Reorganization of City Government

May 25, 1939

Report Outline
Evolution of American City Government
Recent Trends in Reform of City Government
Experience Under City Manager Government
Special Focus

Evolution of American City Government

Steady Increase in Mayor's Powers After Revolution

The history of city government in the United States has been marked by unceasing experimentation with different forms of municipal organization. In contrast to experience in many European countries, where the forma of municipal government have remained largely unchanged for a century or more, hundreds of American cities, searching for methods of improving the administration of expanding public services, have made repeated changes in the structure of their governments.

From colonial days until after the Civil War, the prevailing type of government in American cities was the limited-executive or weak mayor-council plan. Reflecting the colonists' fears of executive domination——the result of experience with royal governors——the limited-executive system at first consisted of an elective city council and a mayor chosen by the councilmen. The mayor presided over the council, but he had no veto and usually no vote. He could summon council meetings and propose business, but he had no administrative powers, these being concentrated in the hands of the council.

After the establishment of the federal government, with power divided equally between the legislative, executive, judicial branches, the theory of legislative supremacy in city government began to be abandoned in favor of the federal plan of coordinate powers. As a result, the office of mayor increased in importance. Only four out of the 17 colonial cities had had an elective mayor, but after Nashville adopted the plan in 1806 there was a slow growth of the elective mayor system until 1834, when it was adopted by New York City. By 1850, it had become the established system in the United States.

ISSUE TRACKER for Related Reports
State and Local Governments
Feb. 26, 2021  State Finances
Sep. 11, 2009  State Budget Crisis
Oct. 03, 2003  State Budget Crises
Dec. 24, 1971  State Legislatures in Transition
Sep. 25, 1968  State Constitutional Reform
Oct. 11, 1967  Local Government Modernization
Aug. 15, 1956  Metropolitan Government
May 25, 1939  Reorganization of City Government
Feb. 24, 1939  Reorganization of County Government
May 23, 1938  Reorganization of State Governments
Oct. 29, 1937  State Control of Local Government
Sep. 01, 1936  Consolidation of Local Governments
Jan. 03, 1933  Reorganization of Local Government
Jun. 02, 1930  Changes in American City Government
Oct. 30, 1924  Political Statistics of the States
State, Local, and Intergovernmental Relations