it concentrates all powers, administrative and legislative, in one authority. It differs, however, from the original council system in that its members do not represent single districts, but are elected at large by the voters of the entire city a practice which, of course, substantially excludes minority representation, and is so far highly undesirable. From the standpoint of pure business administration, the commission form of government has many features to commend it. It centralizes power and responsibility in a small group of men constantly before the public and subjected to the scrutiny of public criticism; it coördinates_the taxing and spending powers, thus overcoming the maladjustment so common to American public finance; and it throws down that multiplicity of barriers behind which some of the worst interests in American municipal politics have screened their antisocial operations.


On the other hand, it destroys the deliberative and representative element in municipal government, and may readily tend to reduce its administration to a mere routine business, based largely upon principles of economy, to the exclusion of civic ideals. Furthermore, it is claimed that we get greater responsibility by concentrating administrative power in the hands of the mayor than by dividing it among five commissioners.

Another serious criticism of the commission system is based on

1 Cincinnati Conference for Good City Government (1909), p. 96.

2 For the initiative, referendum, and recall, as applied in Des Moines, see Readings, p. 529.

3 Municipal Government, p. 176.

the contention that, in the light of our municipal experience, it concentrates too great a power in the hands of a few men and makes it easier for those who wish to buy a city government to carry out their design. Iowa, however, has sought to meet this objection by establishing the system of recall noted above.' Under this system twenty-five per cent of the voters, who disapprove of the policy of any commissioner or believe that he is not discharging his functions honestly and efficiently, may petition for his removal and compel a new election. The whole question is then submitted to the electorate at large, and if the commissioner is upheld, assuming that he stands for reëlection, he retains his office, but if defeated is supplanted by the popular choice. This system of recall has been extended to some cities which do not have the commission form of government, and is ably defended by many publicists on the ground that it conduces to effective popular control.

Under the Iowa scheme (all important franchises must be submitted to popular vote before going into effect; municipal ordinances may be initiated by the voters, and ordinances passed by the commission must be referred to the electorate on a petition properly signed and filed.

The danger of concentrating power in the hands of such a small body is further offset in the Iowa law by the abolition of the party convention as a means of nominating candidates for the offices of mayor and councilmen and the substitution of nomination by direct primary. No party ballot is used at this primary; names are placed upon it by petition; and the two aspirants receiving the highest vote for mayor and the eight aspirants receiving the highest number of votes for councilmen are put upon the regular ballot as candidates for the offices of mayor and councilmen. This ballot is then submitted to the voters at the regular election. While this system does not prevent members of parties from concentrating their efforts upon their own candi-" dates, it does prevent the politicians from forcing their ready-made "slates" upon the voters; furthermore, at the regular election it focusses the attention of the public upon only two candidates for each of the five offices.

This general tendency toward the concentration of power

1 See Readings, p. 531.

was manifested in the revolution that took place in the government of Boston in 1909. The bicameral city council was abolished and a single-chambered body, composed of nine men,' elected on a general ticket by popular vote, was substituted. Partisan nominations for city offices were abolished and nomination by petition signed by 5000 voters adopted. The mayor was authorized to originate all the appropriations except those for school purposes, and the city council merely given the power to reduce any item. The mayor was also given the absolute veto over any ordinance or resolution carrying an appropriation with it. To secure adequate scrutiny and publicity for taxation, appropriations, and expenditures, a permanent finance commission, appointed by the governor, was created and invested with the power of examining all matters relating to appropriations, loans, and expenditures. To improve the personnel of the city administration, a provision was adopted requiring the heads of departments to submit the names of their appointees to the state civil service commission for investigation and approval; and, to remove the control of the politicians in the council over appointments, the mayor was empowered to fill all important administrative offices.2

1Three to be elected annually.

2 Except the school board, which is elective.

[ocr errors]


Municipal Finances

As in the case of the state government, the most important functions of the city at present are those connected with raising and disbursing funds; and, inasmuch as corruption and inefficiency are constantly arising in our municipal finances, special attention has been given within recent years to the problem of budget-making and effective control over city expenditures. In our great cities the financial problem is vast and complicated. The budget of the city of New York for the year 1909 totalled $156,545,148.14 five times the budget of the state for the same year, and four times the combined budgets of Alabama, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, and Georgia. The annual increase of the budget of New York within recent years has been greater than the total budget of St. Louis or Baltimore and Cleveland combined,


five times greater than the total budget of Louisville, Kentucky, and ten times greater than the total budget of Kansas City.

Even if all of the officials of the city administration are men of unquestioned integrity, great waste and extravagance in expenditure will inevitably arise unless there is provision for the most scientific bookkeeping and adequate scrutiny and control by capable and responsible authorities. An investigation in New York City, in 1908, resulted in some remarkable revelations. It was discovered that cheap coat hooks which any citizen could buy for five cents apiece had been purchased by the city at sixty cents apiece, with an additional charge of five cents for each small screw used to put up the hooks. One hundred and sixtyfive hooks, 172 bolts, and 18 screws cost the city of New York

$117, and it took two workmen thirty-one days at $8 a day to put up the 165 hooks — making a total cost in materials and labor of $365.10, or $2.21 a hook. It was found also that the police department paid 21 cents a pound for nails which any private citizen could get for 4 cents. A charming bit of "high finance" in street contracting was also unearthed: a contractor who was paid to make excavations for paving a street was also paid $900 for filling in a near-by road with the dirt removed from the first one. Similar extravagances and wastes could undoubtedly be discovered in any other large city in the Union.

To remedy these undoubted evils in municipal finance many reforms have been devised and projected. There is, in the first place, a general tendency, as we have seen, to take the budgetmaking out of the hands of the city council and vest it in some smaller and more responsible body. In New York, the budget is made by the board of estimate and apportionment composed of the mayor, comptroller, president of the board of aldermen, and the presidents of the five boroughs. The budget of Boston, under the recent law, is originated by the mayor, and city finances are to be scrutinized by a commission appointed by the governor. In several other cities budget-making is also vested in the hands of some special authority. In Ohio cities, the mayor makes up the budget from estimates furnished by the departments; the council may omit or decrease items, but cannot increase the total of the budget. In Denver, the mayor prepares the estimates and a two-thirds vote is required in the council to change them. In Detroit the budget is prepared by the comptroller; and in San Francisco by the auditor after public hearings.

To secure the desired efficiency in controlling city finances, even where small responsible boards are in charge, many specific reforms have been suggested by experts, of which only a few can be enumerated here." There are two aspects of budget-making. On the one side the will of the voters with regard to the several amounts to be appropriated for the great purposes of city government should be realized, and some provision must therefore be made for enabling the citizens who wish to bring influence to

1 See the Outlook, for August 28, 1909.

2 See the publications of the Bureau of Municipal Research, 261 Broadway, New York City; and the Political Science Quarterly for December, 1908.

« PreviousContinue »