Galveston: A Business Corporation
GEORGE KIBBE TURNER
In Galveston they have the latest development of municipal government. They have a commission of five men, who carry on the affairs of the city just as directors carry on the affairs of a big business. Both the ward system and the system of alderman at large had been tried in Galveston but with the usual unfortunate results. The new system has made Galveston strong and prosperous.
FIVE men about a long table— a president and four managers of departments—govern
the city of Galveston, Texas. This board is now five years old. It is probably the most direct and simple city government in the world. More than that: it is a revolution in local government in America; for it is organized on entirely new lines— the lines of a business corporation. Till now we have assured ourselves: “A city is a business corporation”— and run it with a legislature.
The Galveston Commission government has not only been a startling success in that city, but it is being adopted with great rapidity throughout the Southwest. The two largest cities in Texas have already taken it up, and within two years it is believed that every city of consequence in the State will have done so. From these—if its success continue—it must find its way north to the region of great cities.
The new idea was born of a tremendous disaster. On the 8th of September, 1900, the Great Storm came down on Galveston, and all but tore her from the map. One sixth of the population were drowned, one third of the property was destroyed in a night. The municipality itself was ruined—paved streets washed away, lights blown down, city buildings wrecked. And worse than all there was no money. Taxpayers—the great majority of them— could not pay their taxes then. The credit of the city was gone. Her bonds went down at once to sixty.
Yet millions must be spent in public works to keep tne city in existence. Thousands of people were hurrying away. To retain her population the city must have the assurance of protection from a repetition of the disaster.
Those were the days when good government was no pretty theory in Galveston. It was a great serious desire. The community loomed big; the individual seemed very small. For the community was the only hope. Unless it could reorganize and go on, the individual was ruined. There was in the city a body known as the Deepwater Committee, formed to secure national appropriations for deepening the city’s harbor. Its fifteen members are believed to have represented, in one way or another, nearly half the property of the place. Without delay, although it had never before concerned itself with municipal matters, this organization took affairs into its own hands. It planned ways and means of raising money, of satisfying creditors, of building public works, and it especially considered the formation of some agency to take over the management of the ruined city—a strong responsible, centralized city government which would, really govern. Now there were two systems which the city would certainly not adopt. She had tried them and found them wretched failures. The first was government by a mayor and ward alderman; the second was governed by a mayor and a board of aldermen elected at large.
Galveston inherited, together with the other cities of the United States, the usual system of dividing its territory into artificial districts, each of which elected its representatives in the city council. Until 18-95 the was ruled by the ward aldermen, who constituted by far the strongest branch of her government. It was impossible to elect really representative men to this body. Its members represented, not the city, but the ward; and the ward, in the great majority of cases could be almost certainly manipulated by the worst type of politicians. The aldermen had the distribution of the patronage and improvements. They divided them among their wards. Each alderman had the naming of his own election officers. The ward alderman had Galveston, as he has most American cities, securely organized. It was a disgrace, but it could not be corrected. Citizens went about their own business and disregarded it.
In 1893 Dr. A. W. Fly, a big, aggressive, popular physician, was elected mayor of Galveston. The city council was then, and had been for several years, in the control of the Eleven. This assortment was made up as follows : one saloonkeeper, one bar-tender, one drayman, two wharf laborers, one negro politician, one journeyman printer, one retail butcher, one retail grocer, one curbstone real-estate broker, one political agent for a railroad which never existed except on paper. War started immediately between the mayor and his aggregation. The Eleven overrode more than thirty vetos of the mayor in two years. The mayor, on his part, decided in 1894 to have an examination of the city’s books. Being refused an appropriation for
this by the Eleven, he paid for the work out of his own pocket.
It took four bookkeepers four months to unsnarl the thing. The whole system was honeycombed; the city had been exploited right and left. But far more astonishing than that was the absolute barbaric crudeness of the affair. The losses from a defaulting ex-collector had been wiped off the books of an ex-auditor with a great daub of ink; the acting collector was calmly withholding thousands of dollars. The Eleven were giving all the city contracts to one contractor, and were frankly getting his endorsement on notes which they did not pay. These peculiar creatures, secure within the protection of the imaginary lines which made them, did not even trouble themselves to steal in a quiet and businesslike way. They battened openly on the city. If they had been less hungry or more intelligent, they would have fared better and gone farther. As it was, regardless of investigations, they had destroyed themselves. The citizens were refusing to pay taxes. The aldermen and their friends did not do so; then why should any one ? Government cannot well continue without taxes. The rule of the ward aldermen was coming to a standstill-after having brought the affairs of the city into chaos.
There have been two plans of procedure commonly adopted, in America, under such circumstances. One kindly, but pathetically ineffective— has been to try, to elevate the ward aldermen. The other, growing in popularity for fifty years, has been to take all power from him and leave him a shadow. This movement has gone furthest in New York, where in the last ten years the ward alderman has been so robbed of his
vitality that little now remains but to put him out of his pain. Galveston did neither of these things. She neither attempted to evangelize the ward alderman, nor to destroy the creature and retain the name. She merely went to the State legislature and put out of existence this Frankenstein monster which she had created with her own hands to pursue her.
From 1895 to 1901 Galveston was under another system—a mayor and a board of aldermen selected at large. She might be said to have had the usual type of American city government, reduced to its simplest form. She had escaped the viciousness of ward politics, but she retained exactly the same old machinery of operation. Imagine a business in which every matter to be considered goes first to a committee of three or five, then to a body of from twelve to two hundred, then at last to a single independent head for approval or disapproval—never once on its journey feeling the vital touch of a responsible hand, or the illumination of an expert mind. How long would a body of this kind exist in competition with the savage personal selfinterest which drives the corporation of to-day ■? Yet that is city government—whose daily business brings it into relation with the sharpest and most unscrupulous elements in the business world. Is the present general hopelessness and indifference toward civic affairs fairly a surprise under the circumstances ? Can anything come out of such machinery but failure and disgust ? The interest in Galveston, stimulated by the reform of 1895, continually died down, both on the side of the public and the office-holder; but, in the meantime, the sharp interest of the politicians remained. In 1899 a ma-
chine mayor was elected, and the better element had the greatest difficulty in electing a bare majority of the aldermen. It was this government which broke down under the strain of the Storm—offering the melancholy spectacle of a chief administrative body in a tremendous crisis, with its two branches in open hostility.
After the Storm this body arrived nowhere. At first it made a few feeble moves, some of which proved most unfortunate in a business way. it was advised by one of its members to resign, but it would not even do that. It merely talked loudly and vociferously. The public disregarded it entirely. They looked first and always to the Deepwater Committee—a body without any delegated authority whatever. The people of San Francisco did a similar thing after the earthquake, and those of Memphis after the scourge of yellow fever in 1878. In the white flash of great calamity the population of cities sees with perfect clearness the inadequacy of the old machinery of city government in the United States. It is useless when we need it most.
The Deepwater Committee met nightly, discussing the community’s affairs. They viewed Galveston, not as a city at all, but a great ruined business. What agency should be selected to reorganize it ? Obviously, no mayor and aldermen : not with the memory of the past : not with that pitiful, chattering thing before them as an object lesson! The matter was not to be considered. But about a month after the storm the present commission government was suggested. Within ten minutes the idea was approved and adopted, and a committee chosen to formulate it. R. Waverly Smith, a former
city attorney who suggested the idea, was chosen cnairman. Two other lawyers—Farrell D. Miner and ex-Congressman Walter Gresham — acted with him.
There were hints for the Galveston government in the commissions of Washington and Memphis, Tennessee, but' they were little more than hints. For the important feature of the system the committee drew straight from modern business practice. Now, there can be no doubt of the splendid, brutal vitality of the great business organization. The whole earth is filled with it. We cannot escape its compulsion — eating or drinking, getting up or lying down. The problem of the charter committee was to inspire with the force of this strong, live thing, the moribund institution of city government. But where does this great driving force of the modern business corporation come from ? From personality. The corporation succeeds because it has harnessed to its use the ambition and interest of strong men, by placing upon them individual responsibility and authority. The Galveston committee, in the same way, brought into the impersonal, perfunctory operations of city government, the same power of personal interest and ambition — stimulated, not by any empty political preferment, but by the satisfaction of a fine and important public service.
The Galveston Commission is a body of five men—a mayor or generat manager, and four managers of particular departments. All power resides in the commission. A majority vote of the body is final. The mayor is presiding officer and general director of the affairs of the city, but he has no power beyond his vote as commissioner, except some minor abilities to.act in case of emergency.
The commissioners must also come to the board for all power to act. The commission, at its first meeting, divides its departments among its members by vote, under these four heads : commissioner of finance and revenue, police and fire commissioner, commissioner of streets and public property, and water works and sewerage commissioner. The mayor is elected specifically for his office, but the commissioners are not. But, though the division of departments is under the charge of the board, the public are practically certain, when they cast their votes, of the office each man will assume. In fact, the men who now serve were chosen because of special fitness for their work. The elections to the board are, of course, at large, and the whole body is elected together every two years—the election taking place in May, a time as far removed as possible from the time of other elections.
You must understand exactly the function of these commissioners, for this is very important. They are not superintendents in any sense — although they are salaried men, the mayor receiving $2,00lT and each commissioner $1,200 a year; they are governors or managers of departments. First of all, each represents his department in the board. They outline its policy there as specialists in its affairs, and all questions concerning it are referred to them for their opinion. All matters of the daily conduct of their departments are under their supervision. They are in much the same position to the city that the British ministry is to the affairs of England. Their superintendents under them take the management of the routine. They simply advise and direct. The work, consequently, in all but the largest cities.
will not be so great but that it can be undertaken by most business men. Varied amounts of time will, of course, be given it, according to the temperament of the individual in charge, but the daily average need not be large. As a matter of fact, the Galveston commissioners give it more time than they would if they were not so actively interested in their work.
It is a wide-spread belief—and one of the most hopeless beliefs in the current pessimism concerning city government—that strong and representative men can never again be had for the service of cities. There is an ample supply for the management of libraries and hospitals and boards of trade, but none for the vastly more important work of city government. Galveston has contradicted this skepticism successfully. Her commissioners came into her service, it is true, under the pressure of a great calamity; but they still remain, and from present appearances they will continue some years longer. Their work interests them; it has become their hobby, as the libraries and hospitals and parks have their thousands of wealthy and successful men throughout the country. The change in the form of government has made this possible. In Galveston, where the office of alder -man was a street joke or a disgrace, the office of commissioner is a high honor, and an absorbing personal interest for its holder.
This is the class of men who do the city business of Galveston : the first mayor-president was Judge W. T. Austin, for years one of the leading attorneys of the city. His death, in the Fall of 1905, made the first and only change in the commission up to date. He was succeeded by Henry A. Landes, a veteran whole-
sale merchant, with wide and varied interests in local business affairs. I. H. Kempner, the commissioner of finance, is perhaps the most promising young business man in the city— a banker and active manager of large business interests. Previous to his election he was for two years city treasurer. H. C. Lange, the water works and sewerage commissioner, is an active partner in a prosperous wholesale house. Before becoming commissioner he was for a number of years a member of the subsidiary board which managed the routine of the water department under the aldermen. V. E. Austin, commissioner of streets and public property, is a successful real estate dealer. A. P. Norman, police and fire commissioner, is the secretary and treasurer of a live stock concern, and has seen previous service as alderman. The first two men are wealthy, the third in more than comfortable circumstances, and the last two of moderate means. They are all good, clean, representative men. Galveston has at last a really representative government.
The Galveston commission government began in September, 1901. Under their installation, its members immediately reorganized the official force of the city. The salaries were not large, but they secured an excellent corpsof officers. Albert Ferner, the expert accountant who unearthed the scandal of the city’s books in 1894, was made city auditor. Dr. C. W. Trueheart, a veteran physician with a life-long enthusiasm for proper sanitary regulation, was chosen health physician. John T. Rowan, one of the cleanest and bravest men on the police force, was put at its head. Throughout all the departments the best available men were selected with as much care as
for a private corporation. This force still remains intact. Together with the commissioners, whose board has been broken only by the death of Mayor Austin, they form an administration as continuous as that of any business concern. Galveston, in-
stead of changing managers every two years, has been governed by trained and experienced men. This government has now served five years. It has ceased to be an experiment. It has had ample time to prove itself.