Alfred R. (Alfred Ronald) Conkling.

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"Municipal Government is Business, not Politics"

Motto of People's Municipal League of New York, 1890




Copyright, 1894,

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I PROPOSE to write a primer, as it were, of the science
of city government. I wish to set citizens to thinking.
Let them work out their own municipal destiny in the
light of common sense and modern science.

There is, so far as I know, not one popular book in
the English language on municipal government. Mau-
rice Block's Paris : Organisation Municipale is a very
entertaining book, written in a dialogue form, which en-
ables any French child to understand the government
of the beautiful French capital. English and American
writers have discussed in book form every phase of po-
litical science except popular municipal government.
This omission does not wholly account for the faults of
city government in the United States ; but, if intelligent
men had studied in text-books the science of city gov-
ernment as they learn the principles of political econ-
omy in high schools and colleges, it is not too much to
say that our cities would be better ruled.

It is said that " comparisons are odious," but every
well-informed person must admit that in comparing
American cities with those of the Old World we suffer
by the comparison. Take, for example, the oldest large



cities in the United States — New York, Philadelphia
and Brooklyn. No intelligent observer can deny that
their goYcrnments are vastly inferior to those of Lon-
don, Birmingham and Glasgow in Great Britain ; or to
Paris, Berlin and Vienna on the Continent.

Americans should be eager to learn from the cities
and towns of older countries whenever they have any-
thing to teach. In all branches of civic administration
the local authorities of Berlin have been willing to learn
from other cities in EurojDe, and to adopt whatever im-
provements they can apply to their own government.
In many respects I think the American people may
learn much from them, and I hope we shall soon follow
their example.

There is in many cities such a suspicion attached
to the ordinary city hall politicians that the better class
of citizens do not wish to associate with them ; and it
will not be denied that most of the members of our City
Councils are vastly inferior to those of the national
Congress or even of the State Legislatures. It is the
duty of good Americans to set about at once to obliter-
ate the stigma that is attached to the word alderman.
The agitation concerning the municipal problem is
comparatively recent. The founders of this Govern-
ment took no account of the cities. Now, as I explain
in Chapter I, a third of our population reside in cities,
and the four largest municipalities contain nearly one
tenth of the population of the United States. The
municipal problem is becoming a subject of absorbing
interest, and is now receiving in the large cities more


attention perhaps tliuu any other public question. It
is a principle of government that a citizen must per-
form a certain amount of duty to his State, county, city
or town. In certain cities of Europe municipal service
is compulsory, and failure to perform it results in an
increase of taxation.

I commend Chapter XVIII (on elections) to the
careful attention of the reader, for good municipal
government must rest upon good election laws strictly
enforced. At this moment the unsolved problem of
" home rule " is under discussion by the Convention to
revise the Constitution of New York, and it seems as if
the principle will be recognized. But it goes without
saying that a city is not ruled by its charter, and unless
better men serve in our city halls, home-rule principles
and new charters will be of little avail.

In the preparation of this volume I have received
much assistance from the officials of our chief cities as
well as from many personal friends. I desire to record
my grateful sense of obligation to my friend, Mr. Lewis
L. Delafield, of the New York bar. My thanks are also
due to the following gentlemen : Hon. J. B. Eustis,
U. S. Ambassador to France ; Hon. George F. Parker,
U. S. Consul at Birmingham ; the late Hon. William
H. Edwards, U. S. Consul at Berlin ; Hon. Allen B.
Morse, U. S. Consul at Glasgow ; Hon. William K.
Ackerman, Comptroller of Chicago ; Hon. Ferdinand
C. Latrobe, Mayor of Baltimore ; Hon. Edwin S. Stuart,
Mayor of Philadelphia ; Hon. Charles A. Schieren,
Mayor of Brooklyn ; Hon. Nathan Matthews, Jr.,


Mayor of Boston ; Hon. Cyrus P, Walbriclge, Mayor of
St. Louis ; Hon. William fS. Cowherd, Mayor of Kansas
City ; Hon. H. S. Pingree, Mayor of Detroit ; Hon.
Charles F. Bishop, Mayor of Buffalo ; Hon. Caleb T.
Denny, Mayor of Indianapolis ; Hon. John B. Mosby,
Mayor of Cincinnati ; Hon. L. E. Ellert, Mayor of San
Francisco ; Hon. P. F. Wanser, Mayor of Jersey City ;
Hon. Anson G. McCook, Hon. John C. O'Conor, Hon.
M. C. D. Borden, Mr. J. W. Howard and Mr. J. Noble
Hayes, of New York ; Mr. J. G. Eosengarten, of Phila-
delphia ; Mr. Eichard H. Dana, of Boston ; and Mr,
Moses J. Wentworth and Mr. Thomas F. Judge, of
Chicago. A. E. C.

New York, August 1, ISO 4.




I.— The Government of American Cities


II.— The Mayor

. 27

III. — Boards of Aldermen

. 40

IV.— Public Parks

. 53

V. — The Fire Department .

. 64

VI. — The Police Department

. 71

VII. — Police Courts

. 84

VIII.— Excise

. 90

IX.— Water, Gas and Electricity


X. — Streets


XL — Street-cleaning ....


XII.— Street Pavements ....


XIII.— Public Works


XIV. — Charitable Institutions


XV. — Public Schools and Trade Schools


XVI.— Finance and Taxation . . . .


XVII. — Municipalization ....


XVIII. — Elections


XIX.— The Remedies






For further information on the subject of Munici-
pal Government in the United States the student should
consult the following works :

Municipal Corporations, by John F. Dillon.

Public Corporations, by Charles F. Beach.

Comparative Administrative Law, by Frank J. Goodnow.

Public Debts, by Henry C. Adams.

The Municipal Plistory of Boston, by Josiah Quincy.

Handbook for Philadelphia Voters, compiled by Charles A.
Brinley, with an Introduction by Prof. E. J. James.

The Municipal Development of Philadelphia, 1881-1887, by E.
P. Allinson and B. Penrose.

The City Government of Philadelphia, published by the Whar-
ton School of Finance and Economy.

The American Commonwealth (the chapters on Cities), by
James Bryce.

The Johns Hopkins University Series in Historical and Polit-
ical Science (especially the fifth series).

Report of the New York State Commission to investigate the
City of New York, 1877, William M. Evarts chairman.

Reports of the New York Senate Committee on Cities, J. Sloat
Fassett chairman, 1890, five volumes.

The Municipal Problem, by Amos Parker Wilder.

The Bibliography of jMunicipal Government and Reform in
the Proceedings of the National Conference for Good City Gov-
ernment held at Philadelphia in January, 1894, published by the-
Municipal League.

Sewerage and Land Drainage, by George E. Waring, Jr.

Annual Cyclopaedia. The article. Recent Growth of American

This list does not include foreign works. Maurice
Block's writings on Municipal Government, especially
on the city of Paris, may be studied with advantage.

Numerous magazine articles bearing on this subject
have appeared in the United States and England since
1890. They are chiefly found in The Forum, The
Century Magazine, The North American Review, The
Nineteenth Century and The Review of Reviews.



1565. St. Augustine, Fla., founded by the Spaniards. Oldest town
in the United States. Incorporated in 1824.

1680. Charleston, S. C, founded ; the inhabitants of two towns of
the same name removing thither for the purpose.

1686. The Dongan (first) charter of the city of New York granted.

1686. Albany chartered. Oldest incorporated city in the United

1691. The William Penn (first) charter of Philadelphia granted.

1730. The Montgomery charter of New York granted.

1790. Public school first opened to girls in Boston.

1791. Washington founded and called the "Federal City" by

George Washington. It was incorporated in 1802.
1797. First charter of Baltimore granted.
1809. New Orleans chartered. Founded in 1719.
1801. Completion of the first municipal waterworks in the United

States at Philadelphia.
1814. Cincinnati became a city.
1816. Pittsburg chartered.
1822. The first charter of Boston granted ; the town founded in

1822. St. Louis incorporated.

1830. Detroit became a city.

1831. First street-car service on New York and Harlem Railroad.

1832. Buffalo chartered.

1835. First charter of Brooklvn granted. Other charters in 1855

and 1881.
1837. Chicago incorporated.

1841. First municipal gas-works established at Philadelphia.
1850. San Francisco chartered.
1862. George Opdyke elected as the only Republican Mayor of

New York.

1871. Downfall of the Tweed ring in New York,

1872. William F. Havemeyer elected reform Mayor of New York.

1873. A new charter foi- the city of New York.

1879. Completion of the Cincinnati Southern Railway, the first
railroad built by municipal enterprise.

1881. Election of a Republican Mayor in Brooklyn (Seth Low).

1882. The new charter for Brooklyn took effect.

1883. Completion of the bridge over the East River, built by the

cities of New York and Brooklvn (opened May 24th).

1885. The Bullitt charter for Philadelphia granted.

1886. Uprising of anarchists in Chicago, followed by execution of

four and imprisonment for life of several leaders.
1891. Mafia massacre at New Orleans.
1893. Colossal registration and election frauds in the city of New

York, followed by numerous indictments, many of the

offenders being convicted.





A CITY is a municipal corporation. Its chief func-
tions are administrative rather than political, as that
term is generally understood, and it should be governed
like any business corporation. It is legally composed
of the inhabitants within its limits ; for in one sense
every voter may be termed a member of the corpora-
tion, and every taxpayer may be regarded as a stock-
holder or bondholder. The city possesses, in common
with most other corporations, the privilege of elect-
ing, by the votes of its members, its own directors or

In most of our American cities the right of the
members, or stockholders, to vote is not, as a rule, re-
stricted by any property qualifications — i. e., it is unne-
cessary to be a bondholder or taxpayer to exercise the
right of suffrage. In some cities an expenditure for a
new public work can not be made without the approval
of a majority of the taxpayers. Every member of a
municipal corporation may generally hope to become a



director. In other words, there is no privileged class
of electors,, and any citizen may, if he please, aspire to
office. I'he dLre'Ctod',.'-dr' trustee, should never forget
that, \he ' represe'rvts,,^ not solely the majority that elects
him, but air the members of the municipality. Unfor-
tunately, the history of American cities shows that the
ordinary officeholder constantly violates, morally if not
legally, his oath of office.

Mr. James Bryce, in The American Commonwealth,
vol. i, page 606, says : " Two tests of practical efficiency
may be applied to the government of a city : What does
it provide for the people and what does it cost the peo-
ple ? " The voter, and especially the taxpayer, wishes
an equivalent for the money paid out in taxation, be it
a direct tax or a poll tax. The elector of a badly gov-
erned city says to himself, " Why are my taxes so high ? "
and if no one can give him a satisfactory explanation,
he is inclined to vote against the political party or fac-
tion in power. Nothing arouses a voter so quickly as
touching his "pocket nerve." The American peoiDle will
stand almost anything except high taxes. A good ex-
ample of this fact is shown in the contemporaneous his-
tory of New York and Brooklyn. The tyrannical poli-
ticians who for the past five years have governed the
city of New York are able to remain in power on ac-
count of the low rate of taxation. The assessed valua-
tion of realty and personalty is yearly increased by the
sum of about 170,000,000.* Hence, although the an-

* The increase for 1893 reached the unprecedented sum of


nual expenditures of the city increase, the tax rate
slightly decreases. In the newer parts of the town
the assessed value of real estate is raised from year to
year, so that if the freeholder examines his tax bill he
will see that he pays a liigher aggregate amount, al-
though the tax rate may be lower. This fact, however,
does not influence the ordinary elector, for the reason
that probably not more than one tenth of the voting
population are freeholders. The assessed valuation of
the personal property of the average individual does not
materially change from year to year.

It is a sad commentary on the alleged intelligence of
an American urban elector to see him vote annually, on
national or State party lines, for a ring that furnishes
him daily with evidence of its incompetency, extrava-
gance and dishonesty. Suppose, for example, that the
tax rate of a large city is low — say, 1-25 per cent. — i. e.,
$1.25 on a hundred dollars. If the citizen is reasonably
prosperous in his occupation, he will overlook filthy
and badly paved streets, defective sewerage, a scanty
and polluted water supply, insufficient public-school ac-
commodation for his neighbor's children, a venal police
force controlled by the boss of the city, a bribed City
Council voting away valuable franchises for a nominal
sum, corrupt jiolice magistrates administering justice
for the benefit of the ring, the payment of double the
market price for supplies in the city departments
and a score of other abuses. A mistaken party zeal
blinds the ordinary voter to these alarming conditions,
which stand as a growing menace to popular govern-


ment.* Year after year the well-intending partisan
votes — if he votes at all — the ticket of his fathers, re-
gardless of change of conditions and the obligations of
civic duty, as long as his taxes are apparently not

But when the tax rate rises, then the taxpayer rises
in his might to defeat his political oppressors. The
voters of Brooklyn, at the municipal election of 1893,
illustrated this fact when a Democratic majority of
23,000 in 1892 was changed to a Republican majority
of 32,000 ; and this political revolution was accom-
plished despite gross election frauds and treachery on
the part of some of the local Republican " statesmen."

I wish to emphasize the fact that bad city govern-
ment is 7iot a partisan matter : Republican Philadelphia
and Cincinnati are as badly ruled as Democratic New
York, Chicago and New Orleans. Political reformers
are prone to say that the only means of municipal sal-
vation is a transfer of power to the opposite party.
They begin city campaigns with the cry of "anything
to beat the Democrats — or Republicans," as the case
may be ; but long experience has shown that the mere
substitution of one set of politicians for another is not
the real remedy.

The defective municipal governments of the United
States may be partly explained by the rapid growth of
cities, and the ignorance, venality and lack of foresight

* Mr. Gladstone recently said, " The great danger in a popu-
lar government is, that the people may forget the art of gov-


of their rulers. In 1789, when George Washington was
first inaugurated, but three per cent of the population
lived in cities. In 1800 there were only six cities in the
United States with a population exceeding 8,000. The
largest city had fewer than 75,000 inhabitants. At that
time but four per cent of the American people resided
in cities having populations of 8,000 and upward. This
class of cities had increased to 141 in the year 18G0 and
to 437 in 1890. The same cities in 18G0 contained six-
teen per cent of the population and in 1890 twenty-
nine per cent. In other words, about one third of the
people of the United States now (1894) live in cities,
and the four largest cities contain nearly ten per cent
of the entire population. The increase of the urban
population is so great that better municipal govern-
ment is essential to the life of the nation.

The older States show a rapid increase in the urban
population. It appears that sixty-one per cent of the
population of the State of New York now dwell in cities
containing 8,000 persons and upward. The number of
urban inhabitants in some of the Western States increases
in greater proportion. If these cities are well governed,
a vast number of our people are well governed.

Excepting Pliiladelphia, nearly all our larger towns
have, for the past ten years, been ruled by the Demo-
cratic political party. In Chicago a Eepublicau mayor
was elected in 1891, but this was owing to four candi-
dates standing for office.

The material prosperity of a city depends to some ex-
tent on good government. If the city be clean and well


paved, aud provided with beautiful buildings, parks and
monuments, it attracts residents of neighboring towns.

In England, the country gentleman goes with his
family to London for the " season " and in France to
Paris. Tlie same practice is common in the United
States, but especially in New York and Washington
during winter. The well-to-do country family is often
attracted to a large city by business and pleasure, by
operas, theatres and festivals. The children take ad-
vantage of the opportunities for the study of art, music
and literature, and for higher education in general. If,
then, the chief city of a State is beautified or made at-
tractive, the floating population contributes in no slight
degree to its mercantile prosperity. But if the city is
cursed by a political ring, the inhabitants lose the trade
and benefits of a well-governed municipality, and the
" boss" is indifferent to tbeir welfare so long as he en-
riches himself at the public expense.

One cause of high taxation in cities is the exorbitant
salaries paid to officials. It is wise to give large com-
pensation to but one class of public officers — i. e., the
judges — because, if not liberally paid, they might be
tempted to sell their decisions. The safety of the na-
tion and the State, as well as that of the city, depends
upon a pure and courageous judiciary. I may, perhaps,
add to this class of well-paid public servants the Mayor,
especially where he has absolute power to appoint and
remove his subordinates and heads of departments.

The Mayor of Philadelphia receives a yearly salary
of $12,000 and the Mayor of New York 110,000. Ex-


cepting the President of the United States, several am-
bassadors and ministers to foreign countries and the
Collector of the Port of New York, there are no offi-
cials in the General Government who receive so large a
compensation as the Mayor of Philadelphia.

Some public officers in the city and county of New
York receive very liberal compensation. The annual
salary of the Chamberlain or County Treasurer is 125,-
000, but the compensation of his clerks and assistants
must be wholly paid out of this sum. The Justices of
the Supreme Court are paid $17,500 a year, of which
IG,000 is appropriated from the State treasury. The
annual salary of the Judges of the Superior Court and
Court of Common Pleas is $15,000. The yearly com-
pensation paid to other officials of the city and county
of New York is as follows: Sheriff, 120,000; County
Clerk, $15,000; Kegister, $12,000; Recorder, City Judge,
and Judges of the Court of General Sessions, $12,000 ;
Corporation Counsel, $12,000 ; Police Justices, $8,000.
The annual salary of the Governors of New York,
Pennsylvania and New Jersey is $10,000.

In the large municipalities the deputy commission-
ers, clerks and messengers receive oftentimes an ab-
surdly high stipend, out of all proportion to the serv-
ices rendered. Their pay is much higher than that of
corresponding positions in private life. The business
hours are rarely more than seven, and in the cities of
New York the half holiday is kept throughout the year.
Excepting officials that give bonds for the faithful per-
formance of their duties (who for self-protection must


employ competent clerks), many of the public servants
are men who would not be trusted in a responsible place
by any merchant in the community.

Concerning the policy of paying no salaries to elec-
tive officers, there is much to be said on both sides.
The rule seems to be, that the pi'incipal unsalaried
elective municipal officers are the select and common
councilmen of Philadelphia, the councilmen or upper
house of Boston, the councilmen in New Orleans and
the aldermen in some of the smaller cities. The excuse
sometimes given for paying elective officers is, that they
must contribute to a campaign fund.

The ordinary taxpayer grumbles more at the high
salaries of the officeholders than at any other item of
municipal expenditure. This may be explained on the
ground that so many city officials are ward " heelers "
and are appointed for political reasons.

But the worst class of public officers are not usually
employed in clerical positions by the municipalities.
They are sent to the Boards of Aldermen, to the City
Councils and to the Lower House of the State- Legisla-

* The reader may be interested in a conversation between a
former Governor of New York and a late Speaker of the As-
sembly, which the latter recently repeated to me. It ran as fol-
lows : " Governor," said my friend, " why does your party send
such scoundrels from the large cities? The loftiest occupation
that mankind can engage in is the making of laws. Why don't
your people appoint these fellows in the city departments?" —
" They can't write," said the Governor. — " Then why are they not
employed in the offices of the city treasurer? " The Executive
replied : " Because they will steal the money. We must put them


The municipal leaders generally bid for the support
of the worst elements, because they know by experience
that their influence means thousands of votes. If the
police are tools of the ring, the criminals can falsely
register and "repeat" at the polls with impunity. It
is owing to a colossal and studied system of fraud that
the criminal class and their allies govern to a great ex-
tent the large cities, and this sad state of affairs will
exist as long as the honest citizens refuse to vote to-
gether in municipal elections. (See chapter on Elec-

The character of the average city legislator is well
known to those who come in contact with him; but
for the benefit of the closet student of American munici-
pal government, I give an extract from a nonpartisan
report on the representatives of the city of New York
in the Legislature. The description will generally ap-
ply to the aldermen of American cities. The Eighth
Annual Record of Assemblymen and Senators from the
city of New York, published by the City Reform Club,
referring to a very prominent Assemblyman, says : "lie
received six or seven years' schooling in the public
schools of this city. Ilis early associations were not
good. He was employed in various newspaper-delivery

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Online LibraryAlfred R. (Alfred Ronald) ConklingCity government in the United States → online text (page 1 of 15)