COMMISSION GOVERNMENT. Commission government is a form of municipal government that vests all legislative and executive authority in a small board of commissioners. Elected at large, each commissioner is responsible for the administration of one branch of municipal business, such as public safety, public works, and finance.
The scheme arose out of a natural disaster in Galveston, Texas. In September 1900 a hurricane and tidal surge devastated the island city, and as an emergency measure Texas's governor appointed five leading citizens to oversee the prostrate community. The following year a permanent five-person elected commission took charge and became a model for other cities. In 1905 near by Houston adopted commission rule, as did Dallas and Fort Worth two years later. By the close of 1914, 383 cities were in the commission fold, including such major municipalities as Des Moines, Memphis, New Orleans, Jersey City, and St. Paul. Appealing especially to business leaders, the commission plan seemed to maximize accountability by concentrating authority in a small board and to offer more efficient government with less participation by plebeian ward politicians.
After 1914, however, reformers turned from the commission plan to city manager rule. Elected commissioners did not necessarily have the expertise to administer city services, and under the commission plan there was no single, dominant figure capable of providing unified direction to city government. By vesting executive authority in a single expert administrator, the manager plan avoided these shortcomings. At the close of the twentieth century, the overwhelming majority of cities had rejected commission rule, including most that had once employed it. Responses from 4,555 municipalities to a 1996 survey showed only 66 cities with commission government.
Rice, Bradley R. Progressive Cities: The Commission Government Movement in America, 1901–1920. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1977.
Woodruff, Clinton Rogers, ed. City Government by Commission. New York: Appleton, 1911.