The Curious History of the Commission Form of Government

September 26, 2017

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Saratoga Springs is one of only 2 cities in New York and one of only 28 midsized cities in the country with the commission form of government.  On Nov. 7, Saratoga Springs voters will have the opportunity to decide whether to retain the 102-year-old system or adopt a new one. To better understand our system, it is worth delving into the curious history of the commission system. 

The commission form of city government originated in Galveston, Texas, in 1901, after a disastrous hurricane and tidal wave. Fearful that the city might never recover under the leadership of the incumbent city council, a group of wealthy businessmen known as the Deep Water Committee devised a plan to have the governor appoint a commission to govern the city during the rebuilding period. To appease critics who contended that appointed government was undemocratic, the plan was altered to provide for direct election of two of the five commissioners.

Galveston’s seeming success inspired Houston to adopt the plan in 1905. Dallas, Fort Worth, El Paso, Denison and Greenville followed in 1907. By then referred to as the Texas Idea, the commission plan started to receive national attention and be viewed as a progressive reform. Des Moines, Iowa, was the first city outside Texas to adopt the commission plan. The Des Moines version of the commission form included nonpartisan balloting, merit selection of employees, and the direct-democracy devices of initiative, referendum and recall. Usually supported by chambers of commerce and other business groups, the commission plan spread rapidly from 1907 to 1920. In this period, about 500 cities adopted commission charters, including Saratoga Springs in 1915.  Leading Progressives of the time, including Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, endorsed the plan.

Under the commission plan, the voters in citywide elections elect a small commission of between 3-9 members. Each commissioner heads a department. The commissioners perform executive duties for their departments and meet as a commission to pass ordinances and make policy decisions. The form represented a dramatic break from traditional American constitutional theory. By combining the executive and legislative authority in individual commissions, it abandoned the traditional checks and balances.  Second, instead of having a single executive, like a president, governor or mayor, it divided the executive powers for overseeing departments into multiple commissioners. 

It was created by Progressives “with the best of intentions” and was viewed as a “laudable experiment,” said Jim Nowlan, a senior fellow at the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois. Initially, it was seen as a means of diluting the concentration of power in a single elected official (the mayor) and promoting specialization in office. Advocates of the commission form argued that because power is concentrated in one set of individuals, decisions can be made quicker without all the “checks and balances” that typically delay action in the other structures. Advocates touted the simple organizational structure to this form of government—policy decisions are directly and swiftly implemented—no “middle men” to work around or through. 

However, enthusiasm for the commission system was short lived. A number of early adopting, large cities, such as Berkeley, San Diego, Wichita, Denver, Nashville, Knoxville, Lowell and Sacramento, abandoned the commission form of government within 10 years of adopting it. 

Rather than allowing a city to make quicker decisions, cities found there was often deadlock and inaction with each commissioner acting in the narrow interests of their own department, rather than the city government as a whole. The commission form of government encouraged departmental parochialism, making general administrative reorganization difficult to achieve. “The commission government normally assigns functions of the city to individual commissioners. Then, they kind of set up their own little fiefdom around their function,” said John Hamman, a professor of political science at Southern Illinois University. The absence of checks and balances resulted in the commission forms of government being “known for their corruption,” said Hamman.

The commission form of government was inefficient in controlling spending. Budgets are often not scrutinized between commissioners because that only leads to retaliation among members. Rivalry and lack of cooperation developed between the commissioners. Budget decisions were decided by logrolling between commissioners.  Spending for one commissioner could only be increased if spending in another commissioner’s department decreased. Reorganizing personnel or duties to achieve efficiency proved extremely difficult to achieve as no commissioners wanted to lose power.

Cities also found that having multiple executives rather than a single executive authority hindered effective leadership. The commission form confused responsibility and scattered control between the commissioners as a body and as individuals. City employees sometimes engaged actively in politics on behalf of favorite department heads. A coordinating official such as a mayor or manager was felt to be necessary to provide administrative direction and accountability.

Finally, voters rarely took administrative skills and background into account when electing the commissioners. Commissioners chosen by the voters all too often lacked experience and competence for administrative work. 

After World War I, the council-manager system replaced the commission form as the preferred choice for municipal reformers. Since 1915, the Model City Charter, a set of best practices in municipal governances drafted by the National Civic League, has recommended this council-manager form of government. The fundamental principle of the model is that all powers of the city be vested in a popularly elected council that appoints a professional manager who is continuously responsible to and removable by the council. The council-manager system is the most widely used governmental structure in American cities. In 1960, Galveston abandoned its own child in favor of a council-manager system. In 1950 Des Moines scrapped it in favor of the council-manager system. From a peak in 1917 of about 500, the number of commission cities has dwindled to only 28 today. Currently, Saratoga Springs (pop. 27,763) and Mechanicville (pop. 5,196) are the last two commission forms of government in New York.

Bob Turner

Associate professor of political science at Skidmore College and chair of the Saratoga Springs Charter Review Commission