By Mike McGrath
In November of 2021, the National Civic League published the Ninth Edition of the Model City Charter, a guide for community members and city officials engaged in drafting or revising their own home rule charters. It was the culmination of two-years of effort by the League board and staff, and one year of volunteering by several dozen Steering Committee and Working Group members, meeting monthly by Zoom.
The latest edition of the model continues the League’s tradition of promoting ethical, efficient governance, but also includes some changes intended to sharpen its focus on public engagement and social equity, including changes in recommendations on mayor and city council elections, additional language on the role of mayors in a council-manager city, and a new article on the principles of meaningful public engagement.
The Steering Committee was responsible for considering the changes suggested by the Working Groups and approving the final document. The Steering Committee included the heads of organizations such as National League of Cities, the International City/County Management Association, the American Society for Public Administration, and the National Academy of Public Administration.
There were five Working Groups: Social Equity, Community Members/Public Engagement, City Managers/Departments, City Attorneys/Legal Issues, and Mayors/City Council. The members included experts, practitioners, public managers, elected officials, attorneys, and scholars.
Since 1915, the League has promoted the “council-manager form of government” as a guiding organizational feature of the model. “This form introduced a new governance model to American government that is based on a unitary system rather than the separation of powers, a framework that frequently results in conflicts between branches of government,” notes scholar James Svara in his introductory essay. “All powers of the city are vested in a popularly elected council, which appoints a professional manager who is continuously responsible to the public and removable by the council. It has improved the quality of the governmental process and city government performance.”
But in preparing to review and revise the Model City Charter in 2020, Svara adds, “the National Civic League recognized the need to better integrate a newer mission of promoting civic engagement and social equity with the older mission of emphasizing efficiency, expertise, and ethics. At the time of this revision, cities are operating in a context of increased consciousness around issues of inequities based on race, ethnicity, sexuality, gender, and socio-economic standing.”
To accomplish this goal, the Social Equity Working Group combed through the entire 82-page document and looked for ways to inject language in relevant sections to fully integrated the value of social equity in the model. This group also contributed an addendum on how cities can think about incorporating the values of social equity into their procedures and operations.
The Public Engagement Group took a slightly different tact, drafting a new article (Article VII) on public engagement, making note of the fact that some city leaders do little more than pay lip service to the idea of engagement and might be encouraged to make a deeper commitment to engagement if these principles were laid out in the model charter.
The Legacy of Municipal Reform
The first city of size to choose the council-manager form of government was Dayton, Ohio, which adopted it in 1914. Before the change, Dayton’s city government had been, in the words of historian Ernest S. Griffith, “incompetent and irresponsible.” Garbage collection was intermittent. Streets were laid out haphazardly. Not infrequently, police and fire fighters had to be laid off because of inadequate finances. There were few parks and no public playgrounds.
Griffith notes in the fourth volume of his History of American City Government, that after Dayton adopted the council-manager plan, “Parks and playgrounds were increased. Experts from outside the city were brought in for traffic, accounting, waterworks, sewers, and parks. A nonpolitical civil service commission was named; a city planning board was set up. Many advisory citizen boards were set up. The collection of rubbish was resumed. Instead of an annual deficit of $60,000, $30,000 of the floating debt accrued by deficits in current operations was paid off in the first year, even with greatly improved services and the same revenues.” 1
Griffith attributes the growing popularity of the council-manager form of government in the early-to-mid twentieth century to Dayton’s successful adoption of it. As an example of successful political change, the municipal reform movement was an under-appreciated success story. City government went from being the least trusted level of government to becoming the most trusted level, a consistent finding of opinion polls since the 1960s.
But critics have pointed to a downside of the success of the municipal reform movement. By professionalizing municipal governance and eliminating partisanship in local elections, the reform model may have discouraged the active participation and interest of ordinary citizens in the city governance.
If the urban party machines of the late nineteenth century were good at anything, it was mobilizing voters, and the patronage system—with the promise of government jobs for political activists—was certainly an incentive for public engagement of a sort. Voter turnouts declined dramatically between 1900 and 1920, the heyday of the municipal reform movement.
Moreover, by the mid-twentieth century, it began to become obvious that clean, simplified, efficient governance and professionally managed city departments did not guarantee success for American communities. If anything, the complex, intractable problems facing cities seemed impervious to the effects of “good government” and technical expertise. And Dayton was no exception. Despite being widely regarded as a well-managed city, Dayton struggled during the 1960s with high levels of unemployment, racial inequity, urban poverty and civil unrest.
Activating the Public in Local Governance
In the 1970s, Dayton leaders began looking for ways to restore a sense of public confidence and fairness in local government. An office of city ombudsman was created to hear citizen complaints about government services. In 1975, Dayton established a system of seven elected “priority boards” to give residents from all parts of the city a more direct and equitable voice in local affairs. “Each priority board area is divided into neighborhoods, which overlap the precinct boundaries,” wrote the authors of a classic study of citizen participation, the Rebirth of Urban Democracy. “The system is seen explicitly as a two-way communication channel between governments and citizens.”
The Dayton experiment was one of any number of municipal efforts throughout the country to give residents a more active role in urban planning and policymaking. Other communities used terms such as Neighborhood Councils (Los Angeles), and Citizen Advisory Boards (Birmingham) to achieve similar goals. Some city governments collaborated with relational community organizing groups (San Antonio) to amplify the voices of residents.
Others created “citizen academies” to educate residents about the workings of city government and provide tips on how neighborhood groups can empower members of the community. Still others (Seattle) created matching fund programs that allowed residents to come up with their own ideas for neighborhood improvements. A myriad of cities launched temporary or ad hoc organizing and planning efforts such as Study Circles, charrettes, World Café dialogues, participatory budgeting, and community-based strategic planning/visioning initiatives.
Article VII of the Ninth Edition recognizes the importance of the “active, informed, inclusive, and equitable engagement of community members, both individually and collectively” as an “essential element of healthy civic life and a thriving local democracy.” The article describes the role of public engagement and establishes principles for successful engagement—equity, accountability, transparency, accessibility, collaboration, and evaluation.
It was decided early on to use the term “social equity” rather than “racial equity” to communicate that there was more than one category to consider when pursuing equity. New language reflecting the focus on equity was added to sections throughout the document, including the introduction, section on charter preambles, the article on the appointment of city managers, the powers and duties of the city manager, the article on Departments, Offices and Agencies, the section on the personnel system, the section on land use planning and development, and the section on budgets. And, as mentioned, there is a new appendix to the model charter, “The Context for Social Equity and Local Governance.”
The charter suggests the provision of an equity office:
“Social equity will be best advanced through the organization if each unit has designated an individual or a small team to serve as a lead resource within their department and a liaison to the city manager’s equity office. This office should be tasked with supporting the implementation of an equity lens, through the development of trainings, tools, communications, and other activities related to equity. The city manager is the chief equity officer, and that role could be delegated to another office of the organization as appropriate. Still, the city manager should be the person responsible for equitable administration.”
There are other changes to the model that are relevant to the issue of equity, although in some cases the connection may not be as obvious. The new edition recommends that the mayor be elected by the public, rather than being appointed by or elected by the city council. In past editions this recommendation was not made.
The new model recommends electing city council members either by district or a mix of districts and at-large seats rather than by all at-large seats to ensure that the council is representative of the city’s population. The new edition expands existing language on the potential of ranked-choice voting as way of providing more choices to voters and ensuring representativeness.
Historically, the publication of the Model City Charter has been one of the National Civic League’s most important contributions to the development of American democracy. Although the form of government it endorsed—the council-manager plan—has been characterized by critics as a “business model,” emulating the structure of a corporation with its CEO and board of directors, for municipal reformers such as Richard Spencer Childs, one of its most active proponents, it was an attempt to make democracy more “workable.”
Earlier forms of government were confusing to voters. Powers were dispersed between a variety of directly elected department chiefs, mayors often had limited or ill-defined powers, and local councils or boards were large and unwieldy. In the vacuum created by decentralized administration and unclear lines of authority, local party organizations stepped in to make the important decisions. Not knowing who was accountable for what, voters were often left with the empty choice of supporting a party ticket.
Making government more effective and ethical was a necessary but insufficient formula for making democracy work, and since the late 1970s, the League began to focus more of its energies on finding ways to encourage equitable forms of civic participation outside the ballot box and the committees to improve government structure.
The Ninth Edition of the Model City Charter is the League’s latest effort to reconcile its historic mission of promoting good government to its more contemporary mission of advancing “civic engagement to create equitable, thriving communities” by “inspiring, supporting and recognizing inclusive approaches to community decision-making.”
Michael McGrath is the National Civic League’s director of Research and Publications and editor of the National Civic Review.