In 1888 Lord Bryce wrote that “the government of cities is the one conspicuous failure of the United States.” Thirty-three years later he spoke of the council-manager form of local government, which had evolved in the meantime, as “the latest word in municipal reform,” Fundamental changes which had been going on in the organization of American city government since 1900 required the author of The American Commonwealth to revise his earlier indictment. Precipitated by the disastrous Galveston flood, the commission plan of city government had risen and flourished during the first decade of the new century. After 1910 the city-manager plan made rapid pains at the expense of other forms. The rise and decline of the commission and the development of the manager plan in 410 cities may be better understood if the municipal executive is viewed in historical perspective.
Evolution of the Municipal Executive
In its beginnings in America the office of mayor was modeled on its English prototype. The mayor of the colonial borough was usually appointed by the governor, as in New York, or chosen by the aldermen and councilmen from among the aldermen, as in Philadelphia. In the latter city, for example, the colonial mayor held office for one year, received no salary at first, and was usually reappointed, subject to removal by the aldermen and councilmen for misconduct. Refusal to serve made him liable to a fine which some appointees preferred to pay.
The mayor presided over the common council, but had no veto power, nor, in Philadelphia, a vote. He could summon council meetings and propose business, but had few administrative functions. He sometimes presided in the borough court and sat as a magistrate with jurisdiction over minor offenses. Legislative, executive, and judicial powers were thus combined in the colonial mayor and councils.