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THE COMMISSION FORM OF GOVERNMENT.
By FELIX GRENDON.
History. A generation ago the cities of the United States were infamous for the corruption and inefficiency of their governments. Those citizens who did not directly profit by the infamy, viewed it with the helpless fatalism that a famine or an earthquake inspires. Presently, a few Americans, stung by the criticisms of Mr. Bryce and other horrified visitors, made the astonishing discovery that nothing in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States, or the laws of Nature imposed a permanent condition of graft and mismanagement on any of our city administrations.
All kinds of proposals for electoral and administrative reforms followed this discovery. A few obscure attempts to test these proposals in practice ended in comparative failure. And no lasting experiment was tried until 1900, when a hurricane nearly swept Galveston into the sea. The stricken city, on the edge of bankruptcy, was in a fair way to being pushed over the precipice by its untrained, muddle-headed, incompetent authorities. In self-preservation, Galvestonians took what was considered a desperate step. They summarily discarded their outworn Mayor and Council form of government and tried the proposed Commission form.
Time sided with the change. Stimulated by Galveston's success, other cities established Commissions to supersede the old type of municipal rule. By August 1916, the following figures summarize the spread of the Commission plan in the United States:
Number of Cities operating under Commission plan
Number operating under CommissionManager plan
living under Commission rule
Sequence of Adoption.
No. of cities with pop. over 30,000 that adopted
1907. 1908. 1909. 1910. 1911. 1912. 1913. 1914. 1915.
3 2 8 7 14 14 20 7 3
The decrease in 1915 may in part be put down to the rise of the Commission-Manager movement. It may be noted that several fairly large cities like New Orleans (340,000), St. Paul (214,000), Jersey City (267,000), Buffalo (420,000), and Portland (207,000) now operate under the Commission plan.
What is the Commission Plan? Suppose the Cunard Steamship Company were suddenly to go to the insane length of making the Commissary Department of each ship independent of the Captain, and suppose, at the same time, they put the carpenters from the forecastle and the stokers from the engine-room wholly under the Chief Steward's jurisdiction. The resulting conflict of authority would be so intolerable that a strike of all the captains and engineers in the line would instantly follow.
Yet such an intolerable division and conflict of authority is precisely the salient feature of the old Mayor and Council (or Alderman) form of government. What the Commission form aims at is to concentrate all the legislative and administrative functions of the municipality in a body of 3, 5, or 7 persons elected not by districts but at large, and responsive to the wishes of the electorate through the medium of the Initiative, Referendum, and Recall. Each Commissioner becomes the head of a City Department, but remains subject to the direction of the whole Commission in which is vested not only the paramount authority of a ship's captain but the sole power to enact the city's laws. Thus Commissioner A becomes the head, say, of the Building Department, Commissioner B of the Health Department, and so on. The Commission as a unit, however, determines the general policy of each department and relates it to the welfare of the whole City.
The Charter and its Provisions. A Commission city operates under a charter
which a state-wide law (as in Iowa or Kansas)
permits any city to adopt (e. g. Des Moines) ; b. which the state grants specifically to the city
in question (e. g. Galveston). The evolution of the Commission plan charter is as striking as the evolution of a locomotive or a horse. Each new plan presents variations on, and supplements to, its predecessors. The later commission charters include most, if not all, of the following provisions:
The distinguishing feature: A small board of commissioners holding
all the legislative and administrative powers. The short ballot. The commissioners are the only elective officials. The non-partisan direct primary. Party designations are
mitted on primary ballots.
4. The Preferential Ballot. This records the second and third, as well
as the first, choice of each voter. It is a device for minimizing the force of party affiliation and for securing the election of those
candidates acceptable to the largest possible number of electors. 5. The initiative, referendum, and recall. These instruments enable the
people to enact overdue ordinances, discharge sleepy or incompetent commissioners, and curb elected officers in their passion for making
private Christmas presents of public franchises. 6. Civil Service Appointment. 7. Proportional Representation (in Ashtabula, O.)
Advantages Claimed. Three decided advantages are claimed for the Commission plan: 1. Direct and definite responsibility to the people. The board that holds
an undivided power shoulders an undivided responsibility. In a non-Commission city, the municipal officers can slip in and out of the loop-holes created by divided and overlapping powers. They, can playfully challenge dissatisfied citizens to enter the game of catch-if-catch can. Under the Commission plan, this temporizing
amusement is out of the question. 2. A well co-ordinated government. Duplications of function, and the
friction and clashes due to overlapping authorities. are eliminated.
Team work pays in administration no less than in sport. 3. Efficient management. In the Mayor and Council system, the city
is a political unit first, and a business unit only after partisan considerations have been attended to. The logic and the common sense of the Commission plan reverse this order of attention and invite the Commissioners to regard the city primarily as a business corporation to be managed by scientific methods applied in the highest human terms.
The Commission-Manager Plan. Efficiency engineers were quick to observe a serious obstacle to the establishment of the third claim. They pointed out that the most elementary principle of scientific management requires the services of an expert at the head of each administrative department. This principle is flatly ignored in the Commission plan whose distinctive feature lies in heading each department with one of the elected Commissioners. Unfortunately Commissioners, like other elective officials in the United States, are voted into office not because they are highly-trained specialists, but because they are “good fellows,” or speak with megaphonic voices, or weigh 300 pounds, or sport bellicose teeth, or have an Irish grandmother, or once lived down South in Dixie. In short, for any conceivable reason save their administrative fitness. Now a politician may be a good sport or have an Irish grandmother and yet not know enough about managing a City Water department to come in out of the rain.
How to separate the Commissioners from their administrative jobs without relieving them of their complete responsibility-this became a burning question for students of municipal affairs. It was answered by borrowing the German
burgomaster idea and modifying the Commission plan into the Commission-Manager plan. The new plan initiated two tremendous changes: 1. The elected Commission is limited to enacting legislation and shaping
a general policy. 2. A City Manager, appointed by the Commission, and qualified as an
administrative expert, becomes the executive head of the whole administration. While the City Manager appoints and removes all (expert) Heads of City Departments at will, he himself is subject to removal by the board of Commissioners. All administrative responsibility is thus centralized in one man for whose competence the elected Commission must answer to the people.
Political Value of Commission Government. The least venturesome of prophets might safely risk the prediction that Commission-Management is destined to become the characteristic form of government for cities in the United States. It is true that the Commission plan has hitherto been espoused chiefly by cities of small size. But the administrative needs and tendencies to which the plan responds are emerging unmistakably in cities of the largest size. Witness, for instance, the recent efficiency movement in the municipality of New York and the concentration of almost all important powers in the same city's eight-headed Board of Estimate.
It must not be supposed, however, that Commission government is a panacea for all municipal ills. A CommissionManager charter is simply a fine piece of administrative machinery, as superior in organization to the old-fashioned city charter as an 80 horse-power motor car is to a carriage and pair. But if a man who sells his horses and buys a car, engages an unskilful chauffeur or gives vague and stupid commands regarding his destination, his car may serve him no better than a carriage, and sometimes may actually serve him worse. In the last resort, the success of the Commission plan depends upon the ambition and public spirit of the electors who control it.
Pros and Cons.
The concentration of power promotes an oligarchy.
sentation on a small Commission elected at large, than on
1. 2. 3.
may be said that 1. No political machinery, however ingeniously devised, will of itself insure majority rule. Despite Habeas Corpus, the Direct Primary, and the Vote by Ballot, a well organized minority that knows what it wants, can always lord it over an unorganized majority that is neither self-conscious nor determined. An understanding of this simple principle is the secret of Tammany's impregnable rule and of the longevity of the minority machines in most American non-Commission cities.
It is the chief merit of the Commission plan that the initiative, the referendum, and the recall, which are usually a part of it, train the electorate to greater political aptitude and at the same time provide a means of checking the despotism that centralization invites.
Strictly speaking, every government, by its very nature, is an oligarchy: that is, it is a rule of the many by the few. The paradox of a democratic government is that its rulers do not command the people but serve them. Herein lies the difference between the Commission and the non-Commission plans. The latter gives the voter no immediate weapon against a ruler who forgets to render service. The former remedies his omission by giving the voter the power to recall. A public servant will think twice of playing the master when he is effectively subject to discharge.
2. The City Manager may and should become the city Boss, but his opportunities for bossing would not evoke enthusiasm from Mr. Murphy of Manhattan or Mr. Barnes of Albany. The City Manager is, if you please, a visible Boss. He is a trained administrator whose services are terminable at the will of a Commission itself liable to prompt recall by a dissatisfied public. The one alternative to this visible administrative Boss is the invisible political Boss. He is of the Tweed or Croker stripe, and his services are terminable only by his followers when the pork-barrel runs low. The practical choice of each American municipality today lies between these two styles, between the Boss who helps the city to himself and the Boss who helps himself to the city.
3. The third objection, of doubtful validity in any case, is robbed of all its force when the Commissioners are elected by Proportional Representation. This device enables each party or group to be represented on the Commission in proportion to its voting strength. Thus in Ashtabula the Socialists polled one-seventh of the total vote cast at the last election, and consequently gained one seat on the sevenheaded Commission. Does anyone doubt that a single Socialist on a small but powerful commission board can turn his post to better account than six Socialists on a large but obscure and powerless aldermanic board?