city government

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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.

Jon C.Teaford

See alsoCity Manager Plan ; Municipal Government ; Municipal Reform .

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local government, political administration of the smallest subdivisions of a country's territory and population.

Characteristics and Types

Although there are special-purpose local government bodies (e.g., school boards in the United States), more important are those that carry out a broad range of public activities within a defined area and population. Almost all such local government bodies share certain characteristics: a continuing organization; the authority to undertake public activities; the ability to enter into contracts; the right to sue and be sued; and the ability to collect taxes and determine a budget. Areas of local government authority usually include public schools, local highways, municipal services, and some aspects of social welfare and public order. An important distinction among types of local government is that between representative bodies, which are elected locally and have decision-making authority, and nonrepresentative bodies, which are either appointed from above or, if elected locally, have no independent governing authority. While most countries have complex systems of local government, those of France and Great Britain have served as models for much of the rest of the world.

The French System

The French system is among the most nonrepresentative. Its basic structure, codified by Napoleon I, developed out of the need of revolutionary France to curtail the power of local notables, while hastening government reform. It stresses clear lines of authority, reaching from the central government's ministry of the interior through the centrally appointed prefect of the department to the municipality, which has a locally elected mayor and municipal council. The prefect, being both the chief executive of the department and the representative of the central bureaucracy, provides the channel of centralization, with wide authority to overrule local councils and supervise local expenditures. Variants of this system are found throughout Europe and in former French colonies.

The British System

The British system of local government, which has been the model for most of that country's former colonies, including the United States, is the most representative of the major types. Largely reformed in the 19th cent. and extensively restructured in the 1970s, the system stresses local government autonomy through elected councils on the county and subcounty levels. This system was marked by less central government interference and greater local budgetary authority than in other systems. However, in 1986, six major county governments were abolished by Parliament, while the powers of others were restricted. A special feature of the British system is its use of an extensive committee system, instead of a strong executive, for supervising the administration of public services.

Despite differences among states, local governments of the United States follow the general principles of the British system, except that a strong executive is common. The county remains the usual political subdivision, although it has retained more authority in rural than in urban areas, where incorporated municipalities (see city government) have most of the local power. In both rural and urban areas the local government's relationship to the state is a complex one of shared authority and carefully defined areas of legal competence. Local governments are pulled two ways, increasingly reliant on state and federal funding to carry out their expected duties, while fearful of losing their traditional degree of local control.


See J. J. Clarke, A History of Local Government of the United Kingdom (1955); D. Lockard, The Politics of State and Local Government (2d ed. 1969); S. Humes and E. Martin, The Structure of Local Government (1969); R. D. Bingham, State and Local Government in an Urban Society (1986); N. Henry, Governing the Grassroots (3d ed. 1987); R. H. Leach and T. G. O'Rourke, State and Local Government (1988).

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city government, political administration of urban areas.

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).

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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.

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cit·y hall (often City Hall) • n. the administration building of a municipal government. ∎  [treated as sing.] municipal offices or officers collectively: they cultivated close ties with City Hall.