Overview of Theory
In this section, I outline the prevailing theories and generalizations regarding which and how different city characteristics influence the adoption of council-manager form of government. These stereotypes of council-manager form of government (e.g. the claim that council-manager form of government is best suited for small-mid sized cities) may have been more applicable in the early years of the reform movement but are still found in today’s literature. Each of the generalizations is essentially a testable hypothesis, of which, unfortunately, few tests exist.
It is impossible to examine the rise of city managers – or any aspect of the American polity for that matter – without accounting for the politics of race. The Progressive movement is married to the unfortunate legacy of racism, eugenics, and nativism through the reform tools of voter registration, literary tests, extended residency requirements and poll taxes (Bridges, 1997, p. 8). As Banfield and Wilson (in Bridges, 1997, p.8) stated:
Making local government ‘businesslike’ meant ‘getting rid of politics,’ which in turn meant curtailing the representation of low-status minorities. In its early years the [council-manager] plan appealed to a good many people as a convenient means of putting the Catholics, the Irish, the Italians, the labor unions, and all other ‘underdogs’ in their places. (Banfield and Wilson, 1966, p. 171)
Other scholars also address differences in ethnic demographics in one form of government compared to the other. Morone wrote that the Reformers envisioned an “idealized civilization” that was suspicious of, if not outright hostile towards, immigrants, populist farmers, blacks, and poor whites (Morone, 1998, p. 114). However such sentiments may have been a reaction to the disproportional political power that ethnic minorities wielded under the spoils system.
[These] new immigrants needed help getting settled. They naturally got much help from ethnic neighborhoods, where, for example, a family from Poland would find people who spoke Polish, restaurants that served Polish food, and stores and churches with links to the old country. Politicians dealt with these ethnic neighborhoods. If the neighborhood voted to provide victory for particular candidates for mayor and city council, then jobs and services would be provided. Political machines were built on these quid pro quo arrangements. The bosses of those machines were either elected officials or people who controlled the elected officials (O’Conner and Sabato, 1997, p.133 in Franzel, 2005).
In addition to centralizing control of New York’s political machine and plundering the public coffers, Boss Tweed built patriarchal schools, orphanages, and hospitals with government “donations.” “Of this money, nearly three quarters went to Catholic institutions at a time of widespread anti-Catholic feeling” (Bridges, 1997, p. 93).
Progressives advocated for new political rules that guaranteed their descriptive representation rather than the substantive representation Tweed and other politicians used to build diverse ethnic coalitions. These reformers found their greatest success in the Southwestern United States where they held larger majorities and the existing political machines were newer and weaker than those established in the Northeast.
Ethnic Composition of Selected Cities in 1960
% Foreign Born
San Diego 7.0%
New Haven 13.2%
New York 20.0%
Sources: Bridges, Amy. Morning Glories: Municipal Reform in the Southwest. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997.
Using the same 1960 U.S. Bureau of Census data as Bridges, Schnore and Alford examine ethnic demographic differences between the three forms of government in 300 American suburbs:
Ethnic Composition of Suburbs by Form of Government
% Foreign Born Nonwhite
Council-Manager 8.0% 4.3%
Mayor-Council 9.3% 5.1%
Commission 9.5% 10.3%
Sources: Schnore, Leo F. and Robert A. Alford, “Forms of Government and Socioeconomic Characteristics of Suburbs.” Administrative Science Quarterly, Vol. 8, No. 1 (June 1963): pp. 12.
These socioeconomic differences were further exacerbated by the restrictive voting practices placed on minorities. Because of poll taxes, literary tests (especially in Arizona and Texas), and early required registration, reformed big cities of the Southwest had substantially less election turnout than the machine cities of the Northeast. Voter turnout in the council-manager form of government cities of Phoenix, Albuquerque, and Dallas averaged below 20 percent of voting adults between 1946 to 1963 while the mayor-council, strong machine, cities: New York, Chicago, and New Haven averaged 43.6 percent, 54.3 percent, and 57.3 respectively (Bridges, 1997, p. 132). Nonpartisan elections – a staple of reformed cities – also served to depress turnout.
Further, where there was lower turnout, those that did vote were almost uniformly homogeneous in their political views and socioeconomic characteristics. Rosenstone and Hansen demonstrated that literary tests reduced the probability African-Americans would vote by 16 percent, poll taxes reduced that number by 10.2 percent, and periodic registration by 11.6 vis-à-vis participation in Presidential elections between 1956 through 1988 (Rosenstone and Hansen, 1993, p. 54). Bridges found that these voting discrepancies lead to less competitive races in council-manager cities in which affluent residents could essentially dictate the political agenda. For example, although Austin’s affluent represented only 15 percent of total population in 1960, they equaled 26.8 percent of those that turned out to vote, and they voted overwhelming for the winning candidate (70 percent) (Bridges, 1997, p. 146).
It’s important to understand the racial demographics of early council-manager cities because, as a referendum item, the issue of adopting council-manager form of government required support from the voting population. Cities that were more heterogeneous, especially in their voting behavior, were more likely to have council-manager forms of government.
Council-manager form of government is associated primarily with small to medium sized cities. This association probably originated from the fact that the National Municipal League originally recommended the form explicitly for cities under 100,000 with the caveat that it may also be appropriate for larger cities. The association has stuck (see Protasel, 1988). Smaller and newer cities that sprung up in the Southwest, by virtue of their infancy, had less established political machines and served as incubators for the Progressives reforms. However, growth in the Sunbelt states over the past century turned Western frontier towns like Phoenix (1900 population: 5,544) into thriving metropolises rivaling the cities of the East (2000 population: 1,567,294) (US Census). Still, as late as 1994, political scientists claimed that the council-manager form of government is “rarely instituted in the big cities” (Judd and Swanson, 1994, p. 97). The council-manager form of government is, as a proportion of forms of government, the more likely form of government in cities under 250,000 but today, it exists in cities of all sizes.
Percentage of Municipalities with Council-Manager Form of Government by Population (or Over) in Thousands (2009)
5+ 25+ 50+ 100+ 250+ 500+ 1,000+ (thousands)
Council-Manager 53% 63% 62% 58% 40% 31% 33%
Mayor-Council 39% 34% 36% 40% 57% 66% 66%
Commission 2% 2% 1% 2% 3% 3% 0%
Sources: ICMA, The Municipal Yearbook, 2009 (Washington, DC)
Business interests also play a prominent role in the political development of council-manager cities. Scholars have called council-manager cities “the habitat of the upper middle class” (Protasel, 1988) Many business leaders, believing that the council-manager form of government created a more favorable environment to do business, founded civic groups to promote the form’s adoption. The National Municipal Review endorsed this connection writing, “the purpose of enlightened municipal government is to make a city a safe place in which to do business” (Toulmin, 1917, in Bridges, 1997).
In one extreme example, Beaufort, South Carolina, local businessmen paid half the city manager’s salary (Weinstein, 1962). The very structure of the council-manager form of government makes comparisons to business inevitable. Within the council-manager form, the council acts as a board of directors and hires a chief executive officer (i.e. the city manager) to administer the city’s business, which in council-manager cities, according to Bridges, meant ensuring fiscal frugality, requiring efficiency, providing infrastructure and policies that promote growth, and lowering taxes (Bridges, 1997, p. 52). Intentionally absent from Bridges’s list are values associated with supporting the poor, proving welfare, or guaranteeing rights. This trade off was not lost on Socialists, Democrats, and Prohibitionists who opposed the council-manager plan in Dayton, Ohio (the first city of substantive size to adopt the form). Together, those groups produced and issued a pamphlet entitled Dayton’s Commission Manager Plan: Why Big Manufactures, Bond Holders, and Public Franchise Grabbers Favor It, and Workingmen and Common People Oppose (Weinstein, 1962).
Schnore and Alford’s demographic study seems to support this theory. They found that council-manager suburban communities tended to be on average more affluent, educated, professionalized, and white. These characteristics may have been or may currently be self-reinforcing:
“Migration patterns have reinforced the effects of this ideolocial realignment. Americans, especially relatively affluent, college-educated Americans, are increasingly choosing where to live on the basis of lifestyle preferences that are strongly related to political attitudes.” (Abramowitz, 2010)
Socieoeconomic Characterics of Sububan Communities by Form of Government (1960)
Commission Mayor-Council Council-Manager
In White-Collar Occupations 47.4% 48.2% 55.6%
Completed High School 42.1% 45.6% 56.0%
Dwelling Occupied by Owner 56.9% 64.7% 65.7%
Moved Since 1958 19.6% 19.6% 25.5%
Median family income $6816 $7379 $7977
Source: Schnore, Leo F. and Robert A. Alford, “Forms of Government and Socioeconomic Characteristics of Suburbs.” Administrative Science Quarterly, Vol. 8, No. 1 (June 1963): pp. 12.