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Is There a Single Best Way to Manage a City?

We’ve tried several approaches, and all have their strengths and weaknesses. But one relic of the Progressive Era is on the way out.

Galveston’s ruined city hall after the 1900 hurricane.
A stereograph of the ruins of Galveston, Texas’ “Splendid City Hall” after the 1900 hurricane. The nation’s first city-commission-style local government was created in Galveston after the disastrous storm exposed political mismanagement.
(Library of Congress)
You may never have heard of city commission government, and that’s probably just as well. For the past several decades, only one major American city has used this most cumbersome of urban management systems, and now that city — Portland, Ore. — has decided to scrap it. Last month, some 57 percent of Portland voters opted to do away with their city commission after more than a century and replace it with a more conventional structure featuring a stronger mayor and city manager.

From this vantage point, it’s a little hard to see why anybody thought city commissions were a good idea. They give elected council members the authority to function as administrators of key city departments. You could win a place on the council and soon find yourself running the police department, even if (as was often the case) you didn’t know much about law enforcement.

The intentions were to invest politicians with executive authority so that they would take government more seriously and to encourage voters to elect more capable candidates in the first place. The system was usually put in place after a political scandal or other crisis discredited the old one: The first city commission was created in Galveston, Texas, after a disastrous hurricane in 1900 exposed political mismanagement. A couple of decades later there were quite a few of them, many in Texas but some in big cities around the country as well.

But the system was full of flaws. Not only did it place people whose talent was campaigning into administrative jobs for which they were unqualified, but it tended to foster squabbling and unseemly horse-trading among the commissioners, who had no one supervising them. The mayor in this system was a commissioner, but was almost always a figurehead.

The system left one egregious legacy, in Birmingham, Ala., where the demagogic racist Eugene “Bull” Connor, who never finished high school, served repeated terms on the city council and remained in the job of public safety commissioner for 22 years. Birmingham abolished its commission government shortly after Connor embarrassed the city by turning fire hoses and police dogs on civil rights demonstrators in 1963.

Portland voted to create a commission to run its affairs in 1913 following a scandal in which dozens of city hotels were hosting illegal sexual activity. Progressive activists and most of the business community went for it, and it passed narrowly despite opposition from the previously dominant Republican machine.

In later years, Portland modified its commission system so that it functioned reasonably well, with the mayor assuming more powers, and several attempts to do away with the system were beaten badly at the polls. A move to revamp city government was defeated in 2007 by a huge 76-24 majority. But the past decade or so has been a rough one for Portland’s local government, with a mayor plagued by sexual scandal, disturbing racial unrest and an increasing level of discontent over crime and homelessness. There’s no reason to assume that voters were reacting last month against the commission system per se, but they were looking for change, and it didn’t take much to persuade them to mandate it.

AT THIS POINT, CITY COMMISSIONS might be best thought of as a footnote to urban history. But they can also serve as a useful introduction to the question of what’s the best way to manage a city. Or whether there is a best way.

Perhaps the most important impact of city-commission government was that it served as a kind of precursor to the city-manager system, which came into existence around the same time and went on to supplant it. Though the two forms are sometimes remembered together, they are in many ways diametrical opposites. Commissions were supposed to turn politicians into managers; city-manager government was meant to take politicians out of local administration almost entirely.

But if you look a little more closely, city commissions and city-manager systems actually have something important in common: They were both a product of Progressive Era resentment against the corrupt ward politics plaguing scores of American cities at the time. They emerged at a moment when social scientists were arguing that managerial science could design effective city administration and put the ward heelers out of business for good.

By the 1920s, there were city-manager systems in place in hundreds of American communities, most of them in cities of less than 500,000 people and most of them west of the Mississippi. A majority of small cities in America still use it. A number of larger ones have produced some outstandingly successful managers, such as L.P. Cookingham in Kansas City and Marvin Andrews and Frank Fairbanks in Phoenix. I could name quite a few more.

But the central dogma of the city-manager system — that it can take politics out of government — turned out to be way off base. Most of the early city managers were engineers with few political instincts; they made up for that deficiency by essentially letting the local chamber of commerce and influential corporate executives tell them what to do, sometimes over breakfast on weekday mornings at a café near city hall. It wasn’t ward heeler politics, but it was politics just the same. And in general, it enshrined the conservative values of the local business community. I have made this point quite a few times over the years, and I always get nasty responses from city-manager enthusiasts. But it is true nonetheless.

In recent decades, the system has softened. Most city managers now come out of graduate programs in public administration rather than engineering schools. And many of the larger city-manager cities have gradually invested more power in the mayor’s office, creating something of a hybrid scheme for doing the city’s business.

BUT CITY-MANAGER GOVERNMENT STILL HAS SOME SERIOUS FLAWS, some of which have proved corrosive in a number of places. One is that the common practice of electing council members on an at-large, citywide basis tends to underrepresent the interests of less-affluent communities, particularly minority communities. Another is that, especially in its purer varieties, city-manager government leaves no one in a position to serve as a public spokesperson and chief decision-maker. The manager isn’t supposed to do that; a mayor with circumscribed powers can’t do it very effectively either, although some try.

The bottom line is that many of the larger city-manager cities have decided in recent years that they need an authoritative leader that manager government doesn’t give them. To put it another way, voters in these places feel they need a voice. The city-manager system doesn’t provide for much of a voice. Those cities have chosen to abandon city-manager government and move to a system with an elected mayor possessing a full package of powers.

The list of big cities that have gone to or expanded strong-mayor government in the last two decades is a long one. It includes Cincinnati; Hartford, Conn.; Minneapolis; Richmond, Va.; St. Petersburg, Fla.; San Diego; and Spokane, Wash., among quite a few others.

There is a great deal to say about strong-mayor government, more than I can get across in a few hundred words. But perhaps the first thing to say is that when it goes wrong, it goes really wrong, in ways that a city-manager system rarely does; but when it works it is splendid. In the 1970s it gave us Frank Rizzo in Philadelphia, who boasted that “I’m going to make Attila the Hun look like a faggot” and proclaimed that Black Panthers “should be strung up.” But it also gave us Fiorello LaGuardia, who ruled New York City so capably for a dozen years that he is widely regarded as the greatest mayor in America in the last century.

Most often, though, strong mayors are neither heroes nor villains, but imperfect public officials who do the best they can with the tools they are given, and sometimes look for ways to acquire more. In this context, I can’t help but point to the Daleys of Chicago, who were neither crooks nor reformers but accepted a certain amount of controlled corruption and used the powers it gave them to accomplish things for the city. It is sometimes said in Chicago that a little corruption gets things built; a heavy dose of reform rarely does. That is probably true of a number of other cities besides.

What’s the best scheme of government for a city? In the end, there isn’t one. Nothing is foolproof. A dedicated and shrewd public servant can make any system work — even a city commission — while a scoundrel or an incompetent can make any system fail. We are ultimately dependent on the skills and values of ordinary human beings. In that respect, city governance is like every other form of management that has ever existed, in the public realm and in the private world as well.
Alan Ehrenhalt is a contributing editor for Governing. He served for 19 years as executive editor of Governing Magazine. He can be reached at
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