The New Student's Reference Work/Municipal Government

Munic′ipal Government. A municipality is a corporation representing a certain local community and created for the purposes of local self-government. It has always been confined to communities that are thickly populated—towns or cities—where there are many interests common to the people living in the district which do not greatly concern people living elsewhere.

In America, the right of cities to home rule in all states except Michigan, apparently, depends upon the state constitution or upon the will of the legislature. There have been many instances of interference with the freedom of cities in local affairs, especially in New York, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and Ohio. On the other hand, in the following states constitutional amendments have been adopted that provide that the city shall within wide limits determine for itself the nature of the charter that it shall have: Missouri, California, Washington, Colorado, Minnesota and Oregon.

In types of municipal government there may be distinguished two extremes: the complicated department government, of which New York is the best illustration, and the simple government by a commission or small council exemplified in Galveston and Des Moines. The former is patterned rather after the English, the latter after the German model. The majority of our cities are nearer the former than the latter, and we may therefore give a brief description of the charter of the City of New York, so far as it deals with this subject. There are a legislature—the Board of Aldermen; an executive—the mayor; and municipal courts. The first has some 90 members, elected every two years. No ordinance can be passed without its approval, and it can override the veto of the mayor by a three-fourths vote. It may decrease but not increase budgets. No franchise may be granted for more than 25 years, except in the case of tunnels, for which a franchise of 50 years may be granted. Limited renewals are permitted. Tunnels must pay 3% of their net profits to the city, after they have earned 5% for their owners. The mayor is elected for four years. He appoints the heads of the following departments: finance, law, police, water, gas and electricity, street-cleaning, bridges, parks, public charities, correction (prisons etc.), fire, docks and ferries, taxes and assessments, education, health and tenement-house departments. He appoints all the members of the board of education. The controller (treasurer) is separately elected by the people, every four years. There is a board of estimate, consisting of the mayor, the controller, the president of the board of aldermen and the presidents of the five boroughs (Manhattan, Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens and Richmond), in which each member has from one to three votes according to his importance. This board submits its estimates to the board of aldermen. A peculiar feature is the division of the city into boroughs, after the London model, each borough having a president and also departments that deal with streets, buildings, sewers and bridges. The presidents are elected. Another remarkable feature is the art-commission, consisting of the mayor, the presidents of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Science (two private institutions), the president of the N. Y. Public Library, a painter, a sculptor, an architect and three other citizens of New York, who have the power to prohibit the city coming into possession of any work of art (including bridges and buildings), which does not meet the approval of the commission. There are 46 local boards of education acting under the main board of 46 members. There are 25 municipal courts, of which those in Manhattan and Bronx are appointed by the mayor and the rest elected.

The committees that have taken charge of Galveston and Des Moines have produced results that have been eminently satisfactory thus far. But it is obvious that such government gives to the unscrupulous an opportunity to carry on for years without detection the robbery of the public. Among the best-governed cities of the country may be mentioned Cleveland, Detroit, Des Moines, Springfield, Mass., Boston and some smaller cities, especially in Massachusetts and the interior.

Among the measures advocated by the National Municipal League are the following: that municipal elections be held separately from state and national elections; that municipal officers be nominated by petition and not by primaries; that a four-fifths vote of the council together with the approval of the mayor be necessary to the granting to any private party of the ownership of streets, bridges or other public places; that franchises may not be granted for more than 21 years; that self-supporting municipal enterprises, as car-lines, gas-works etc., may be engaged in to any extent; that the council and mayor be elected by the people, without provision for a separate municipal legislature; and that cities over 25,000 inhabitants may frame their own charters. These suggestions point towards municipal ownership of public utilities, as car-lines, gas-works etc., limiting the responsibility of government to a small number of people and doing away with the cumbersome board of aldermen. In Detroit the referendum has been adopted, and in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Denver and Portland, Oregon, both the initiative and the referendum. The initiative enables a small percentage of the citizens to compel the consideration of any proposal, and the referendum enables a similar small percentage to compel the council to refer any matter to the vote of the people at large.

The business with which a municipal government is concerned is indicated by the list of departments given above in connection with New York City. In many cities the municipality has undertaken such enterprises as playgrounds and gymnasiums, libraries and reading-rooms, public baths, public laundries, public lodging-houses and cottages and public transportation.

With regard to foreign city-government we may note that the boards of aldermen and other local legislative bodies in Great Britain seem to attract a desirable class of men and to be characterized by intelligence, energy and progressiveness. In Germany perhaps the most noteworthy point is the frequent practice of electing the council for a term of years, while the mayor is often appointed for a long term of years or for life, after passing an examination and showing his qualifications for the position, as would any other professional man in applying for employment under the city's government. Much emphasis has long been placed in some European cities upon the beauty of the city. One of the reasons for this has been the desire to attract to the city the wealthy; it is said that this has been the motive of the magnificent development in the past few years of the great city of Rio Janeiro, Brazil. But a higher motive is found in the desire to represent in the city the ideals of the nation through works of art. Men are everywhere waking to the fact that the city will in a few years be the abode of nearly half the civilized world, while it will be the constant resort of the other half for amusement, for instruction and for business. Hence it is essential that in the city men shall find inspiration similar to that which nature has always afforded to the better side of man. This can only be done by a truly beautiful city.