Running the City Machine
The failed hopes of commission reform
September 16, 1977
In 1911 a coalition of civic-minded reformers in Springfield contrived to persuade a modest majority of voters to abandon its wards and aldermen and replace them with the then-fashionable commission form of municipal government. It proved to be an improvement in several ways, although not in any of the ways the reformers hoped. Because of that failure, a new generation of reformers went back to drawing board, which sparked discussions that lasted a decade in the 1970s and '80s.
Springfieldians, as a rule, don't care much for the way their city is run. There is widespread dissatisfaction with the commission form of government under which the city has been governed since 1911. A State Journal-Register poll of June 1973 showed only the barest majority of those polled (52 percent) favored the commission form; a similar survey done in April of this year revealed that only 56 percent favored retaining it. Those unhappy with the commission government are a minority, but they are a sizable and a vocal one.
So far, unhappily, the debate about city government and the various alternatives to it has been unilluminating. The three local organizations most active in the debates—the local League of Women Voters, the Springfield East Association, and Sangamon State University's Center for the Study of Middle-size Cities—have each, for reasons of policy or prudence, taken a scrupulously noncommittal approach. Debate (more a discussion really) has dealt largely with the mechanics of government rather than its operation—with how the machine is built, in short, rather than who is running it or how.
Case in point: nonpartisanship. Parties were regarded by many early twentieth-century reformers as little more than rival gangs and elections a ritual to determine the dividing of the spoils. Eliminate the parties from city politics, the reformers argued, and you eliminate political partisanship. The hope was to make each candidate accountable to the People, not the Party. The commission form therefore is officially nonpartisan. Candidates for the five council seats run without party labels.
The reformers, typically, did not study the patient closely enough before prescribing a cure. The spirit of partisanship was not killed by the commission reform; it was merely, like a bacterium developing a resistance to a new antibiotic, changed and in some ways strengthened by it. The result was not nonpartisan city government in Springfield but bipartisan city government.
Obligingly relieved by the reformers of the need to stand as Democrats or Republicans, many commissioners found themselves free to work both sides of the political street, drawing support from both major parties and dispensing rewards in the form of the usual jobs, licenses, and the like to both in return. Instead of reducing the scope of partisan politics, the commission reform enlarged it.
Since the two parties at the local level were not separated by ideologies, they had no principled objections to such coalitions. Indeed they favored them, since it enabled them to trade the stable diet of patronage of a bipartisan machine to the feast-or-famine fare of a strictly partisan one.
The best recent example of the bipartisan machine was that assembled by the late John Hunter, commissioner of public property between 1947 and 1955 and again from 1959 to 1972. Hunter's payroll was studded with precinct committeemen of both parties and heads of key union locals, and the considerable resources of the department were made available, discreetly, to candidates of both parties. Every election season, alert citizens noted gray CWLP pickup trucks laden with yard signs painted by CWLP crews in the CWLP paint shop—some plugging a Republican candidate for this office, some plugging the Democratic man for that office. Hunter was a very popular man who knew how to make and keep friends, as his vote totals over twenty years proved.
Ironically, a second feature of the commission form popular with reformers, the election of commissioners on a city-wide, at-large basis, increased the partisan pressures on the system's ostensibly nonpartisan candidates. It was impossible for lone candidates to single-handedly campaign all over town. They needed help, organized help, to pass out the flyers and ring the doorbells, help that the parties with their squads of precinct committeemen were uniquely equipped to provide. Such help usually had a price. Though television now provides the same kind of service the parties used to furnish, the manpower needs of city-wide campaigns still make the parties useful, if no longer essential, allies.
Not all candidates worked this way, of course. Some quietly kept their allegiance to a single party; others, like Willis Spaulding, were genuinely nonpartisan. Often the nonpartisan nature of the system worked to the advantage of city and candidate alike; Nelson Howarth. nominally a Republican, always drew much of his strength from Democratic precincts, something he may not have been able to do had he run under the Republican banner.
Often the partisanship of party is replaced by the partisanship of personality. Traditionally, the election of a new head of a department has led to a housecleaning of held-over loyalists. Civil service has reduced the scope of such firings but they still go on, with predictable effects on management continuity. Whether they are done in retaliation for party or personal loyalty is of little consequence to the voters.
Nonpartisanship has not lived up to the reformers' hopes. To note this is not necessarily to endorse its alternative, however—only to caution that, especially in politics, it's easier to talk of change than to accomplish it. ●