The English tradition of incorporating urban units (cities, boroughs, villages, towns) and allowing them freedom in most local matters is general in the United States (see city; local government). The traditional U.S. city government had a mayor and council, whose members (aldermen) represented districts (wards). As the complexity of urban life increased in the 19th cent., the old system became less efficient: problems included overlapping of old offices with new, poor methods of accounting and taxation, and much blatant graft.
From these abuses arose movements for municipal reform, which have become a recurrent feature of American political life. They have familiarized Americans with a gallery of such political figures as William M. Tweed of New York City, Frank Hague of Jersey City, and William Hale Thompson of Chicago (see bossism). Although the urban political machine has, in most cities, lost its former power, the traditional type of city government, also known as the independent executive type, remains the most common urban governmental form. It is often subdivided into the strong mayor type (e.g., New York City) and the weak mayor–strong council type (e.g., Los Angeles).
Reform efforts have resulted in the development of two fairly widespread alternative governmental types. The commission form has a board, both legislative and administrative, usually elected nonpartisan and at large. First adopted by Galveston, Tex. (1901), this system achieved great popularity in the early 1900s, but many cities (e.g., Buffalo and New Orleans) later abandoned it. The city manager plan gives the administration to one professional nonpolitical director. The system has gained in popularity; notable examples are in Staunton, Va., the first (1908) to adopt it, and Cincinnati, Ohio.
A perennial problem of U.S. urban government is the division of urban areas among several independent city governments, survivals of old separate communities. The Eastern metropolises all provide examples, aggravated in some (e.g., New York City and Philadelphia), where state lines run through the heart of the metropolitan area. Attempts at efficiency have produced such organizations as the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, a corporation set up by joint action of New York state and New Jersey, and assigned specific powers formerly held by local governments. Another problem besetting city government is the migration of middle-class families to the suburban areas, thus shrinking the tax base and financial resources of the cities.
In the rest of the English-speaking world and wherever else there is much local self-government, American forms and problems are paralleled. Elsewhere, as typically in France, the local officers, albeit elected mayor and councillors, are largely figureheads, serving mainly to carry out the regulations of the central bureaucracy.
See C. R. Adrian, Governing Urban America (4th ed. 1972). W. A. Robson and D. E. Regan, ed., Great Cities of the World (2 vol., 1972); M. David, Running City Hall (1982); C. R. Adrian, A History of American City Government: The Emergence of the Metropolis, 1920–1945 (1988); R. Suarez, The Old Neighborhood (1999).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
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