Municipal Reform

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MUNICIPAL REFORM refers to changes in city governments made to encourage greater efficiency, honesty, and responsiveness. Although municipal governments have been in flux since their creation, the greatest era of municipal reform came in the late 1800s and early 1900s. In this era, many city residents, particularly middle-class businessmen, organized against the corruption and inefficiency that they thought plagued their cities. This movement was particularly strong in cities controlled by political machines, the undemocratic and corrupt arrangements through which bosses could profit by controlling city governments.

In 1894 urban professionals interested in improving municipal governance formed the National Municipal League, designed to promote the creation of more efficient city administrations. The Municipal League and other supporters of good government, derisively called "goo-goos" by those who found them patrician or naive, encouraged a national dialogue on city governance, supported appropriate reforms, and encouraged the development of better governmental systems.

In many cities municipal reformers made significant changes. Reform mayors in several cities provided good alternatives to the corrupt machines, including Hazen Pingree in Detroit, who served from 1890 to 1897, and Tom Johnson in Cleveland, who served from 1901 to 1909. Reformers sought improvements in city services, particularly through the reform of contracts or through the development of city-owned services. Pingree, for example, led successful fights to reform the city's relationship with the Detroit City Railway Company and the Detroit Gas Company. These reforms, and others like them around the nation, both improved services and decreased costs to residents.

Reformers also struggled for permanent structural changes in city government. In an attempt to impede machine control of city council, reformers devised a number of changes. Some cities adopted at-large voting for council members, decreasing the possibility that a machine controlling some city wards could control the entire council. This reform may have hindered the revival of machines in some cities, but it certainly impeded the growth of minority representation in many others, as African Americans had difficulty electing black representatives in citywide elections. Most cities adopted extensive civil service requirements for municipal jobs, with some positions requiring specific education or experience and others requiring acceptable scores on qualifying exams. These changes diminished the ability of bosses to distribute government jobs to cronies, while simultaneously encouraging the development of a more professional bureaucracy.

Business leaders pushed for even more dramatic reforms in some cities, most famously in Galveston, Texas, which struggled to recover from a hurricane in 1900. In the wake of the storm, the city developed a five-member commission that held legislative and administrative powers, all in an effort to improve city responsiveness. Other cities, finding government unnecessarily politicized, adopted a city manager system, in which a nonelected official took responsibility for day-to-day operations of city departments.

While the heyday of municipal reform passed in the 1920s, reformism never ended. Beginning in the 1960s, for example, African Americans lobbied for changes in electoral rules that would lead to better representation on city councils. Other municipalities have worked to recreate strong mayor positions with the power to take quick action to improve the city's performance vis-á-vis growing suburbs.


Fox, Kenneth. Better City Government: Innovation in American Urban Politics, 1850–1937. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1977.

Schiesl, Martin J. The Politics of Efficiency: Municipal Administration and Reform in America: 1880–1920. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977.


See alsoMunicipal Government .