CITY COUNCILS are the chief legislative bodies of municipalities and have been features of American city government since the colonial era. Although in most colonial municipal corporations the electorate chose the councilors, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Norfolk and Williamsburg, Virginia, the life-tenure council members filled any vacancies owing to death or resignation. The citizenry had no voice in the selection process. This practice of cooption, however, did not survive the revolutionary era, and from the 1790s on the enfranchised citizenry elected council members in cities throughout the United States.
During the nineteenth century, a growing number of Americans became disenchanted with city councils. Elected by wards, council members represented neighborhood interests and often seemed indifferent to the needs of the city as a whole. Moreover, they reflected the social composition of their wards. Working-class wards elected saloonkeepers, grocers, or livery stable owners who were popular in the neighborhood. To the urban elite, these plebeian councilors hardly seemed worthy of a major voice in city government. Widespread rumors of corruption further damaged the reputations of council members. The city councils were responsible for awarding valuable franchises for streetcar, gas, telephone, and electric services, and thus council members had ample opportunity to secure lucrative bribes. New York City's aldermen were dubbed the "Forty Thieves," and a corrupt pack of Chicago council members were known as the "Gray Wolves."
To curb the power of the socially undistinguished and sometimes corrupt councils, reformers shifted responsibility for an increasing number of functions to independent commissions. Park boards and library commissions, for example, relieved the city councils of responsibility for recreation and reading. In the 1870s, a board of estimate composed primarily of executive officers assumed charge of New York City's finances, thus reducing the city council to a relatively minor element in the government of the nation's largest metropolis. Meanwhile, mayoral authority increased at the expense of the city council. During the nineteenth century, mayors acquired the power to veto council actions. By the end of the century, some city charters no longer required council confirmation of mayoral appointments.
In the early twentieth century, good-government reformers continued to target city councils. The reform ideal was a small, nonpartisan council of seven or nine members elected at large, and an increasing number of city charters provided for such bodies. In 1901, Galveston, Texas, introduced the commission plan that eliminated the city council altogether, substituting a small board of commissioners that exercised all legislative and executive authority. During the first two decades of the twentieth century, hundreds of cities throughout the United States adopted this scheme, but by the 1920s, it had fallen out of fashion, replaced on the reform agenda by the city manager plan. This plan made the city council responsible for determining basic municipal policy, and an expert manager hired by the council was in charge of administration. At the close of the twentieth century, the city manager plan was the most common form of municipal government in the United States.
Shaw, Frederick. The History of the New York City Legislature. New York: Columbia University Press, 1954.
Teaford, Jon C. The Unheralded Triumph: City Government in America, 1870–1900. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984.
City Hall ★★★ 1995 (R)
Investigating the deaths of a heroic cop, a drug dealer, and sixyear old boy in a shootout, idealistic deputy mayor Cusack uncovers a web of corruption and deceit in the Big Apple. Pacino excels as charismatic mayor John Pappas by showing the crafty stringpuller behind the glossy image of the modern politico. Supporting cast is also strong, including Aiello as a Rodgers and Hammersteinloving Brooklyn boss, and Fonda as the police union lawyer and standard issue love interest. Screenplay was conceived by Ken Lipper, who was once deputy mayor under Ed Koch, but the involvement of three other scripters causes confusion over what type of picture it's aiming to be. Cashstrapped New York rented its actual city hall out for filming at a price of $50,000. 111m/C VHS, DVD . Al Pacino, John Cusack, Bridget Fonda, Danny Aiello, David Paymer, Martin Landau, Anthony (Tony) Franciosa, Lindsay Duncan, Nestor Serrano, Mel Winkler, Richard Schiff; D: Harold Becker; W: Paul Schrader, Nicholas Pileggi, Bo Goldman, Ken Lipper; C: Michael Seresin; M: Jerry Goldsmith.