City Manager Plan A Flop – Plain Dealer July 26, 1998

Article about Cleveland City Manager Plan. Plain Dealer July 26, 1998


Plain Dealer, The (Cleveland, OH) – Sunday, July 26, 1998

Author: Fred McGunagle

It had the support of “all the best people” – the Board of Real Estate Dealers, the Chamber of Commerce, the Civic League (forerunner of the Citizens League). But as the city manager plan entered its second year, Clevelanders were starting to have second thoughts.


As proposed, the plan would take politics out of city government. Instead of an elected mayor answerable to dozens of diverse groups, there would be a professional manager answerable to a policy-making board, much like a corporation.

The board would be a revised City Council of 25, smaller than the old Council but elected from only four districts. It would end the evils of politics – just as Prohibition was to end the evil of the saloon.


And just like Prohibition, the city manager plan in Cleveland turned out to be a disaster.


A cynical patronage deal between Republican and Democratic bosses ensured that the politicians would be more firmly in control than ever. The city manager was accused of acting like a czar. Councilmen went to prison for corruption and a former councilman expected to turn state’s evidence was murdered just before his court appearance.


The plan was passed by voters in November 1921, to take effect with the elections of 1923. “They were immensely proud of themselves for having solved their municipal ills by taking this new cure in one big dose,” Richard L. Maher wrote in “Our Fair City,” a 1947 book. “They didn’t bother to set up a watchdog. They left the plan to shift for itself.”


Maurice Maschke and Burr Gongwer knew how to shift for themselves. Maschke had been Republican boss since 1914. Gongwer, who had been The Plain Dealer’s politics reporter during the Tom L. Johnson administration, had succeeded Newton D. Baker as head of the declining Democratic organization. The two agreed that Maschke would get 60 percent of city jobs and Gongwer the other 40 percent. On Maschke’s orders, City Council elected William R. Hopkins city manager.


The choice was widely applauded. Hopkins, often described as “a square-jawed Welshman,” had served a term as a Republican councilman in 1897-99 and thereafter was a successful industrial developer and businessman. His vision of the future moved citizens; although he failed to make Cleveland a stopping point on a worldwide dirigible route, he did open Cleveland Municipal Airport (which, in 1951, was renamed Cleveland Hopkins Airport).


Harry L. Davis, the former mayor and governor, led a fight in 1927 to knock out the manager plan. Both parties, newspapers and civic groups rallied to its defense. “The manager plan was saved; or, rather, Hopkins was saved, for he immediately assumed greater powers than before,” Maher wrote. “Clevelanders learned they had a manager who was not interested in background roles. He was determined to be the star – and he was.”


That was fine with Maschke, as long as Hopkins hired the people Maschke wanted hired and took care of Maschke’s friends.


M.J. and O.P. Van Sweringen were very much Maschke’s friends. In the process of building their railroad and transit empire, along with the Terminal Group of buildings, “the Vans” wanted a railroad bridge in a place that interfered with plans for straightening the Cuyahoga River.


Hopkins objected, but Maschke straightened out the city manager – or so he thought. While Maschke was out of town, Hopkins tried to force the issue. Maschke hurried back and, Maher reported, “summoned the members of the Council, cracked the whip for the Van Sweringens, and Hopkins was defeated.”


When another vote to scrap the manager plan was put on the ballot in 1928, Maschke did little. It was Hopkins and the Democrats who led the battle that saved it, though by a narrower margin than before. Hopkins began handing out jobs to Democrats and independents as he pleased.


The margin was even narrower in 1929, but while the Democrats campaigned to save the manager plan, Maschke campaigned to elect a Republican Council, which didn’t need help from Democrats and independents.


He succeeded, and in January 1930, Council fired Hopkins by a vote of 14-11.

In his place, Council – really, Maschke – picked Daniel E. Morgan, a respected state senator but also a loyal Republican.


Adding to the public’s disillusionment with the system was a series of land scandals. Thomas Fleming, who had become Cleveland’s first black councilman in 1907 and ran the black wards for Maschke, was sent to the penitentiary for graft. So was Councilman Liston Schooley, chairman of the powerful Finance Committee, along with his son.


Councilman William Potter and City Clerk Fred Thomas were indicted but escaped conviction after three trials. Potter was then charged with perjury and was rumored to have made a deal with Prosecutor Ray T. Miller to implicate other councilmen. On Feb. 8, 1931, the day before his trial was to start, he was found in a Glenville apartment with a bullet through his head.


That November, voters threw out the city manager plan. Law Director Harold Burton took office as acting mayor until a special election could be held.


In his chapter on political reform in “The Birth of Modern Cleveland, 1865-1930,” Thomas Campbell offers a final word on the manager plan. Unlike the earlier reforms of the Tom L. Johnson era, he wrote, it was “not rooted in the ideology that was committed to the American dream of greater equality for all citizens.


“Indeed, these structural reforms, with their emphasis on efficiency and bureaucracy and the anti-foreign and anti-union attitudes of the business leadership of these years, left an underlying hostility among the white ethnics that has endured for many years.”


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