Previous Academic Work
There is an abundance of scholarly work on the topic of professional management in cities. The majority of literature available on the council-manager form of government examines either its rise as a product of the reform movement in the United States or its advantages versus disadvantages as contrasted with the mayor-council form of government. The two areas of focus are linked by the fact that reformers of the late 19th and early 20th century promoted the creation of a city manager as a tool to improve the service of local governments. Inherent in reformers’ desire to professionalize public management and implement the tools of business administration in government is the belief that such a system of government (i.e. the council-manager form of government) is more efficient than the existing mayor-council form. The reformers hoped, and modern council-manager advocates believe, that separating the administrative duties of a city from the political process better serves the public.
The argument that the council-manager form of government produces better governance is not new. Reformers made the same arguments for increased accountability and efficiency around the turn of the twentieth century in response to the political bosses and party machines that ran city services. But whereas Progressive Movement reformers focused more on aspects of corruption, graft, and nepotism when attacking mayor-council systems, modern advocates for the council-manager form focus primarily on perceived increases to efficiency, accountability, (perceived) lower taxes, and equality in service delivery. However, the legacy of New York City’s Tammany Hall and Kansas City’s Pendergrast machine are not lost on strong-mayor opponents such as those in Sacramento who labeled the June 8th, 2010 vote to adopt mayor-council form of government the “Boss Mayor Initiative” (Democratic Party, 2010).
Several scholars have attempted to examine the claims that council-manager form of government produces better governance than the mayor-council system through quantitative analysis. These analyses seek to empirically test statements by council-manager proponents that link level of citizen satisfaction and municipal success with a particular form of government. Examples of these types of statements include the following from two of ICMA’s Executive Directors:
…Highly trained, appropriately educated, and experienced local government managers share a set of values, skills, and practices which… lead to the success and high quality of life the communities they serve (O’Neill, 2007).
The presence of a professional manager in 3,741 US communities has significantly improved service delivery and enhanced the effectiveness of local democracy (Hansell, 2000).
The vast majority of literature on council-manager form of government thus focuses on empirically testing the assumption of original reformers: that the council-manager form of government is the preferred form. Other examples of research that attempt to answer the normative question regarding form of government include studies on which form of government produces greater innovation (Franzel, 2005) and another on which form of government is more efficient based on police, fire, and trash coverage in relation to expenses (Hayes and Chang, 1990). Other strains of empirically based research not related to the question of efficiency focus on leadership roles in cities with mayors and managers (Morgan and Watson, 1992), and city size’s effect on the abandonment of council-manager form of government (Protasel, 1988).
Other important works on the subject of council-manager form of government view Progressive reforms through an American political development (APD) paradigm. The preeminent piece on council-manager APD is Amy Bridges’s Morning Glories: Municipal Reform in the Southwest (1997). Bridges presents the rise of council-manager form of government as a product of power struggles between ethnic and class divisions. She outlines how business interests, championed by affluent, Anglos (WASPs), rewrote the rules of politics under the veil of reform (e.g. city managers, the short ballot, the Australian ballot, at-large districts) to promote their prerogatives at the expense of ethnic minorities and the working-poor.
Bridges offers the most compressive examination of why cities adopt one form of government over another. However, her research does not include a statistical analysis of her data. She includes statistics on voter turnout, social characteristics (including income, education, and % foreign born), and ethnic composition to advance her argument for why big cities in the Southwest adopted council-manager forms of government, but she does not attempt any regression or advanced statistical analysis to identify which characteristics correlate best with each form of government. She quotes only one study that attempted to correlate characteristics with form of government: “[O]ne can do a much better job of predicting a city’s political forms by knowing what part of the country it is in than by knowing anything about the composition of the population” (Wolfinger and Field, 1966 in Bridges, 1997).
Of all the literature I reviewed, only one journal article systematically addressed whether socioeconomic characteristics of municipalities partly determine their forms of government (Schnore and Alford, 1963). However, this study intentionally focused only on suburban communities. Schnore and Alford tested theoretical assumptions (such as those identified by Bridges) regarding why one community adopted council-manager form of government while others did not. For example, Adrian generalized in a prior study that “the upper-middle class suburbs which are the homes of metropolitan businessmen are characteristically administered by a manager” (Alford, 1955). The authors found, among other things, that suburbs with council-manager forms of government have smaller percentages of minority populations, higher percentages of white collar workers, higher percentages of high school educated citizens, and a greater median family income. Suburban communities under the council-manager form of government also experienced greater rates of growth (1950-60), a higher average percentage of home ownership, and a smaller percentage of elderly residents. Schnore and Alford’s findings are limited by the fact that they only provide median scores and not regression analysis of the socioeconomic characteristics. Therefore, the literature contains mostly general observations about the differences between council-manager and mayor-council cities (e.g. “Cities with a manager have a higher average median household income”). But the question of whether socioeconomic, regional, or demographic characteristics affect the likelihood of a city having a particular form of government the other remains unanswered.