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The Little Boss and the Big Manager

The following article appeared in Metropolitan magazine, November 1916

 The Little Boss and the Big Manager

By Harold Howland


The Little Boss twisted my card in well manicured fingers and waited to hear my errand. He was a trim, round, stocky figure. His glistening boots, beautifully pressed flannel trousers and brilliantly striped silk shirt, to say nothing of the glittering tie pin in the no less brilliant cravat, spelled "class." He was obviously, but quite amiably, on the defensive. I put the question modestly. How did Dayton's two years' experience with a city manager look to him? I wanted to get all the angles on it.

He was wary, and threatened to be uncommunicative.

“I’ve got no business to stand here and criticize," he said slowly. “You see I flatly don't believe in the principle o’ the thing."

It didn’t look promising. But I tactfully waited, and in a moment the visibly rising tide of feeling burst the dam of his politician's "caginess." Then I had only to listen.

“This union o' th' legislative an' administrative in one bunch o' men is all wrong," he began.   “It’s against all th' fundamental principles o' the American nation. When ya have one set o' men appropriatin' th' money, an' then let th' same set o' men spend it, it's—it ain't right."

A gentle murmur of understanding offered no hostility to the thought. After all, fundamental principles are fundamental principles.

"But I'll tell ya," he suddenly veered.  “From a political point o' view it's great. Ya only have to elect three men, an' ya've got th' whole works. We'll get it in a little while an' then it'll be all right."

That was a point of view worth considering. He elaborated.

"Two o' th' original five went out o' office a little while ago, an' we got one o' our men in. Next year we'll put two more in, an' then—we should worry."

It required little penetration to see that that “we" meant something much more important than—at least something quite different from—the sovereign people of Dayton. There had been quite a savage glee in his predictions—not merely for his sandy thatch is the Little Boss known as “Red." Then the sense of his wrongs surged over him again, as I suggested an inquiry as to “efficiency."

“Efficiency? Hell!" he barked. “Not but what they're givin' good gov'ment enough. They ain't so bad. An' that feller Waite's th' best o' th' bunch."

Waite, you must know, is the city manager, and a real man—and the Reds of this world are not grudging in their admiration of the type.

“But th' system's wrong, I tell ya!"

Not even a real man can atone for an unsound system.

“Why these workingmen out here in th' different wards, they ain't got no place to go with their complaints. In th' old days there was always a feller livin' in their ward that belonged to th' council. When things went wrong they could go around to his place in th' ev'nin' an' tell him about it. Now there ain't no place for 'em to go. It ain't fair to them fellers."

I suggested that the manager's office in the City Hall was always glad to have complaints, wasn't it?

"City Hall!" he snorted. “How’re they goin' to get there? They have to work all day. An' there ain't one of 'em would dare go within a block o' the City Hall, anyway. They want one o" th' fellers in their own ward to go to, friendly like.

“An’ it's a government o' bugs," he went on, more and more redly. “There ain’t a bug in th' country with crazy ideas o' his own about city government that ain't welcome here. They're all th' time goin' outside th' city, an' outside th' state too, to get fellers to do things for 'em. Efficiency experts, they call 'em."

Cold type was never meant to express the awful scorn of those two words.

“There's fellers right here in Dayton can do th' job all right."

There was no possible doubt that he knew just the “fellers” to do it—and that he was just itching to pick them out.

“That ain't no way to run a city gov'ment—"

Of course he knew a better way— or why was he the Little Boss?

“An’ then you need a party to hold responsible for things.  There ain't nobody ya can hold responsible now!"

It was the culmination. You did not need to be convinced that he knew exactly the party that ought to have the responsibility.

Once more he went back for a minute to fundamentals and sacred American principles. Then, as I offered some thanks for his kind communicativeness, the Little Boss confessed, “I’m glad to get it off my chest." It must have been burdening him.

There was the case against Dayton's city manager government in a nut-shell. I had never hoped to get all the stock arguments against efficient, businesslike, non-partisan municipal government handed out in such a neat parcel with such unblushing frankness. These were the criticisms, look you, of an eminently '' practical” man —and they were all based on theoretic grounds. The arguments in favor of the Dayton plan, I soon discovered, were not theoretic; they were coldly practical. For in the two and a half years since Dayton adopted the plan, city manager government has "delivered the goods." What better test, in these pragmatic days, of a city government do you want than that?

The city manager plan, let me remind you, provides for a commission of five men, elected at large—without regard to ward lines—on a purely non-partisan ballot; and a city manager, appointed by the commission at a generous salary. The commission corresponds to the board of directors of a corporation—the voters, of course, are the stockholders; the city manager corresponds to the corporation's general manager. The commission determines general policy and appropriates money. The city manager appoints all the subordinate officials and hires all the workers, spends the money, and administers the city s affairs.

Let us see what goods this system has delivered in Dayton?

It has eliminated politics from the city government. The city manager has said it so often to his friends and associates and to the public that it has come to be a kind of humorous slogan, “I do not know the politics of a single one of my subordinates and appointees." But Waite needs to say it to you only once to make you believe it implicitly. For, as I have said, he is a real man, and not the kind that needs or wants to juggle with the truth. Besides, if it were not true, catch the Little Boss not making the most of it.

It has given the people their money's worth—than which there is no harder problem in city government. For the average citizen wants the city to do all kinds of things for him, and at the same time to keep his taxes down. The first thing Dayton s new government has done is to have a scientific financial budget. A budget is a fearfully unpicturesque, unhuman thing; but the man who said that it “may be made one of the most potent instruments of democracy" knew what he was talking about. Having the right kind of a budget means cut-ting your coat according to your cloth. It means living within your income, spending your money intelligently, seeing to it that you get what you want for what you have to spend.

An absolutely essential accompaniment to a scientific budget is a proper accounting system. This keeps you up to the mark. It tells you when you are in danger of getting off the track you have marked out for your-self. Dayton has what a representative of the Federal government sent to make an official report on the matter described as the most scientific and up-to-date system he had ever seen.

The manager can tell every night what the exact balance is in every department of the government. The ac-counts of the city are subject to a continuous audit by public accountants, who drop down upon the books at all sorts of unexpected moments just as Federal bank examiners do on National banks. “But," says Waite, with his frank grin, “we have so organized our financial and accounting system that we don't care when they come."

What is the result?

The first year the city had $38,000 more to spend than the year before, and gave $139,000 worth of increased service. The new government found $125,000 worth of notes outstanding, and paid off two-fifths of them from current income. The city lived absolutely within its income. Last August the Budget Commission, which is a county body entrusted with the apportionment of taxes between the county and the city, decreed that this year the city should have a hundred and sixty thousand dollars less income than last. That meant a loss of one-tenth of the city's revenue. The manager promptly set to and saved $48,000 before the first of January came around; and with the use of some interest money that had been laid aside for a rainy day proposes to get through 1916 without either curtailing the municipal activities or borrowing money. This in spite of the diminished income foisted upon the city by the county authorities. This is the kind of thing that a scientific budget, strict financial control and centralized administrative authority are able to accomplish. It does not sound much like the usual experience of the typical American city, does it?

The new government saves life. Not only was the general death rate of the city reduced in two years from 15.7 per thousand to 13 per thousand, but the rate of infant mortality was more sharply lowered. In the whole United States out of every thousand babies under one year old 124 die each year. In Dayton three years ago the rate was 139 out of every thousand; last year it was 88.8. This splendid record is largely the result of the work of the Welfare Department, which has established a system of visiting nursing—in which the city and several private agencies cooper-ate in perfect harmony and with admirable efficiency—free milk stations and baby clinics, and by supervision has greatly improved the city's milk supply.

The new government saves money for the city by applying business fore-sight and good common sense to the management of its affairs.  Everybody knows how scandalously the price of gasoline is soaring in this year of grace—and war. Does this disturb the city of Dayton? It does not. That fortunate municipality will go on paying nine cents a gallon for its "gas" until 1917, instead of twenty-four or twenty-eight or whatever perilous height it may reach in the open market—just because its City Manager was sensible enough to make a contract last August to cover the present year.

Here’s another case. The city, which is bisected by a river, needed some new bridges. The Manager took notice of the fact that there was war in Europe, suspected that it might have some influence on the price of steel, and bought the material for his bridges "on the jump." Months later, when the construction contracts were to be let, the city found that it had saved $15,000 by his forehandedness. In the same way $5,300 has been saved on cement and $1,000 on sewer pipe. Every city that has parks —and what city has not—needs plants and flowers to decorate them. The Manager spent $1,300 on a municipal greenhouse—just a little more than the city had paid each year for the plants it bought. By next year that greenhouse will have paid for itself; and ever after the flowers and plants it produces will be "velvet."

Many cities—most would probably be nearer the truth—look upon garbage as nothing but waste, and go right on spending good money to get rid of it. Dayton, for instance, had been burying its garbage. But garbage, properly considered, is not waste but value. You might as well take money out and bury it.  The Manager knew this important fact and went and built a reduction plant six miles out of the city. That plant turns the garbage into grease, which has a good market price, and tankage, which is always in demand for the manufacture of fertilizer. There is nothing left but the smell—and when I visited the plant in full operation there was surprisingly little of that. Now that plant cost $69,000 to build. The sale of the grease and tankage will pay for the operation of the plant, the interest on the investment and the depreciation, and will leave a substantial profit. The Manager does not believe in his city's burying even an unsavory talent in the earth when he can make it produce other talents so easily. That plant will reduce not only the garbage, but what is a much more sensitive point with the citizen, the tax rate.

It pays even a city to “manage."

The new government has made Dayton tidy. Look around your own town and see the unsightly vacant lots with their rank weeds, their tin cans, broken bottles and other goat fodder. Look around Dayton and you will be astounded to find nothing of the sort. Instead you will see neat, flourishing vegetable gardens, each with a row of flowers next the sidewalk,  Dayton has plenty of vacant lots, but hardly a single eyesore. Now Dayton had a particularly difficult problem here, for after the great flood the vacant lots had been used as dumping grounds for dirt and rubbish until they were prize examples of municipal untidiness. The Manager told the people that if they would clean up those lots the city would haul away the rubbish and plow up the ground for gardens. The only condition was that a row of flowers must be planted along the front of each lot. The first year four hundred lots were turned into gardens, last year six hundred and fifty, this year nearly a thousand. Some of these lots are used for school gardens, which the children cultivate under supervision. The children's gardens are graded according to their excellence; and the young gardeners who attain a certain grade are allowed to sell their produce in the city's public curb market at little stands which the city puts up for them.  Who can doubt that this vacant lot garden movement pays real dividends to the community in civic comeliness, health, thrift, and even perhaps in the way of a slap at the common enemy, the high cost of living?

The new government applied common sense to the vexed problems of vagrancy and the treatment of minor offenders. Formerly homeless men used to sleep in the hall of the police station. A municipal lodging-house has been established, with two simple rules. Every applicant must take a bath before he gets a bed, and everyone must work half a day for his lodging. The number of applicants has been reduced seventy-five per cent. The offenders in the workhouse are used on work for city improvement which otherwise would not be done. They are first sent out in squads under guard. If they behave there they are allowed to go out in squads without guards. If they make good records under those conditions they are permitted to go by themselves to jobs in private employment which are secured for them. They return to the workhouse every night. Every payday they bring their pay envelopes unopened to the superintendent of the workhouse, who opens them in the presence of each prisoner and his family. The wages are then divided as seems appropriate, one part to support the family and another to help pay off the inevitable debts. Last year thirty-six men in the workhouse carried on regular work under this system. One man has kept his family in clothes and food, has paid off some-thing like $150 of debts and has for the first time in his life money in the building and loan association. He is still a workhouse prisoner, but perhaps quite as good a head of a family as many a man outside it. Better to "manage" delinquents this way than to be content with merely punishing them, isn't it?

There are plenty of other directions in, which the new government has saved money for the taxpayers. Dayton, for instance, had an antiquated and inefficient water-supply system when the Manager came into office. In the winter he found every pump working to full capacity and knew that when the increased summer demands came some of the city's wants must go unsupplied. The only solution believed possible by the old-time politicians was to get the money for he indispensable improvements by raising the water rates.  But the Manager thought otherwise. He employed prominent engineering experts from outside the city—peace to the Little Boss's outraged "feelings—followed their recommendations and today the city is getting all the water it needs and the revenue is taking care of operating expenses, interest and sinking fund with no increase in the water rate. The cost of garbage collection has been cut from $2.60 a ton to $1.60. The heavy oil used for oiling the streets is bought for $1.95, instead of $3.25 as of old. The streets are now flushed with a motor flushing machine which covers seven miles of street a day at a cost of two dollars a mile, Instead of the two horse-drawn machines of former times that did one mile a day at a cost of $12.72 a mile.                       

These are some of the high spots in the record of the new government of Dayton. I pick them out because they can be visualized as such things as increased efficiency in city departments and wise and far-sighted planning for the future cannot be. They are characteristic. Even the Little Boss admits without much reluctance that Dayton is getting good government.  How good it is probably not even Dayton will fully realize for a long time to come. Whether the city will have an opportunity to come to this full realization will depend upon whether the people of Dayton stay awake.  If they don’t look out the Little Boss and his cronies will put one over on them.  “He himself has said it.”  And the last state of that city will be worse than the first.  For no system of government – not even the City manager plan – will give a community automatic good government.  But the City Manager plan is the best we have yet known to enable the people of a community to have just as good a government as they really want.

Only they must keep awake.

The End