Page images
PDF
EPUB

municipality to determine for itself just what its functions shall be, I am heartily in agreement with the opinions expressed by the committee. If we are to have anything like a free and intelligent municipal development in this country, it is certainly highly important that a large measure of discretion should be left to each city as to the lines of work which it will take up outside of those which are necessary incidents of any municipal government worthy of the name.. The development of a municipal organization should keep up with the growth of civilization and the development of the community. The multiplicity of the functions which it assumes is the great distinction between the American city of to-day and that of twenty-five or fifty years ago. Service after service has been added to meet the demands of growing communities, and the broader conceptions of the social ends to be subserved by municipal governments. The growing complexity of life in our generation requires a greater specialization of everything than at any. past period in history; this need is as urgent in the field of municipal activity as elsewhere, and the more highly specialized the government of one of our great cities is, the more its organization is subdivided to fulfill different functions, the more comprehensive will be the beneficence of its general activities, and the more varied will be its lines of useful service to the people. The multiplication of municipal departments cannot be carried too far, if each new department renders some service to the great body of the people which makes it worth more than it costs, and if, all are kept co-ordinated under a single chief executive authority. The progress of science and invention, and the consequent increase of wealth, has placed the means for securing general social advancement within our control; it is through the varied activities of municipal governments, in the main, that these means must be made to fulfill their ends. A wide latitude, therefore, should be allowed each city to assume such new functions as may seem to its authorities advisable to more fully serve its people.

I entirely agree with the ground taken by Dr. Shaw in respect to municipal indebtedness incurred in the acquirement of a productive asset. Such indebtedness certainly should be omitted from any statutory limitation upon the total debt which can be incurred by a com munity. It may be desirable to limit the amount of money which a city can borrow for improving its streets, or for erecting public buildings, but there is certainly no occasion for limiting the amount of money which it can invest in street railway lines, or in lighting plants, whch produce a revenue independent of taxation, provided that such investments are made through the deliberate choice of the majority of the voters and subject to proper restrictions and regulations. For instance, it would be absurd to place the indebtedness incurred by the city of Boston in building its subway for electric cars-10. indebtedness absolutely secured and fully provided for by a rental charge for its use-upon the same footing as indebtedness incurred in the building of

new school houses, where its interest and sinking fund requirements must be met out of the annual tax levy. There should, indeed, as sug. gested by the Committee, be some proper State supervision of such investments of public money, to guard against foolish expenditures or corrupt influences; but it is certainly important to recognize the principle that debt incurred for establishing a municipal service which takes the place of a similar private service, and is supported by special charges, an investment, in short, for a directly productive purpose, stands on an entirely different footing from the ordinary municipal debt.

Coming to some of the specific suggestions contained in the report, I fully agree with the opinion expressed that the power of taking land hy eminent domain should be conferred very broadly. It is difficult, even with this power, and practically impossible without it, for a city to acquire property needed for public purposes at anything like a fair price. Municipalities generally have the right to take property by eminent domain only for certain specific purposes. I fully agree with the opinion that they should possess this right for all municipal purposesthat is, for all purposes for which they are authorized to spend money raised by taxation. It is also highly proper that cities should have the power to pay a part of the cost of any public improvement by special assessments upon property which is specially benefited. Certainly no function of a municipality is more important than that of controlling the lines of real estate development-of requiring that tracts of land shall be properly laid out, from a public standpoint, before they are cut up and sold in lots, so that the great expense of future street widenings, or the inconvenience of an improper layout, may be avoided I myself believe that much larger powers of controlling the architecture of buildings should be given to municipalities, and I can see no logical distinction between regulating the character of building construction, from the standpoint of sanitation and safety, and controlling the exterior appearance from an aesthetic standpoint. The cultivation of the artistic and the prohibition of the ugly must, and I think soon will, receive much more attention from our municipal authorities; the old idea that a man must be allowed to do what he pleases with his own property has necessarily been limited in a hundred different ways under the conditions of modern life which exist in cities, and there is no more reason why a man should be allowed to offend his neighbors and injure the street on which he lives by the erection of an architectural abomination than there is for allowing him to maintain any other form of public nuisance upon his premises.

I fully agree with the opinion of the Committee that if it were practicable it would be “altogether best for symmetrical local progress if all branches of local governmental administration, including the administration of schools, came under a single system of municipal government. A partial separation-and it is very difficult to make it entire-between the control of the public schools and that of other

branches of city work leads to confusion and division of responsibility: and I believe that no sounder reason can be given, though doubtless a more plausible argument can be made, for entrusting school admin istration to elective officials than for electing the heads of our fire on police departments instead of appointing them. Certainly the manage ment of school affairs by a large elective committee has tended toward an irresponsible and inefficient administration, and instead of keeping the public schools freer from political influences it has tended rather to draw them more into the arena of politics. If there is any branch of municipal work which, on account of its immense importance, its influence upon the future population, and its vital relation to the whole life of the community, needs the very best expert administration, it is certainly that of conducting the public schools. I believe that there would be at any rate a better chance of securing such expert management if the schools were unified with the city administration. But such a reform, as the Committee evidently realizes, encounters too much opposition to make it very hopeful of attainment.

I fully agree with the ground taken in the report as to the desirability of keeping municipal accounts upon a prescribed and uniform system, and subject to the supervision of some State auditor or accounting official. In Massachusetts various classes of quasi-public corporations are supervised by commissions and are required to present very full and exact accounts, while our greatest and most important corporations, disbursing a vastly larger amount of money and directly engaged in serving the people, are left practically to keep their ac. counts much as they see fit. I believe that some legislation somewhat analogous to that defining the powers and duties of the English Local Government Board would be of great benefit in this country, and that perhaps no single measure would do more to promote honest and in. telligent municipal government. If half as much attention had been given in my own State to the general regulation and supervision of municipal governments, particularly in respect to their accounting, by some proper State authority, as has been given to our railroad, street railway and electric light companies, the science and practice of municipal administration would be further advanced with us than it is to-day. It is surely time that the State should cease treating each of its municipalities as an isolated unit, and that it should begin co-ordinating the work, comparing their respective systems and methods, and auditing and collating their accounts.

THE CHAIRMAN : The next paper will be read by Mr. Delos F. Wilcox, of Cleveland.

PAPER OF MR. DELOS F. WILCOX.

The propositions set before the National Municipal League by its very able Committee on Municipal Program are so momentous that

they demand the fullest possible discussion and criticism. I have been asked to discuss briefly that part of the program which deals with the scope of municipal activities. I shall confine myself during the time that has been assigned to me he task of answering the following questions, all of which are asked with particular reference to the problem of municipal functions:

I. What is the proposed Program ?

II. What American political ideas and habits would be abrogated by this Program?

III. What new ideas and methods of political action would be introduced by it?

IV. What are the fundamental principles of government underlying the Program?

V. Is the Program practicable?
VI. Is the Program necessary?

I. What the Program is. As I understand it, under the policy recommended by the Committee, a city, in the political sense of the word, might be described about as follows:

When the inhabitants of a particular portion of the territory of the State, by reason of congestion of residences and business, come to form a unit of local interests substantially different from the interests of an ordinary rural community, they may acquire legal unity through the process of incorporation. The city may extend its physical boundaries from time to time with the consent of the inhabitants of the territory to be annexed. Once incorpcrated, a city becomes an agent for the government of its people recognized by the Constitution of the State and in many respects made co-ordinate with the central State government itself. The city is authorized to undertake any public function whatever, subject to the following limitations:

(1) No city can transgress the limits put upon governmental agencies by the Constitution of the United States or the Constitution of the State.

(2) No city can undertake any function of government that the central State authorities have already undertaken for the people of the whole State or for all the cities of the State in accordance with upiform general laws.

(3) Every city is subject to the interference of special laws passed by an absolute two-thirds majority of the State Legislature, and if disapproved by the City Council passed again by a similar vote of the I.egislature, including in the affirmative the votes of three-fourths of the members of the Legislature from outside of the city affected. The City Council is allowed sixty days in which to pass upon any special bill, and if disapproved the bill must be passed again within thirty days from the date of disapproval or fail of enactment.

(4) No city is permitted to incur a debt amounting to more than a

certain percentage of the assessed valuation of the taxable real estate lying within its boundaries, except in anticipation of current taxes or for investment in enterprises for the performance of remunerative services.

(5) No city shall levy on real and personal estate for general city purposes, not including public debt charges, taxes aggregating more than a certain percentage of the assessed value of the property so taxed.

(6) Every city must conform in the matter of organization and procedure to certain forms set forth in the State Constitution or the general municipal corporations act. Cities having more than 25,000 inhabitants may frame their own charters within the limits of the Constitution alone.

(7) Every city may be required to act as the agent of the central State government and may be subjected to central administrative con. trol by general laws.

Practically, then, every incorporated city is empowered to perform any function of a distinctly local character which the majority of its citizens, its Mayor and two-thirds of its Council shall agree upon.

II. What is Abrogated.

(1) The enumeration of powers is to be abrogated, as the Commit. tee frankly declares. The importance of this change of policy can hardly be overestimated. The American people from pre-Revolutionary times have been jealo of the powers of government. But the Com. mittee's Program proposes that so far as cities are concerned, the legal hindrance to the aggressions of the majority shall be removed. It is declared that "The organization of city government should be such as to favor responsible positive action rather than to provide a series of checks and balances."

(2) In the second place, the Committee propose to do away with the legislative supremacy of the State Legislature, so tbat the generally accepted doctrines of our Commonwealth government will have to be seriously modified. The Legislature of the State can no longer claim ultimate authority over the public affairs of every part of the State.

III. What New Things Are Introduced.

(1) Home rule for cities is the primary reforin advocated by the Committee. Home Rule is not, of course absolutely new; but the proposed Program points to a radically different kind and a very niuch greater degree of home rule than is now enjoyed by most of the cities of the United States. We already have in some of our State Constitutions a faint outline of the city as a nird category in our constitutional scheme of governments. The Committee propose to urgeon what may be called the process of “constitutionalizing" the city. The rapid relative and absolute growth of urban wealth and population makes this change in our general scheme of government enormously important.

« PreviousContinue »