Academic journal article Journal of American & Comparative Cultures

Kansas City, Missouri: The Experience of a Major Midwestern City under Council Management Government

Academic journal article Journal of American & Comparative Cultures

Kansas City, Missouri: The Experience of a Major Midwestern City under Council Management Government

Article excerpt


Kansas City, Missouri, a city of somewhat fewer than 500,000 inhabitants in a metropolitan area of nearly two million, adopted the councilmanager form of government in 1925. On the 3rd of November that year, municipal elections determined the members of the new council who assumed their seats on 10 April 1926 (Ellis 65). It has been a council-manager city ever since. The city also has a colorful history of "boss" politics. The notorious Pendergast Machine dominated Kansas City politics for decades, and was a major factor in stimulating the reform efforts that led to the adoption of "non-partisan, professional" government.

Dashing the hopes of the reformers, Thomas J. Pendergast-"The Boss"-rose to the height of his power following the adoption of the new charter. Although reformers had hoped their success would ensure clean government, machine politics flourished for some thirteen years under the council-manager system. William M. Reddig, who wrote the classic study of boss politics in Kansas City, wrote that "as the system actually worked out, it strengthened the control of the bosses and the party organizations over the selection of officeholders" (Reddig 117). More recent studies of the machine concur (e.g. Dorsett; Larsen and Hulston). Reddig went on to note that the idea that independent citizens would run for office without the encouragement of an organization was a fantasy that never provoked anything except mirth among practical politicians. (Reddig 117-18) Many observers regardless of their sentiments about machine politics would find it strange that a vigorous urban culture also thrived during those years. Along with notable corruption there was considerable civic progress.

Kansas City therefore presents a unique and especially interesting set of circumstances. These circumstances offer a fertile field of study to identify the strengths and weaknesses of "professional, non-partisan, government." That form of government now has been on the American scene so long that it seems almost traditional, despite its rejection of many of the principles that constitute accepted American governmental practice.

Council-Manager Government Council-manager government more closely resembles the structure of a modem corporation than it does the classic separation of powers arrangement with discrete legislative, executive, and judicial branches. This is deliberate, and is based on the assumption that running a city requires not "politics," but skill at administration. "The business corporation and the corporate ways of doing business provided a major intellectual model" (Boynton 8). Unconsciously, the architects of the council-manager plan were motivated by a political ideology around which they constructed their new model, the ideology of managerialism.'

Under the Council-manager plan as in parliamentary democracy, the voters elect only the legislature, not the executive. Also as in a parliamentary system, the legislature selects the executive. The city manager is the one public chief executive in the United States who is legally subordinate to the legislature, and who needs continuous legislative approval. (Protasel 810)

The parallel with parliamentary systems, though, is absent in the plan's actual operation. A rudimentary sort of separation of powers does exist, in that council-manager charters prohibit the elected legislature from interfering in the city's administration. The manager not only is the administrator, but functions with a high degree of autonomy. The details of administration are presumed to be irrelevant, so long as the manager carries out the legislature's policy.

Thus, the city's legislature takes the form of a small city council, which in turn employs a city manager to serve at its pleasure. The intention of the plan is that the manager be a trained professional administrator. The manager becomes the executive head of the city, and selects and discharges the heads of the city's administrative departments. …

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