Modernizing the Model City Charter

In November, the National Civic League will officially launch a year-long effort to review, revise, update and publish a new edition of the Model City Charter, a document that countless towns and cities have used to draft and revise their own home rule charters. With all that is going on, this seems like a good time to begin.  

Recent events have challenged local governments with debates over public health, racial equity and policing raising important issues, including questions about the distribution of power and decision-making responsibility.

Loss of trust in public institutions, experts and policy professionals has combined with the conflicting priorities and political agendas at different levels of government. The net result has been a widespread impression of indecision and paralysis in the face of urgent challenges.

The sense of crisis is nothing new in American political history. In the late nineteenth century, cities were considered the weak link in the chain of American democracy. The country’s urban population was exploding, and the existing forms of administration and governance seemed unequal to the requirements of rapidly growing cities.

Before 1900, when the League published its first model charter, there were no generally accepted blueprints for municipal governments, which tended to be loosely connected collections of stand-alone departments with few standards for performance or professional training. State legislatures interfered freely in municipal affairs. Partisan concerns often outweighed considerations of the public good.

Early editions of the Model City Charter embraced reforms such as home rule, nonpartisan elections, a merit system for public employees and (after 1915) the “city council/city manager” plan for local government. Today these earlier reforms are widely accepted.

But in the 2020s, local governments face new challenges. In addition to the traditional emphasis on efficiency, economy and effectiveness, the next model will reflect up to date ideas on issues such as social equity, public engagement, the use of technology and social media and new roles for elected and appointed leaders.

To help us work through these questions and issues by serving on one of our charter review committees, please contact Mike McGrath at the National Civic League, 303 571-4343 or [email protected].

In the meantime, please consider taking this online survey on priorities for the Ninth Edition Model City Charter Review Committee.

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