THE CHARACTERISTICS OF MUNICIPAL GOVERNMENT IN CAMBRIDGE.
By HON. WILLIAM A. BANCROFT, MAYOR OF CAMBRIDGE.
Published in "The Cambridge of Eighteen Hundred and Ninety-Six"
THE government of a city depends upon the disposition of a majority of its citizens holding the same views and acting together. The object of good city government is the efficient and economical administration of a city's affairs. This object is often thwarted by political or private interests inconsistent with it. Partisanship may be eliminated from the conduct of city affairs, and so may the influence of private interests. It is doubtless true that both are rarely eliminated altogether, but it is true also that so far as they are eliminated there is a corresponding rise in the standard of efficiency and economy.
The distinctive feature of municipal government in Cambridge is its non-partisanship,-- not bi-partisanship, such as is exemplified by a board made up, in accordance with a requirement of law or by agreement, of an equal number of Democrats and of Republicans, but, literally and actually, non-partisanship in which membership in a national political party has to do with the selection of officials only as membership in a church, or in a society, or social standing, or wealth, or vocation, or peculiar views, have to do with this. Undoubtedly one or more of these considerations make for or against the election of a certain candidate in the minds of some voters, as his political faith does in the minds of others. So they do in the choice of a lawyer or doctor or business agent, but they are not ordinarily taken into account by most people when selecting a lawyer or doctor or business agent, and the national party to which a candidate belongs is not taken into account by the representative Cambridge voter. Fitness for the particular office, to be determined by the candidate's honesty, ability, and experience so far as the voter has information about these qualities, is the governing consideration. Twice only within the last twenty years have partisan nominations been made at a city election. Each time scarce a candidate thus nominated was elected, and the disapproval of the partisan proceeding shown by the voters, including a large number of the members of the party whose committee caused the nominations to be made, could hardly have been more emphatic.
In the administration of Cambridge affairs partisan considerations have even less a place. Indeed, so far as can be determined by the proceedings of the city council and by the doings of city officials, they have no place whatever. On the floor of the city council, or in committee rooms, one hears no allusion to political parties, and there is nothing to indicate that they are ever thought of in connection with city matters. Heads of departments, members of boards, and subordinate officials are selected without regard to their political faith, and for years, certainly, it has never been charged that the city's service is used for partisan purposes.
Municipal parties exist, however, apparently more to favor the candidacy of certain individuals, than to support a given municipal policy. Nominally all agree, or have agreed for many years, to what is called a pay-as-you-go policy; that is, as it is generally stated, the payment of current expenses with current revenue, debt to be incurred only for large and extraordinary undertakings in which the future also is to share. Actually, however, there is a disagreement in the construction of what are current expenses, and there is also a difference in the selection of officials, and in the methods of transacting business, as well as in the administration of many of the concerns of the city. While these disagreements and differences are not always expressly defined, they are nevertheless clearly discernible by those familiar with city business, and they furnish a plenty of reasons for the eternal vigilance which is ,the price of good city government even where the division along national party lines is disregarded in municipal affairs.
Accustomed to promote the welfare of the municipality and not that of a political party, the members of the Cambridge city government are less susceptible to private interests than they would be, were not the interests of the city paramount to all others in their minds. Cambridge therefore has been free from "jobs." The corruptionist has had little encouragement.
Another feature of municipal government in Cambridge -- a direct result of non-partisanship -- is the retention of city officials in office. It would be hard to find an instance where an official had been removed, except for cause, and happily there have been few such cases. It is customary also to promote subordinates when a vacancy occurs, and as a result, there are many officials who have spent the best part of their lives in the city's service.
The machinery of the city government of Cambridge is vested in a mayor, a city council of two branches, a school committee, and a board of assessors. The mayor, aldermen, school committee, and board of assessors are elected by a plurality vote of all the voters of the city, but each ward is entitled to three members of the school committee. The common councilmen are elected by wards. All other boards and all heads of departments are either appointed by the mayor subject to the confirmation of the board of aldermen (and this method applies to most), or they are chosen by a vote of the city council. Boards and heads of departments appoint all their subordinates, except in the police and fire departments, and except also in the cases of the assistant assessors and the assistant city clerk. In the police and fire departments, the subordinates are appointed by the mayor subject to the confirmation of the board of aldermen, and the same is true of the assistant assessors. The assistant city clerk is elected by the city council. After due hearing, with the approval of a majority of the board of aldermen, the mayor may remove any member of the board of overseers of the poor or of the board of health, and any other officer or member of a board appointed by him. The mayor is not a member of either branch of the city council. The executive powers of the city are vested in him, and he is also surveyor of highways. All executive boards and officers are at all times accountable to him for the proper discharge of their duties. The mayor has a qualified veto power over the doings of the city council, and of the board of aldermen; all contracts over $300 require his approval before going into effect, and he submits annually to the city council the estimates of money required for the respective departments with his recommendations on them. No expenditure can be made and no liability incurred for any purpose beyond the appropriation previously made. To the city council or to the board of aldermen are given all the powers of the city not given to the mayor, the school committee, and other public officers prescribed by general law. The city council makes ordinances and provides for the appointment of certain officers, defines their powers and duties, and fixes their compensation. It also has authority to lay out, alter, and discontinue ways, to take land for them, and for the construction of sewers. The board of aldermen may authorize the construction of sidewalks, and must assess the expense of the materials upon the abutting lands, which then become chargeable for the payment of the amount. The board of aldermen fixes the number and compensation of policemen, and establishes general regulations for their government. It also has the power to grant and revoke licenses for which provision is made by law or ordinance.
The school committee, of which the mayor is ex officio chairman without a vote, performs all such duties as the school committees in Massachusetts towns are required by law to perform.
The essential difference between the form of city government of today and that in vogue from the time Cambridge became a city, up to 1892, is in the assignment of executive power. Formerly, it was given to the mayor and board of aldermen or to the city council, and was exercised through their committees. Now, it is given to the mayor, and is exercised through the boards and heads of departments, under his general supervision and control.