Henry Stimson Gilbertson.

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The County

The **Dark Continent" of American Politics


H. S. Gilbertson Pi^^^^^^j^^y^-

New York
The National Short Ballot Organization


Ubc "ftnichcrbocfter press, l^ew Hotk


The American people have never ceased, nor do
they give any signs of ceasing, in their effort to
master the mechanics of political democracy.
Curiously, however, they have quite neglected
one of the most promising of all the approaches to
this study — the government of counties. It is in
the belief that a discussion of this subject would
tend to throw a great new light upon the "demo-
cratic experiment** that the author has prepared
this volume.

This is not a hand-book or a treatise on counties.
Such a work cannot be successfully carried through
without a much wider and more thorough research
into the subject than has as yet been attempted.
The author hopes that this present work will do
something to suggest and stimulate such research.
In the meantime the outlines of a very real and
very important "county problem" are visible and
they mark the scope of this volume.

The reader will doubtless note the complete
absence of any discussion of the county in its
relation to the educational system. The explan-
ation of this omission lies in the great difficulty
of distinguishing anything like a universal interest




of the county in this branch of public adminis-
tration, apart from those of the state government
and of the smaller divisions, except in the levying
of taxes and the distribution of tax money.

To Mr. Richard S. Childs, Secretary of The
Short Ballot Organization, the author is indebted
for the suggestion that the book should be written,
and for criticisms of the manuscript. Assistance
of the most helpful sort during the manuscript
stage was also rendered by Mr. Herbert R. Sands,
of the New York Bureau of Municipal Research,
and by Mr. Otho G. Cartwright, of the Westchester
County Research Bureau.

Inasmuch also as it has not seemed advisable
to encumber the text with an excessive number of
footnotes, the author wishes to acknowledge
particularly his debt to Prof. John A. Fairlie's
volume, The Government of Counties^ Towns, and
Villages^ which was the source of much of the
historical material, and to Mr. Earl W. Crecraft,
whose studies of Hudson County, N. J., have
been drawn upon at considerable length.


New York,

January 15, 1917.



— A Political By-way

• •



—Just What Is a Count^^




—A Creature of Tradition



-Falling Afoul of "Democracy" .




—The Jungle .

» • <



-A Base of Political Supplies

. 43 '/


—Urban Counties .

» •

57 ^


—County Governments at Work

. 66 V^^


—The Humanitarian Side



-Roads and Bridges

. 94 •



104 %


-State Meddling .

. 112 V'


-State Guidance .

, 120 ^



. 129 ^


-County Home Rule

. 145 V



. 151 •


—Reconstruction -. .

168 V



XVIII. — Scientific Administration . .181
XIX. — The County of the Future . 193

Appendix A — ^^Constitutional County Home

Rule in California . 207

Appendix B — The Los Angeles County

Charter . . . 219

Appendix C — Proposed County Home Rule

Amendment in New York 247

Appendix D — Proposed County Manager

Law in New York . 251

Appendix E — The Chief Medical Examiner

IN New York City . . 257

Appendix F — A County Almshouse in Texas 266

Bibliography 275

Index 285

The County




To close up the underground passages to po-
litical power, to open up government and let in
the daylight of popular opinion and criticism,
to simplify organization, to make procedure more
direct, to fix unmistakably the responsibilities
of every factor in the State; that has been the
strategy of the reconstructive democratic move-
ment in America in the last fifteen years. Four
hundred American cities, without regret and with
little ceremony, have cast aside the tradition that
complexity is the price of liberty. They have
started afresh upon the principle that government
is public business to be administered as simply,
as directly, as openly and as cheaply as the law
will allow. Inasmuch as their former governments
were not adapted to that ideal, they have hastened
to make them over. Contrary to prediction,
the palladium of liberty has not fallen. Business


goes on as usual, public business in a way that
is amazingly satisfactory, as compared with the
**good old" days.

Where will the movement stop? Have all
the secret passages been closed? Have all the
dark alleys of local politics been lighted? Or
does work for explorers lie ahead ?

In 191 5 the constitutional convention then in
session at Albany, was surveying the foundations
of the political structure of New York, under-
taking to make adjustments to the sweeping
changes that had come over the life of the state
in the previous twenty-year period. Committees
were chosen to rake the far corners of the system
for needed adjustment. Hundreds of experts
were summoned and hundreds of citizens volun-
tarily appeared to press their views and their
wants. The committee having in charge the
organization of the state government listened to
an ex-president, the heads of two leading univer-
sities, prominent efficiency experts and every
important state officer. The committee on cities
gave audience to the mayor and chief legal offi-
cers of every important city in the state, while
the conference of mayors was sufficiently inter-
ested to send one of its number to stump the state
for an amendment which would promote the weU
fare of New York cities. The work of these
divisions of the convention was of deepest con-
cern to the state. It received from the press and
the public no small amount of interested comment.


There was also a committee which touched on
an interest that includes every inhabitant — county
government. One might have imagined that this
body too could have attracted at least one or two
celebrities. There are sixty-one counties in New
York State. Everybody lives in one. They safe-
guard property, personal and civil rights. But not
so. Two or three public hearings ; no ex-presidents ;
no college heads; no considerable number of
interested private citizens — such was the tangible
display of awakening to the subject at hand.

At a singularly appropriate moment, however,
a brand-new association of clerks of the boards of
supervisors was formed. Several members of
the body appeared in person before the conven-
tion. The committee appealed to them to enrich
its fund of information concerning the home
government. They were given a free rein to tell
of the needs of their counties.

In view of collateral facts, the testimony of
this notable group of public servants is peculiarly
illuminating. The representative of a central
New York county was there and blandly did he
announce that his people were perfectly satisfied
with their county government; they would not
dream of modifying it. The clerk from a Hudson
River county was equally optimistic, and went
to some pains to show in detail just how very
well his county was governed. Similar testimony
was presented from a county in the capital district.
Then up spoke the clerk from near the borders


of Pennsylvania: the people of this neighboring
state had conceived so great an admiration for
the form of his county government that they were
longing to substitute it for their own rather simpler

Now for the collateral facts. Not more than
two months following this hearing, officers of
the National Committee on Prison Labor got
word of misdoings at the jail in the central New
York county and succeeded in securing a Grand
Jury investigation. The details of their findings
scarcely lend themselves to print. Enough to
say that the sheriff's deputies had made a practice
of allowing both men and women prisoners to
come and go at will and permitted most disrepu-
table conditions to prevail in the prison. Shortly
after the committee hearings the state comptroller
completed his investigation of the financial affairs
of the Hudson River county. His report reeks
with accounts of flagrant and intentional viola-
tions of the laws on the part of not one but nearly
all of the county officers. As for the clerk from
the capital district, he was confronted at the
hearing itself with several pieces of special legisla-
tion passed, at the instance of the sheriff and the
superintendent of the poor, for the increase of
salaries of deputies over the head of the local
governing body. That this appeal was not so
much in the interests of the county as of "political
expediency" and at the expense of the taxpayers,
he cheerfully admitted. But as for the near-


Pennsylvania county, that was the earthly home
of a man who had conceived a clever method of
breaking into the county treasury by having the
board of supervisors create for his benefit, contrary
to law, the position of "county custodian." Once
firmly settled in his new position he persuaded
the board to turn over to him (quite illegally)
their responsibility for auditing the claims against
the county, and persuaded the county treasurer
to cash any warrant that might have his "0. K."
When he had made away, in this manner, with
some ninety thousand dollars, the comptroller
discovered his misdoings. Of the whole bad mess,
the solution which the "custodian" selected was
suicide. But the government of that county had
not been fundamentally changed to meet the de-
fects of organization revealed in these disclosures.

A collection of isolated facts? Familiar Ameri-
can graft and inefficiency? Perhaps. But in
the cities and in the states the public has been
going after such things. In the counties of New
York the people apparently did not know that
such conditions were present. The clerks who
appeared at Albany and were,, for the most part,
the sole representatives of their several counties,
seem to have told the truth, at least about the
people's complacency, but they might have been
more accurate and more complimentary if they
had labeled it "lack of knowledge."

From coast to coast a deep silence broods over
county affairs. Can it be that, while cities have


been reveling in franchise scandals and police
have been going into partnership with vice inter-
ests, while state legislatures have been Hghtly
voting away public money on useless political
jobs and extravagant public institutions, the
county alone is free from every breath of scandal
and is a model of official uprightness? Scores
of municipal leagues and city clubs and bureaus
of municipal research are delving into city affairs
and finding opportunities for betterment at every
turn of the hand. But the number of county
organizations that are doing critical and con-
structive work could be numbered on the ten
fingers, or less. Many of the colleges offer courses
specifically on municipal government, but the
*'one pervasive unit of local government through-
out the United States" is disposed of with a brief
mention. No political scientist has ever had the
ambition to plow into the soil, so that while there
is now available a five-hundred-page bibliography
of city government, there has never been written
a single volume' devoted exclusively to counties.
Journalists for the most part have left the subject
severely alone.

And yet in those few instances where the county
has been put under the microscope or has been
given more than a passing thought, the reward
of the investigators' labors have always been so

^Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social
Science, May, 1913, contains a number of important monographs
on the subject.



certain and rich as to excite wonder as to how
much further the shortcomings of the county-
extend. In Hudson County, N. J., a few years
ago, the cost of the court house which had been
fixed at nine hundred thousand dollars, threat-
ened to run up to seven million dollars. Impressed
by this striking circumstance, a body of citizens
formed themselves into a permanent Federation
to look deeper and longer into this back alley of
their civic life. They found that the court house
incident was but the most dramatic of a hundred
falls from grace. The Public Efficiency Society
of Cook County, 111., the Westchester Coimty
Research Bureau, the Taxpayers* Association of
Suffolk County, the Nassau County Associa-
tion in New York and the Tax Association of
Alameda County in California] have all been
richly repaid for their investments in county
government research. Sporadic cases ? Possibly.
And then again perhaps there is something basi-
cally defective in the system.

But is it all a matter of importance?

If universality and magnitude of cost count for
anything, yes. Nearly all the inhabitants of the
United States live in a county and nearly every
voter takes part in the affairs of one. There are
over three thousand such units. In their cor-
porate capacity they had in 19 13 a net indebted-
ness of $371,528,268 (per capita, $4.33), which
was a growth from $196,564,619 in 1902 (per
capita $2.80). In that year they spent for general


government, $385,181,760, which is something like
one third the cost of the federal government for
the same period. Of this amount, $102,334,964
was for general management. Through these
county governments the American people spent
for highway purposes, $55,514,891 ; for the protec-
tion of life and property, $15,213,229; for the con-
servation of health, $2,815,466; for education,
$57,682,193; for libraries, $364,712; for recreation,
$419,556 (mostly in the single state of New Jersey) ;
for public service enterprises, $189,122; for inter-
est charges, $17,417,593; upon structures of a
more or less permanent nature, $89,839,726.

The figures, though of course not to be taken
too seriously, are in some cases as impressive for
their paucity as in others for their magnitude,
for throughout a large part of the United States
the county is the sole agency of local government.

Counties pretty much throughout the nation
are the comer-stone of the system of partisan
government and organization.

Counties, for this variety of reasons, therefore,
would seem to be a fit subject for scrutiny as to
their relation to some of the vital issues of
American life.



Before our forefathers had ''brought forth
upon this continent a new nation," there was no
universal standard relationship in the colonies
between the local and the general colonial or state
governments. In Massachusetts, Rhode Island
and Connecticut, the towns had begun as separate
units ; then they federated and gradually developed
an organic unity; that is, the localities produced
the general government. In the South, on the
other hand, the local governments had more the
semblance of creatures of the general government
designed to meet the expansion of the earliest
settlements into wide and therefore less wieldy
units for administration.

By the time of the constitution of 1789, it be-
came possible to standardize the division of labor
of governing the continent. In the center of the
scheme were placed the states, which reserved to
themselves all the governmental power there was,
except what the constitution specifically con-
ferred upon the federal government. Henceforth,
whatever may have been its historical origin or



its ancient traditions, every local division of
government was to content itself with such func-
tions as were to be portioned out to it by superior
I state authority. It was to have no ** inherent"
"^i— powers. It was to act simply as an agency of the
state, which had power at will to enlarge or di-
minish the local sphere of activity or wipe it off
the map entirely.

Now the duties which state governments as-
sumed in the early years of the republic were as
simple as necessity would allow. This was pre-
eminently the day of ''as little government as
possible." The people of the states covenanted
with themselves, as it were, to stand guard over
life, Hberty and property. It was a broad enough
program, but it was the custom in those days
to interpret it narrowly — no humanitarian activi-
ties beyond the crude attempts to deal with the
more obvious phases of poverty; no measure of
correction in the modem sense ; no "public works.*'
As an incident in meeting these obligations, the
constitutional convention and the state legislatures
met and laid down statutes or codes of conduct
affecting these elementary needs of a civilized
people. They defined the various crimes (or
adopted the definitions of the English common
law); they legalized a civil procedure. It was
definitely settled that the voice of the whole
people should control in determining what the
state should do for its citizens.

Then came the question of getting the means


for applying these abstract principles to daily life,
of bringing to every man's own door the means
for enforcing his rights. Had the American
people proceeded from this p6int along logical lines
they would have cut the administrative machinery
to fit their state-wide policies. But it was not so
ordered. The officers of the state had determined
upon the policies; the officers of the localities j
were to execute the policies. The period of the
American Revolution, with its deep-seated distrust
of kingly power, was the beginning of an era of
decentralized administration which gained rather
than diminished in force for as much as two genera-
tions. For the purpose, the existing counties
served as instruments ready to hand and their
status now became fixed as the local agencies of
the state government. New counties were formed
from time to time as needs arose. In each of
these counties was a loose, but more or less com-
plete organization, which it will now be fitting
to describe.

More important perhaps than any other en-
forcing agent of the county, in these still primitive
days, was the shmff, who sooner or later became
a fixture in every American colony. This most
ancient officer of the county had been perpetuated
through the centuries from Saxon and Norman
times. He had inherited nearly all of the powers and
prerogatives of his historical prototype as they ob-
tained in England during the seventeenth century.
He did not preside over a court in the county,


but he could make arrests for violation of the law,
with or without a warrant. If his task was too
much for one man, he could summon to his aid
a posse comitatus of private citizens. And inas-
much as he was obliged not only to apprehend,
but to hold his prisoner for trial, it very natur-
ally fell to him to take care of the lock-up or

There had been established, beginning with
Connecticut, in 1666, a system of local courts,
whose jurisdiction in most states came to be co-
extensive v/ith the county. Around this institu-
tion centered the official life of the county, so
much so that the county capitol is universally
known as the "court house." The sheriff from
its beginnings acted as the high servant of this
court, in the disposition of prisoners, the execution
of judgments, the service of warrants of arrest and
in similar duties.

To the account of Connecticut is also to be
credited the most unique, and in many ways most
important county officer of modem times. In
the development of its criminal law, England had
never worked out a system of local prosecuting
officers. The colonies in the early days had as-
signed the duty of representing the state's interest
to the magistrates. But in 1704 there was author-
ized for each county in Connecticut an attorney y
•'to prosecute all criminal offenders . . . and
suppress vice and immorality." From this begin-
ning came the distinctively American officer who


is variously known as district attorney, prosecutor
of the pleas, solicitor, or state's attorney.

Since the business of the county court (which
formerly included administrative as well as judi-
cial matters) was too important not to be recorded,
there was established a clerk of court whose duties
are summarized in his title. In more recent times,
however, the functions of this officer have been
both expanded and limited, according to the
amount of the transactions in the county. So
that, in the larger counties each court, or some-
times a group of courts, ha^e a clerk whose duties
are solely concerned with judicial matters, while in
less important counties the "county clerk" finds
it easily possible to serve in no less than a dozen
different capacities. It is the county clerk who
ordinarily issues marriage licenses and receives
for filing, real estate deeds, mortgages and a
variety of other papers.

And then, without apparent good reason, the
colonists had brought over from England the
coroner. In the days of Alfred the _^Great this
officer had had an honorable and useful place in
the realm. As a sort of understudy of the sheriff,
he took the latter's place when he was disabled.
Meanwhile he was the King's local representative,
charged with the duty of laying hands on every- j
thing that seemed to be without an owner and)
taking possession of it in the name of the King, j
But through the lapse of time, the ''Crowner"
had lost both dignity and duties until there was


little left except for him to take charge of the
bodies of those who had died by violence or in a
suspicious manner, seek the cause of death and
locate, if possible, the person responsible for the

So much for the organization to administer
local justice, which is the irreducible minimum
of county government. In early colonial times
(and even yet in certain states), the judges and
other judicial officers had performed important
duties outside this limited field of administering
justice. But in time the processes involved in the
payment of salaries and the up-keep of a county
building, created in sizable counties a "business
problem of no mean proportions. Since in most
states these costs have been charged against the
county, it has been necessary to install appropriate
machinery of fiscal administration. In every
county a board of directors, variously selected and
denominated, has taken over the management of
material things. With the help of a variety of
minor administrative officers like the assessors,
the treasurer and other fiscal officers, it raises and
appropriates money; it audits claims against the
county ; it borrows money.

Around this judicial and administrative nucleus
y was built the tmiversal American county. In
the rural sections it expanded to meet the lack
of any other local government. As an incident
to the theory that the state is responsible for at
least a minimum of protection of human life, the


state government had taken upon itself the care
of indigents. This duty it usually turned over
directly to the county. The county authorities
have also had control (often exclusively so) of
rural roads and bridges.

In the performance of these various functions
the American people seem to have thought it
quite unnecessary for the county to be supplied
with the proper apparatus for doing its own policy
making. Or, to look at the matter from the other
side, they deemed it quite appropriate that the
policy-making part of the state government, which
is the legislature, should not control the hands and
feet, which in matters of local concern consist of the
county officials. Elaborate general laws were en-
acted to prescribe in minute detail the daily round
of routine of each officer. Why should he or why
should the people think? It was not the purpose
of the state that they should. And without think-
ing, there could be no differences of opinion;
without differences of opinion, no ''issues"; with-
out issues, no real politics.




It all came about in this way :

The first settlers in the permanent Virginia

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Online LibraryHenry Stimson GilbertsonThe county, the dark continent of the American politics → online text (page 1 of 18)