Change of Government
Springfield tries and fails, again, to improve
March 17, 1978
In the middle 1970s, Springfieldians unhappy with the city’s commission form of government undertook twice to change it. The dissidents acted through different organizations and they had different gripes about the status quo, but all under-estimated how attached their townspeople were to the status quo simply because it was the status quo. The dispute was familiar in its essence, pitting as it did cosmopolitan good-government types against the courthouse culture of Springfield.
Springfield did get a new form of local government, by the way, in 1987, but that was a result of a settlement of a civil rights lawsuit that found the at-large voting system used under the commission form to be inherently discriminatory. While the new council was more representative, it would achieve none of the other improvements the reformers hoped for in the 1970s, mainly because the reformers were not running it.
I know her. She is not exactly all she should be, but I apprehend exactly what she is. If I hurt myself against her it is my own fault. She is as familiar to me as home now. I should resent any alteration. Having learned to know her faults I like her as she is.
H. M. Tomlinson, speaking of the ship Capella
in The Sea and the Jungle
Springfield adopted the commission government in 1911 in a fit of civic virtue; like most marriages conceived in passion, it was regretted immediately. It offers some advantages to small, homogeneous suburban towns, but is commonly thought to be inappropriate to larger, more diverse cities. Because it elects its commissioners on an at-large basis, for example, it is thought inherently unrepresentative; in Springfield, most commissioners have come from the west or south sides. It is considered inefficient because the five-department structure causes overlapping and duplications in everything from hiring to truck repair, leading also to jealousies, power struggles and tangled lines of administrative responsibility.
Nelson Howarth, who is no friend to the government which he served as mayor for twelve years, calls it a "sort of divide and conquer system." Each commissioner is invested with both legislative authority (when he acts as a member of the city council) and executive authority (when he acts as head of his department)—a combination the Founding Fathers, for what are still presumed to be good reasons, went to some lengths to avoid. Because there is no central authority, labor negotiations, planning, budgeting—any administrative function, in short, that requires that the city government speak with a single voice—is at best complicated, at worst frustrated. And since commissioners need not have any professional qualifications to head their departments, commission government is included by some with child-rearing and mountain climbing among the last refuges of the amateur. Edward Banfield and James Wilson, in their 1963 book, City Politics, dismiss the commission form as "generally obsolete"; in their 346 pages, commission government merits exactly five sentences.
In the summer of 1976, reformers began meeting in living rooms over coffee to talk about their common dissatisfactions with government Springfield-style. They quickly agreed on the diagnosis, but agreement on a potential cure was harder won. There was no support for the weak-mayor form under which Springfield labored unhappily before the 1911 reform, but on the two remaining alternatives opinion was split. One faction opted for the strong-mayor government; this group included Phyllis Murphy, members of the Black Ministerial Alliance, who represented several east side congregations, and former Mayor Nelson Howarth. The rest, including key change activists, favored the council-manager type. All favored some form of council elected from wards, though there was some discussion about whether the council should be filled from wards only or should include some at-large seats; they talked too about whether candidates should run with or without party labels.
The reformers, who by now were calling themselves the Citizens for Representative Government or CRG, wanted to get the question on the March primary ballot, partly because they saw momentum building and didn't want to lose it and partly because an early vote was needed to allow enough time to attend to the details of the transfer before the next city election in the spring of 1979. Point by point a compromise was worked out. The council-manager was preferred; the term "strong-mayor" has disagreeable connotations. Nonpartisan elections were agreed to, though the original twenty-member version of the new city council was pared to ten after it was pointed out that the larger body might be thought to be unwieldy and attract unflattering comparisons with the county board. Aldermen would be elected from wards, but the provision for some at-large members favored by the League of Women voters (to provide "the city-wide viewpoint") was dropped. By the end of October, 1977, the CRG unveiled its plan. If they expected cheers, they were disappointed.
In the early days of the campaign there was less talk about the CRG's proposal than about the people who were proposing it. Jim Dunham, the city's choleric finance commissioner, was one of the first to challenge the CRG as an organization of "outsiders"—a claim given some weight by the fact of Murphy's Woodside Township address and the fact that roughly half the leadership of the CRG have lived in Springfield for less than five years.
The CRG dismissed the fuss as a false issue, which in a sense it was. But it was a real enough issue to many voters. As noted, many in the CRG leadership are only recent arrivals, though their tenure in the capital wasn't the point. Natives or not, most of the CRG were younger, more liberal, more cosmopolitan, more middle class (even if their incomes sometimes weren't) than the Springfield they hoped to persuade. Culturally they were outsiders.
These kinds of conflicts are so common in American cities that they constitute a sociological cliché. Daniel Elazar, in a 1970 study entitled Cities of the Prairie, wrote: "The interest of these new reformers was not the reform of politics but its elimination, the development of apolitical, 'businesslike' governments, managed by professional apolitical administrators and responsible to the public through a system of nonpartisan (read 'nonpolitical') elections. He went on, “support or opposition to the change (to council-manager government) followed the lines of the cosmopolitan-local division. The cosmopolitans . . . generally advocated the change as a means of 'keeping up' while the locals . . . opposed it for fear of upsetting established patterns which they had mastered and from which they felt they had benefitted [sic]."
Interestingly, those aspects of the city manager that most attracted the CRG—his professionalism, his insulation from politics, his control over day-to-day decision-making—were exactly the things that many locals like least about it. He would be an outsider—the word would not go away—he would be beyond the reach of the voters, he would be (and this is perhaps the most damning charge of all in a town that has expensive bureaucrats the way other towns have starlings) one more expensive bureaucrat.
Xenophobia may have been a complicating factor in the campaign but it probably wasn't a decisive one. The push for change suffered from internal problems. Tactical errors hurt, as did rumored internal squabbles. The city council offered the reformers ammunition by the bagful—the mayor's handling of the police department shake-up and the shelving of the Lake Springfield II project are just two—but the CRG failed to ignite it.
About the only pertinent fact to gain general circulation (aside from the facts about the structures of the two governments) came from the CRG; they established that all but one of the city's commissioners have lived west of the Ninth Street dividing line between the east and west sides.
The implications of that fact are persuasive at first glance, and many apparently accepted it as prima facie evidence of discrimination. But how relevant is place of residence in the context of a government in which residence is considered irrelevant? Are there objective measures that indicate that east side interests have been ignored? If so, what are they? Are there ways—ombudsmen, for one—to improve access to government short of changing it altogether? Those who shared the CRG's premise that place of residence is inescapably a determinant of political behavior felt they had the answers to such questions. Those who did not were left wondering.
Instead the CRG circulated through the city with a set speech full of generalities. Much of the skepticism with which CRG claims were greeted was natural. Much of it, though, was due to the fuzziness of their positions; because it remains for the present council to settle such details of the new system as ward boundaries, salaries and appointment powers, many potential converts left CRG speeches wondering whether they were buying a pig in a poke.
Many of those potential converts conceded the justice of the CRG's complaints about commission government but worried that the things the CRG blamed it for—inefficiency, partisanship, discrimination—were faults of people, not structure [and] that reforming governments didn't reform what men and women did with them, only the ways they did them. The CRG replied that, of course, changing the system wasn't a cure-all, they never said it was, but a better system would reduce the opportunities for misuse. With little specific at issue, the two sides were reduced to debating not theories of government but theories of human nature, and as the campaign progressed it became clear that on that issue most voters' convictions were beyond persuasion.
* * *
The commission form of government enjoyed a vogue before World War I, when one Illinois city after another adopted it in quick succession. Like most fashions, that one faded, however, and by 1977 Springfield was the only city bigger than 50,000 in the state still using it—a fact which in itself is one indication of the weight of tradition in the capital.
The commission government was voted in as a result of a series of scandals that temporarily mobilized the combined forces of the local clergy, business, the press and the Democratic Party. When the CRG announced its plans, it enjoyed no such advantage. There is no scandal at city hall; the CRG didn't want to throw the rascals out especially, just to rearrange them a little. There is much evidence, however, of an underlying dissatisfaction with city government.
The unhappiness can be measured in poll results. A survey taken by the Illinois State Register in 1973 revealed even then that the constituency for the commission government amounted only to a bare majority (52 percent) of those polled, with 31 percent preferring either a strong mayor or council-manager form instead. A survey taken in the fall of 1976 by Sangamon State University's Center for the Study of Middle-size Cities revealed that fewer Springfieldians (25.5 percent) than Peorians (37.2 percent) or Decaturites (33 percent) thought that their city officials did "what the majority of citizens want." The CSMC data also revealed that more Springfieldians than Peorians and Decaturites thought taxes were too high for services received.
Subsequent opinion polls commissioned by the State Journal-Register confirmed these results. One (released in August 1976) indicated that most voters thought the city council spent too much time bickering, another (April 1977) reaffirmed the 1973 result showing only a slender majority backing the commission government, a third (February 1978) indicated that although nearly three of five voters had decided against the proposed change, nearly half of the voters hadn't yet made up their minds, even though the primary was only a month away.
The most tantalizing questions raised by the polls are the ones they didn't answer. How well do city officials in Springfield or Decatur or Peoria know (to use the CSMC's phrase) "what the majority of citizens want?" How much of the feeling against commission government is really directed not at the machine but the men who run it? Indeed, how much of that apparent dissatisfaction is merely unhappiness with the facts of urban life generally that attaches indiscriminately to government as its cause? And with so much confusion about the cause, how much faith can voters place in a single cure?
* * *
It was expected from the start that the five men sitting on the city council would argue against any change, and so they did, with Mayor William Telford and James Dunham leading the charge. (Only utilities commissioner James Henneberry, strangely, held off from comment.)
J-R political columnist Al Manning suggested that the CRG had made a tactical blunder in choosing the council-manager form over the strong-mayor because the former offered no new focus for the present commissioners' political ambitions. None of the commissioners is a trained city manager, and although Dunham, Henneberry, Frank Madonia and Pat Ward might be tempted to try to succeed the retiring Telford as mayor under a strong-mayor system, none is likely to settle for an administrative post in a new government or to retire to the relative obscurity of a part-time council seat.
As might be expected, the local party organizations did not look kindly on attempts to eliminate politics from government, and the regular Democrats and Republicans both worked against it.
The most conspicuous anti-change organization was a new one, the Concerned City Voters or CCV. The CCV was put together in November, a result of what might be called the Third Law of Politics that holds that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. At its head .were Phil Bradley, ex-Lincoln Land Community College trustee and association director, and Bruce Stratton, a lawyer for the state. Their aim, they said, was "to talk sense to the people of Springfield" about change of government.
The two sides met at the Young Republicans one night, a union hall the next, with the business women the next. The CCV position was simple. They didn't claim that commission government was perfect. But it had worked in Springfield, and a switch to the council-manager, though undeniably a change, would be no improvement. The CCV speakers were generally nimbler than their opponents, and in a battle of slogans theirs were livelier, if not necessarily more accurate. Further, their arguments were unerringly aimed, and the CRG spent much of its platform time defending themselves against them.
While the CRG and CCV occupied center stage, most local groups made a dash for the wings. Though one of the aims of the change was to give a "better shake to. the working man," only one union—Local 1027 of the United Auto Workers—endorsed the change. Teamsters Local 916 voted 'to support the commission form and the Springfield Education Association decided to not say one way or the other.
Business, too, generally managed to be elsewhere when the bandwagon rolled by. In November, the Chamber of Commerce polled its 1,500 members on the question. Chamber representatives had sat in informally on the CRG's early discussions; that group noted hopefully that the chamber had "supported responsive government" going back to 1911. But the chamber's membership was split and no public position was taken.
Back in November of 1976, the Springfield East Association, an activist neighborhood organization, landed a $15,503 grant from the Illinois Humanities Council using the change-of-government issue as bait. The SEA used the money to conduct a community education campaign in which the various local government alternatives were described and evaluated. One of the strings attached the money was that the SEA was to take no public stand for or against the commission government during the grant period, which won't end until the final audit is done. Until then, the SEA, generally thought to be behind the CRG, must maintain a discreet official silence.
It is a rickety coalition. The League of Women Voters has endorsed the change, of course, as have the Black Ministerial Alliance. (Morality not being an issue, the clergy are missing except in the case of the black clergy, whose role in their community is as much political as spiritual.)
There is some skepticism about how much endorsements are worth beyond the manpower they commit to a cause. Local observers recall that in the 1971 mayoral race, Denny Kelley collected endorsements like a long-haired dog collects cockleburs, but William Telford still beat him handily. It appears that in some aspects of politics, at any rate, who you are still matters more than who you know.
* * *
Much of the debate, then, little resembled an attempt at persuasion. It was more a campaign by both sides to alert those who already shared their respective views and mobilize them. The rest who did not necessarily agree with either side will probably stay home. They emerged from the campaign knowing more about the council-manager and commission governments but little that was new about Springfield and less about the reciprocal relationships between governmental structure and the culture that animates it.
Politics is partly the means by which competing claims are adjudicated. A system of government that precludes politics in favor of a technical, bureaucratically defined public interest may be satisfying to the structuralist but thin stuff to sustain a city. One is tempted, in fact, to read into the low voter turnouts in Peoria and Decatur (which have ranged recently from a third to less than a fifth of the voters) the conviction that city government is no longer something that engages the people, that in serving the public interest more perfectly government may sometimes cease to serve the people's. □