Government of Cities.

(An Address delivered before the Sunset Club of Chicago, October 23, 1800.)

To effect a reform we must know what the conditions are which made the reform necessary, for as long as those conditions remain they will again produce the same result. Simply cutting down weeds does little good, for while their roots remain they will grow again. Our government was based on the principle of:

First: No permanent office-holding class.

Second: An independent officer for every important position.

Third: Government by law, and not by caprice of individuals. Our trouble comes from a violation of these fundamentals.


The instances are rare where an elective executive officer who came directly from the people, and had sole charge, was a defaulter, or was guilty of malfeasance or gross neglect during the first years of his administration. But years ago there gradually grew up a kind of a political machine in each party, by means of which, and of the public patronage, shrewd manipulators were enabled to keep themselves and their friends almost continuously at the public crib. Then the thought of a re-election seized the office-holder and weakened his moral courage. He became all things to all men; he dared not look into the ways of favorites too closely, because they would hurt him politically. Everything must be so managed that he would lose no friends; and as almost every abuse was source of profit to somebody who had more or less influence, it became almost impossible to root


it up. In short, there grew up a lack of thoroughness in the public service, and from this come many of the evils we complain of.

Offices, like houses, need a general cleaning now and then, and the only way this can be done is by putting in new blood. Physicians have discovered that it is very difficult to put new blood into old veins, and we are beginning to learn that it is hard to put new blood into an old office-holder or to teach him new ways. If a new broom is a great factor in the kitchen, it is of much more importance in the office-holding world. The necessity of periodical house cleaning is a discovery of the nineteenth century. No matter how fair the house and furniture may look, the good housekeeper knows that under the carpets and back of the furniture there has imperceptibly and noiselessly collected a vast amount of dust and dirt. So with the administration of office; no matter how fair and plausible the surface may seem, it will often be found that abuse, neglect, and even corruption, have crept in noiselessly, and sometimes without the knowledge of the head, and the only way to guard against this is by a periodical cleaning up — or more correctly, cleaning out. I know that it will be said that by this method some good officials are lost. But it must be borne in mind that even good officials have friends under them who are not as good. Besides, there are just as good men in the ranks as there are in office, and if you take new men you will get just as large a proportion of good as you had before; and inasmuch as all will come directly from the people, their administration (for a time, at least), will be cleaner, more thoroughgoing and conscientious; and if they feel that at the expiration of their term they must go back to private life, they will aim at excellence of administration instead of devoting their time to secure a re-election. There is no analogy between a public officer and an agent or employe of a private individual, for in the latter case the proprietor supervises the business and examines the accounts from time to time; while in the case of a public officer no thorough examination of all his doings can be, nor is, made until there is a change.


There should be an independent officer elected by the people for every important position. In the country and villages, where there is little to do and the public is posted, a board or a council may answer; but in a large city, where the public is not posted as to details, where there are large institutions to be managed and public enterprises to be carried on, where there are unlimited opportunities and strong temptations to make money out of public employment, a board


or council is a failure, for the power of execution is weakened in proportion to the number who are to decide. One man, if capable, will execute with dispatch; six men of equal ability will not only discuss, but wrangle; while when it comes to sixty-eight men, life is simply too short to do business with them.

Again, a board or council must execute through appointed officers, and it is under these that the worst cases of abuse have been found. The chief instruments whom Tweed used in engineering the gigantic steals in New York were appointed. The corruption in county affairs which has repeatedly aroused the indignation of our people grew up under the administration of men appointed by a board. The horrors in large charitable institutions throughout the land, as exposed almost weekly for several years, prevailed under the administrations of men appointed by a board. The rottenness in the Department of Public Works in Cincinnati (recently exposed), existed under and was covered up by men appointed by a board. In short, thorough execution and careful supervision by a board is the rarest kind of an exception, while weakness in execution, utter neglect of supervision, coddling of favorites, and winking at abuses, is the almost universal rule. It is better to have one man who is personally responsible — even though known to be dishonest — than to have a board which is known to be honest at the head of affairs.


As to city councils: At present they possess so broad a discretionary power that practically they can prevent almost any public enterprise or improvement directly affecting the convenience and welfare of the people. A body with such powers should find no place among republican institutions. If Satan framed the law creating city councils with such broad powers, he based it on the principle of divide, tempt and conquer, for division of responsibility has given him his opportunity. Division of responsibility and broad discretionary power are the eggs from which has come the foul odor which hangs over the government of large cities, both here and in Europe. Here we make a fuss about it — in Europe they dare not.

Put one man into a position of responsibility and he will make an effort to appear honest. Join nineteen men with him, and then frequently fourteen of them — enough to pass a measure over a veto — will brazenly divide up a corruption fund and laugh about it. There is not a mayor of an American city but has greater opportunities to further dishonest schemes than has a city council; yet the fact that the public finger can be put on him helps to keep him reasonably


straight, and the instances are rare where the executive of a city has been charged with corruption. There is not a Governor of a State but has opportunities for plunder that exceed those of a member of the Legislature; yet while our Legislatures have in a measure lost the confidence of the American public, this is not true of the executive. United responsibility has saved the latter, while divided responsibility has partially destroyed the good name of the former.

The business of governing cities is executive, not legislative. Why should we longer keep cumbersome legislative machinery to do executive work? Why not substitute law and certainty for discretion and caprice? There was a time when the Legislature of Illinois acted upon every small matter. It not only granted divorces, but no corporation could be organized except by special charter from the Legislature; no measures of any kind, requiring co-operation, could be started or carried on except by special act of the Legislature, until that body became practically made up of agents, each of whom had some private enterprise to engineer through, out of which he or some of his friends expected to realize handsomely. Finally this abuse was stopped by adopting a constitution which provided that all these things should be governed by general laws; if parties wanted a divorce they were to go into the courts and try their case; if parties wanted to form a corporation they had simply to comply with a prescribed form; if they wanted to build a railroad they could organize under the general laws of the State, and go to work. They didn't have to lobby for six months or a year to get the privilege of going to work.

At present most of the matters that are controlled by the city council could be regulated by general law, and the public would be very much better off if they were. First, because of the slowness of a cumbersome body to act; second, because of the tendency on the part of some city councils to levy toll upon almost every enterprise sought to be carried on in the city. What is the use of compelling a railroad seeking to enter the city, to go to the city council? Did any man ever hear of a railroad wanting in dead earnest anything of a city council and not getting it? If the law had simply provided that in order to enter a city a railroad must pay not only for the private property taken, but for the public property — that is, the streets taken; that before taking a street a certain proportion of the owners of abutting land must consent, and that by going into court and ascertaining the amounts to be paid to the owners of private property and the amount to be paid to the public for the loss of the use of streets, and that by paying these sums the company could proceed with its work, would not the public be a great deal better off than now —


especially if the law futher provided that the corporation should for all time pay a certain per cent of its earnings into the treasury, as is now clone by the Illinois Central Railroad? Does the fact that a railway has to pay all the way from $50,000 to $100,000, or more, in cash to city aldermen, by way of blackmail for an ordinance permitting it to enter a city, help the people of the city? Take the matter of street railroads: In Ohio they have a law providing that one street railway may use a certain number of blocks, amounting to about half a mile, of the tracks of another street railway where necessary, by paving its proportion of the cost of such tracks. This prevents one company from getting control of the terminal facilities. Now, suppose we had such a law in Chicago, and that we had had a general law which simply provided that in order to build a street railroad you must get the consent of the owners of a majority of the frontage on any street, as is now the case, and that when you showed the Department of Public Works that you had that frontage, you were entitled to a permit to go on and build your road, and didn't need to go to the council at all — don't you suppose that instead of having one street railway in any great division of this city, there would have been half a dozen competing lines? And if we had had competing lines would not the fare long ago have been three cents? Did the fact that it was necessary to get an ordinance from the city council in order to build a street railway, help the people of Chicago any, or protect them in any regard? Nay, when one corporation got a line established, did not the very fact that it was difficult and very expensive to get an ordinance from the council prevent others from building street railways, and thus prevent competition? And if this is true, would it not have been better to have no council to pass upon matters of this kind?

Take the matter of gas. I believe this city should furnish its own light as it does its own water; still it has not done so in the past. If there had been a general law to the effect that by applying at the Department of Public Works any responsible party could, under general regulations, put down gas pipes and supply the people, would we not have had more competition and cheaper and better gas? What earthly good have the people of Chicago derived from the fact that it was necessary to get an ordinance from the council before anybody could furnish gas? If nothing were required of a corporation except that it should pay a certain per cent of its earnings into the treasury, would not that be better even than franchise-selling, which is now talked of?

Take the matter of improving streets, putting in sewer, or water. This is all done by special assessment. Why not provide, by general


law, that if the owners of a certain amount of the frontage on a street want a thing done, the Department of Public Works shall order it done, and make the assessment? What good does an ordinance by the council do in the matter? Perhaps it is true that for purposes of making appropriations there should be a board of, say, three or five men; for when it comes to levying taxes, slowness is not a fault." Possibly there should be a small board of three or five for the purpose of passing ordinances within a limited scope, but there is a serious question about this, for a general law can be so framed as to cover, substantially, everything that is now covered by ordinance. We want less machinery, but better law and better execution.

I wish to say of the council of this city, that there are men in it who are as able and as conscientious as any to be found. It is, perhaps, true that they have not been in the majority. If any one of them were to take charge of the whole business now done by the city council, it would be done much more expeditiously and more satisfactorily than it is possible to do it by sixty-odd men.

I have been unable to discover where any American city has derived any benefit from having a governmental body without whose consent no public enterprise could be carried on, and whose consent was so difficult to get that only those who had large sums to spend corruptly would attempt to get it.

Therefore, I say, to get thorough municipal administration, provide for doing as much as possible under general laws, and leave as little as possible to the discretion of officers. Second, have a separate officer, elected directly by the people, for each important post. Third, give all elective officers a reasonably long term, and make all ineligible to draw any salary from the public for a given period after holding an elective office. If any inspectors are needed for the public institutions, let them likewise be directly accountable to the people, and not be the creatures of the men who are interested in the running of the institutions. Fourth, do away with governing boards or councils with their division of responsibility, and have one man at the head of each department who feels that he is accountable to the people for the conduct of affairs. And while there would not be a perfect administration under such a regime (for nothing done by human hands is perfect), yet on account of the frequent house-cleaning, or office-cleaning, if you please, no abuse would have time to become hoary-headed, no favorite contractors or sly go-betweens could build up a ring for the spoliation of the public, no corruption could take any very deep root, and no negligence or brutality on the part of underlings could long exist before being swept out by the new broom.