Overview of Cleveland Government 1787-1990

From The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History

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GOVERNMENT. The tract of land that became Cleveland had at one time or another been claimed by Spain, France, and Great Britain. When American independence was secured, the new federal government tried to resolve the conflicting territorial claims of several states while contending with Indians, who had their own claims, and who were made more restive by the slow removal of British troops from their western posts. The key event was passage of the Ordinance of 1787, making administration of the sparsely settled territories possible. The first real effort to enforce white man’s law in the area came in the 1790s under the auspices of the CONNECTICUT LAND CO. However, during Cleveland’s early years law and justice seem to have been meted out–with very little resistance–by the redoubtable LORENZO CARTER†. The formal origins of municipal government are traceable to the creation of Washington and Wayne counties, which were divided at the CUYAHOGA RIVER and administered out of Marietta and Detroit, respectively. After some further reorganization, Trumbull County was organized in 1800 with Warren as the county seat. Officers of Cleveland Twp. were chosen in an 1802 election, and a rudimentary civil government was in place when Ohio was admitted to the Union in 1803. The next year saw a $10 tax imposed on residents by the town meeting–the political institution prevalent in New England. Cleveland became the seat of Cuyahoga County when it was created in 1807, and the Court of Common Pleas met in 1810. Late in 1814, Cleveland, still a precarious frontier outpost, received a village charter, and the next year ALFRED KELLEY† was elected first president.

During the next few years, ordinances set penalties for such things as discharging firearms and allowing livestock to run at large. LEONARD CASE† served as president from 1821-25, the latter date also marking the choice of Cleveland as northern terminus of the Ohio Canal and local adoption of a property tax. In succeeding years, the delinquent tax rolls were, according to one account, “rather robust.” In 1832 a CHOLERA EPIDEMIC OF 1832 spawned a short-lived Board of Health. In 1836 Cleveland attained the status of a city and adopted a government more closely resembling that of the present day. Voters elected city councilmen (3 from each of 3 wards), aldermen (1 per ward), and a mayor with little real executive authority. The mayor’s salary was set at $500 per annum, and city offices were established in the Commercial Block on Superior St. The council authorized a school levy, and the first public school recognizable as such opened the next year. In 1837 the city raised $16,077.53 and spent $13,297.14, an example of fiscal responsibility that was not always to be followed.

Municipal government gradually widened its scope. The Superior Court of Cleveland was created in 1847, and in 1849 the city was authorized to establish a poorhouse and hospital for the poor. As late as mid-century, public service (particularly road work) was sometimes rendered in kind. By 1852 the city was served by railroad, and the legislature passed an act that resulted in Cleveland’s designation as a second-class city (based on population). The council was now composed of 2 members elected from each of 4 wards; their compensation was $1 per session. Executive powers were exercised not so much by the mayor as by various officials and bodies, including a board of city commissioners, marshal, treasurer, city solicitor, market superintendent, civil engineer, auditor, and police court. In 1853 voters elected the first Board of Water Works Commissioners, and council established a Board of Education, which in turn appointed a superintendent. When Cleveland merged with OHIO CITY (CITY OF OHIO) in 1854, 4 additional wards were created, bringing the total for the united city to 11. The waterworks began operation in 1856, and during the next decade a modern sanitary system was gradually put in place. A paid fire department was created in 1863, and the first police superintendent was appointed in 1866. The Board of Education established the CLEVELAND PUBLIC LIBRARY in 1867, and a Board of Park Commissioners was put in place 2 years later, although that did not end complaints about a lack of adequate open space and park facilities. During the last half of the 19th century, annexation kept pace with the city’s growth, which tended to be in the direction of Brooklyn, Newburgh, and East Cleveland townships.

Municipal government was modernized again with the passage of state legislation in 1898. Under the new scheme, voters elected the mayor, city council, treasurer, police judge, and prosecutor. The council appointed an auditor, city clerk, and civil engineer. The administrative boards that distinguished this form of government were variously chosen: voters were to elect the police commissioners and cemetery trustees; the council appointed the board of health and inspectors of various kinds; the mayor appointed (with council’s consent) park commissioners and a superintendent of markets, and he named the directors of the house of refuge and correction. Although Rose argued that it was generally a more efficient form of government, the fact that nearly all board members were unpaid resulted in “indifferent service” or worse. It was during this period that patronage, or the “spoils system” identified with Jacksonian democracy, came into disrepute. The response at the federal level was the Pendleton Civil Service Act, and local government followed suit. Thus in 1886 Cleveland required that positions in the police department be filled by competitive examination. In the same year, a board of elections was created, and in 1891 the state substituted the Australian (secret) ballot for the old system whereby “tickets” were printed and distributed by the parties. Old-line politicians were placated by the adoption of a party-column ballot, which encouraged straight-ticket voting.

Even late in the 19th century, cities did not presume to perform many services directly. Although they were gradually assuming responsibility for libraries, parks, and poor relief, utilities, such as street lighting and street railways, still tended to be franchise operations. Cleveland seems to have operated no industries of its own save the waterworks. But the pressures brought on by growth and the special needs of immigrant groups resulted in the expansion of municipal services during this period, which inevitably meant more expensive government. As a result, the city often had to borrow. Apparently Cleveland was not atypical in having to spend, ca. 1880, about one third of its income on debt service.

Increasing dissatisfaction with city government led to the adoption in 1891 of a form of government modeled directly after that at the national level. Under the Federal Plan, power that had been distributed among various boards, commissions, and officials now was to be shared by a legislature and executive responsible to the electorate. The mayor, who received an annual salary of $6,000, and 6 department heads (appointed by the mayor with approval of the council) made up the Board of Control. The council consisted of 20 members, 2 from each of the 10 districts representing the 40 wards, and each received $5 for attending a regular weekly meeting. The city treasurer, police judge, prosecuting attorney, and police-court clerk were elected by the people. Adoption of the Federal Plan did not spell an end to the franchise system, nor did it eliminate corruption, and the separation of powers made it difficult to exercise real leadership. The extent to which things got done in those days often depended upon the efficacy of informal agencies–bosses and machines–that tended to be the engines driving formal municipal government. These institutions, while responsive and efficient in their own way, bred corruption.

Party machines also reflected the contentiousness of a population split along class, religious, and ethnic lines, the 1890 census showing that of the 261,353 people living in the city, 164,258 were native-born, and only about 25% of these were of native parentage. While certain of Cleveland’s leading citizens seemed quite adept at the rough-and-tumble of electoral politics (MARCUS A. HANNA†, for instance), white Anglo-Saxon Protestants generally were put off by a political system that was not instinctively deferential, and which was often ungentlemanly. It was in this spirit that Harry Garfield, son of the late president, and other leading Clevelanders organized the Municipal Assn. of the City of Cleveland (later known as the CITIZENS LEAGUE OF GREATER CLEVELAND) dedicated to the spirit of progressive middle-class reform.

Progressivism was a multifaceted phenomenon that can be seen in the career of TOM L. JOHNSON†, who was elected mayor in 1901. During his administration, Cleveland’s Progressives operated a municipal garbage plant, took over street cleaning, and built BATH HOUSES and a tuberculosis hospital. The penal system was reformed and a juvenile court established. This municipal expansiveness cost money, of course, and the city’s indebtedness, $14,503,000 in 1900, rose to $27,688,000 by 1906. The structure of local government also changed several times during this period. Progressives here and elsewhere were convinced that the sorry state of municipal affairs was due largely to the “political” interference of state legislatures, and the home rule movement sought to cut the cities loose from legislative control. The redrafting of the state constitution in 1912 was a great triumph for reformers and Cleveland’s HOME RULE charter went into effect in 1914. In general, Progressives stood for nonpartisan elections and the principle of at-large (rather than ward) representation and tended to support the strengthening of executive powers. The CITY MANAGER PLAN was perhaps the archetypal Progressive contribution to municipal government in the U.S. The idea was to put city government on a sound business footing by having a competent, neutral manager not subject to favoritism and cronyism. Cleveland was the first (and only) major American city to adopt, and then to abandon, the council-manager form of government. Certainly, reformers must have been bitterly disappointed when the nonpartisan election of councilmen by proportional representation from large districts proved to have no noticeable impact on corruption. In 1931 voters dumped the manager and proportional representation, bringing back the old mayor-council form and the ward principle.

In the years after World War I, it was becoming increasingly evident that Cleveland’s ability to annex adjacent communities was declining. The more affluentSUBURBS were no longer anxious to became part of Cleveland, as city services were no longer demonstratively superior. Suburban communities were gradually becoming independent of the central city, as more people moved to the outlying areas. Aware that city and suburb shared some concerns, reformers began to press for the adoption of a dual form of metropolitan government, in which the county would assume some areawide functions, but existing municipal powers would be preserved. The county had been considered the administrative arm of the state since 1810, when the first Cuyahoga County officers were inaugurated. With the organization of the last Ohio county in 1851, a new state constitution was passed giving the general assembly the authority to provide for the election of such county officers as it deemed necessary. Cuyahoga County government had only those powers given to it by the state (see CUYAHOGA COUNTY GOVERNMENT), and any reorganization leading to metropolitan government required an amendment to the Ohio state constitution, allowing the county to write its own home rule charter. After several unsuccessful attempts, the home rule amendment was approved by voters in 1933; Ohio was the fourth state in the country to do so.

Two years after the amendment passed, a Cuyahoga County home rule charter to reorganize the existing county government was approved by a majority of city and county voters. The Ohio Supreme Court, however, ruled in 1936 that the reorganization transferred municipal functions to the county and, therefore, needed the more comprehensive suburban majorities called for in the Ohio constitution (see REGIONAL GOVERNMENT). During this time, Cleveland politics focused on the multiple ethnic groups who were acquiring visible political power. It is significant, too, that while cities were taking on certain new responsibilities in response to the Depression–specifically, slum clearance and public housing–the federal government, by providing social-welfare benefits, undermined the power of the party machines by appropriating their functions. As the machine’s role in local politics began its long decline, the newspapers to some extent took over the task of promoting those politicians who had a knack for making headlines. This point may be best illustrated by the career ofFRANK J. LAUSCHE†, mayor 1941-44, and later U.S. Senator. Thanks to the papers and the loyal support of Eastern and Southern European nationality groups, Lausche was a force in Ohio politics for the better part of 3 decades, despite a stormy relationship with Democratic political bosses in the city. The same formula was employed by Anthony J. Celebrezze, who was elected mayor in 1953. It did not matter that Democratic boss RAY T. MILLER† opposed Celebrezze, because he had the support of influential Press editor LOUIS B. SELTZER†. Together, they championed the cause of urban renewal, looking to Washington for the needed funds.

There was some tinkering with the city charter during this period. A partisan mayoral primary was introduced, as was the so-called knock-out rule stipulating that council candidates would run unopposed if they garnered more that 50% of the vote in the primary election, which remained officially nonpartisan. In the Progressive tradition, middle-class reformers continued to work for metropolitan government; however, these efforts proved fruitless. To the voters, the virtues of efficient and economical areawide public services were more than offset by the fact that metropolitan government would significantly alter the political relationships in the region. In the process, they would lose access to and control of the super-government that would be established. These fears were shared by both suburbanites anxious to guard the prerogatives of their municipalities and city residents who viewed metropolitan government as a scheme to dilute their power.

Even without metropolitan government, the increasing complexity of state government had widened the scope of county responsibility, primarily in the health and welfare field. Other specific needs–the regional sewer district and transit authorities, for example–were administered by special agencies and staffed by professional managers who operated for the most part in anonymity and were not subject to direct control by the electorate. As an ad hoc solution to the need for larger jurisdictional units, without creating comprehensive metropolitan government, these agencies enjoyed phenomenal growth both locally and nationally after World War II.

In the 1960s and 1970s a new reform movement emphasizing community control was evident in Cleveland as the focus shifted from areawide concerns to a resurgence of interest in neighborhood government (little city halls). With the turbulence of the sixties, the ability of city administrations to deal with the problems of a changing population was questioned here and elsewhere. The HOUGH AREA DEVELOPMENT CORP., established in the aftermath of theHOUGH RIOTS, was an example of the movement fueled by federal funding.

New problems surfaced in the postwar era that severely taxed the ability of city administrations to govern Cleveland. While the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway and the economic gains anticipated from increased Great Lakes shipping generated enthusiasm, the area’s economic base began to erode as industrial and commercial businesses left the city for the suburbs and beyond. Urban problems, especially those of the black community, were not seriously addressed by a municipal government dominated by the city’s nationality groups.

Governing Cleveland became more arduous as violence in the city’s black ghettos began with the Hough Riots in 1966 and continued into the administration of Carl B. Stokes, elected in 1967. There was no respite from municipal problems during the Perk administration, as the city’s shrinking tax base and voter opposition to a city income tax increase compounded Cleveland’s financial problems, which by this time were quite severe. The financial shortfall continued under Democratic mayor Dennis J. Kucinich, elected in 1977–an urban populist leading a crusade against privilege, particularly that of the city’s business and banking establishment. The ill will generated by his zeal led to an unsuccessful recall attempt by his opponents in 1978 and the withdrawal of the business and financial community’s support from his administration. Later that year, local banks refused to roll over some of the city’s short-term notes, and Cleveland, unable to pay them off, was forced to default on its financial obligations. The shock of DEFAULT persuaded the voters to raise the income tax and enabled Republican George Voinovich, elected mayor in 1979, to reorganize the city’s administration and restore its financial credibility. Cleveland’s immediate problems appeared to be contained, and in a more cooperative atmosphere, long-discussed changes in the city charter were made with a 4-year mayoral and councilperson term of office, approved in 1980, and a reduction of city council from 33 to 21 members, established in 1981. A truce between white Republican mayor Voinovich and George Forbes, the black Democratic council president, made the city’s politics less abrasive than in previous years. Mayor Voinovich was praised for fostering cooperation with the business community, repairing the strained relationship with city hall generated by his predecessor. Muny Light (now named Cleveland Public Power) was improved and expanded, renewing the city’s ongoing commitment to municipal ownership of public utilities. In 1989 city council leadership became more decentralized after the retirement of long-time council president Forbes. With the election of Michael R. White as mayor that year, citizens hoped for a resolution of deep-seated class and racial tensions.

Kenneth Kolson

National Endowment for the Humanities

Mary B. Stavish

Case Western Reserve Univ.



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