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Comment On The Dayton Charter

The following article appeared in National Municipal Review, April, 1915


Comment on the Dayton Charter

by Lent D. Upson

Director, Dayton Bureau of Municipal Research


Dayton is the first large city to attempt municipal betterment through city manager government, and this fact together with the unusual circumstances attending its adoption, has directed a significant interest to the experiment. Many communities impressed by this example of local government have endeavored to put its larger principles into operation. Some of these have copied intact the Dayton charter, while others have accepted the administrative provisions with slight change.

Doubtless a charter most carefully prepared would, under operation, develop points for improvement. This could not be less true of the Day-ton document, which in spite of painstaking thought on certain sections, was written in a limited time by business men. The wide use of the Dayton document as a model suggests the indicating of certain alterations, the need of which has developed through a year's experience. The notations are illustrative of the necessity of care and experience in charter drafting, and are not meant as an exhaustive recital of charter defects.

It so happens that all of the larger cities and most of the smaller ones with city manager government have placed the legislative powers in a small board, elected at large without regard to political party. Irrespective of the improvement in administration generally attending the adoption of the city manager plan, it has not been definitely proven that a small council chosen in the manner indicated contributes materially to this result.

Indeed, the amount of newspaper criticism and street talk based upon misinformation and prejudice prompts the belief that there is a failure to filter the facts of government down to an interested public—an error which some elements suggest might be corrected by bringing the legislative body closer to the people. It is advanced that a method by which the several political and social elements in the community might be represented would stimulate a more friendly attitude among discordant groups, and would require such representatives to place themselves definitely on record on propositions which are criticised solely for political expediency. In other words, responsibility would minimize fault-finding. This problem of representation can have only an empirical solution, and Dayton having discarded the ward system and its evils, awaits with interest the results of a trial of proportional representation.

That the provision in the Dayton charter permitting the recall of the city manager is an error, has been generally conceded. The city manager is solely an administrative officer engaged to carry out the legislative policies of the commission. If he fails in these administrative duties, the commission has made the mistake of appointing an incompetent person; if measures are unpopular, it is the fault of the commission which ordered them put into effect. Granted that in the public mind the city manager will always be the most important person in the city government; that administrations will succeed or fail upon the manager's achievements— yet in the last analysis it is the employers who should be held responsible.

The charter-framers of Dayton were not insensible to these principles, but believed that to have so radical a departure in city government approved, it would be necessary to offer an additional safeguard in the possibility of recalling the city manager. As the public has come largely to realize the purely administrative duties of the city manager, it seems feasible to eliminate this objectionable feature of the charter.

The charter provides that the first meeting of the city commission shall be "on the first Monday of January following the regular municipal election." Under such circumstances it might so happen that the city would be without government, or at least its officers without authority to expend funds from January 1 until the first Monday in the month. This section should be remedied, calling for a meeting of the commission, and the passing of an appropriation ordinance on the first business day of the year.

It has been provided that the city attorney shall be appointed by the city manager, while his assistants are chosen subject to civil service regulations. Question has been made as to the policy of subordinating this office to chief executive. Numerous questions may be proposed, relating particularly to the financial administration of the city, in which it might be advisable that the opinion of the city attorney be unbiased by his relationship with the officer directly responsible for such financial considerations. Not infrequently the desire of an administration to show immediate results proves inimical to the best interests of the tax payers, although the latter are theoretically protected by law. For example, by the refunding of bonds to the advantage of the operating fund; by bond issues for purposes approaching current operation, etc. In such instances the legal adviser of the city should be in the position to advance an in-dependent opinion. It has been suggested that the city attorney, or the chief financial officer, preferably the former, be appointed directly by the commission, but this diversion from centralized authority has never been tried.

“The vital feature of the prescribed accounting procedure of Dayton is in the words "accounting procedure shall be devised and maintained for the city, adequate to record in detail all transactions affecting the acquisition, custodianship and disposition of values . . . ." With this sanction, the director of finance has opened a complete set of books including a general ledger, and is prepared to furnish an accurate balance sheet of all city funds. In fact, Dayton has installed a financial system comparing favorably with that employed in large private business, and which is equaled by few cities in the country. The charter further requires that distinct summaries and schedules shall be presented for each public utility owned and operated. This should be amended to include public industries, such as garbage disposal plants, public markets, etc.

Under the present requirement the city manager signs both the order for goods or services and the voucher by which the payment for such is authorized. It is doubtful if the manager should be compelled to sign either of these documents, as he has no personal knowledge of, and little time to investigate, the merits of the thousands of business transactions occurring.

To centralize the city government the charter provides that the board of sinking fund trustees shall consist of the city commission, the city manager, and the director of finance. A commission with its many varied duties has little time or interest in technical sinking fund procedure. Even in Dayton such a fundamental procedure as the change from the serial to sinking fund plan of debt retirement secured scant consideration. Further, intrusting the custodianship of sinking fund money with the same body that creates indebtedness may not be assumed always to operate to the interest of the tax payers. Occasions might be when the legislative body would issue bonds which, while permitting a favorable showing by the administration, might be illegal as well as impolitic.

Examples are bonds for equipment, regular engineering, and refunding purposes. Under the present circumstances if such indebtedness were refused by bond buyers the legislative body acting as sinking fund trustees might purchase the questionable issue. On the other hand, an independent board of sinking fund trustees would probably be inclined to act only for the broader concern of the public. Reduction in salaried positions, though not the centralization of administration, could be secured equally well by creating a sinking fund commission to serve without pay, and by providing that the city treasurer or accountant should act as secretary.

Purchasing provisions of the charter do not provide that the purchasing agent shall buy other than supplies and materials, although the local agent has extended his activities to include certain contractual services known in budgetary parlance as "contractual services" or "services other than personal." Charter amendment should be made to demarcate the sphere of the agent; or at least to designate minimum activities, leaving their extension to the option of the city manager. Probably centralized purchasing would be profitable for telephone service; repairs by contract or open market order, whether to equipment, building or structures; insurance, both fire and liability; public utility services except transportation charges; and other contractual services such as legal advertising, boarding of live stock, rent of lands and buildings, storage of equipment, horseshoeing, etc.

Definite charter provision should be made for the creation of a stores fund with which, goods may be purchased, stored and sold to departments without profit; for the reimbursement of this fund by warrants drawn against the proper appropriation codes when stores are delivered; and as to the method of adjusting the account at the close of the fiscal year. Authorization should also be made for the sale of services and supplies between departments where the transfer of charges is one of account and no money passes through the city treasury.

It would also be well to specify more clearly the circumstances surrounding emergency orders, requiring that the facts of the emergency shall be certified to the purchasing agent within twenty-four hours after the purchase is made, and that a confirming order shall be immediately sent to the vendor. In this connection the creation of departmental petty cash funds should be definitely allowed, carefully limiting their use so as to minimize abuse.

Further provision should be made that when bids are opened, and be-fore contracts are let, the figures should be public to competitors and to citizens sufficiently interested to inquire at the purchasing agent's office. To this end bids should be tabulated upon standard sheets and become permanent records. Objection has been made that the publicity of bids in contrast to the practice of private firms is not conducive to lowest prices. On the other hand, secrecy of bids places the purchasing agent liable to the temptation of deals with corrupt vendors, and robs the public and competitors of easy means of detection. This situation, as in Dayton, may be remedied by administrative order, but a model charter should leave no vagueness of this character.

If city advertising is done exclusively in a daily newspaper of general circulation which bids the lowest price per unit for such services, there is a remarkable saving in charges of this character. However, the Dayton charter does not permit a municipal journal to be substituted in case a newspaper contract has been entered into, although frequently it would be advantageous to do so. With certain extensive ordinances such as the city budget, building code, traffic rules, etc., newspaper publication is not only expensive, but it is not particularly effective. In such instances it would be desirable to publish in pamphlet form as an issue of a journal which would be less expensive, furnish a means of permanence, and allow for distribution among persons affected or interested.

The absurdity of certain of the Dayton civil service provisions will be so apparent to even the casual student of government that these sections merit only brief mention and discussion:                         

(a) The unclassified service includes the heads of divisions, as well as of departments thereby removing the promotion incentive for employees, and offering a stimulus to the creation and extension of divisions by an unscrupulous administration interested in extending the spoils system.

(b) The chief examiner is empowered to fill vacant positions, after consultation with he city manager, from the entire eligible list. Certainly such a provision lays the merit system wide open and to abuse, and might even nullify it were the appointing officers so inclined. The city manager of Dayton is appointing from the top of the eligible list but a change in the administration policies would permit the filling of vacancies with ward politicians of minimum ability.  

(c) Contrary to approved practices, it is provided that discharged employees are entitled to a public hearing before the civil service board. Such a program will find little defense among persons familiar with civil service practice. A recent experience of Dayton with a public hearing of this kind has proven this scheme to be conducive to insubordination, makes the departmental head reluctant to discharge incompetents and furnishes an opportunity for the creating of political capital by the opposition. 

There are a number of commendable features in the civil service chapter, notably those relating to the standardization of salaries requiring a probationary period of appointment, certification of all pay rolls and the prevention of political activity on the part of employees  These should be retained, but certainly the other provisions cited are in urgent need of amendment.

The principal weaknesses of the special assessment sections relate to the levying of assessments previous to the making of improvements  It is impractical for the city engineer to estimate exactly the cost of improvements, in consequence of which the figures are usually excessive necessitating rebates at the conclusion of the construction. However, when this amount is small, and no demand is made by the tax payer, the surplus is turned into a fund to meet small deficiencies. The devising of some plan which will eliminate these difficulties without involving the objections arising from fixing the assessments after the improvement is made would be an interesting study.

The extensive use which municipalities are now making of special assessments for purposes other than public improvements, should prompt some provisions for the treatment of these funds aside from the regular assessment procedure. Where assessments are used for special street lighting, vault cleaning, sidewalk cleaning, weed cutting, street flushing, street sprinkling, etc., regular budgetary appropriations should be made for these services, with the stipulation that the assessment income should be turned into the general fund as a regular revenue; and that in those cases in which such assessment is placed on the tax duplicate it should be returned when collected to the general fund.

Some exception has been taken to the franchise regulation which prohibits the regranting of a franchise prior to one year of its expiration, a section included to prevent franchise jobbing by a controlled legislative body. It has not been infrequent in municipal history for a council to annul a franchise and in its place grant a new one for a long period. On the other hand it is frequently to local advantage to secure improvements from public utilities, or the union of separate companies, in return for a new franchise granted before the expiration of the older ones. Probably with the other safeguards which have been thrown around the granting of franchises this section might be eliminated.

No sections of the Dayton charter have been more widely copied than those relating to appropriations, doubtless because this city has been one of the few to detail appropriation procedure. However, after the experience derived from the preparation of two budgets under these sections, and with a knowledge of the more recent developments in bud-get making, certain minor changes urgently recommend themselves:

(a) The fiscal year should begin, not necessarily with the calendar year but at a time when the principal payments of accrued city revenues are anticipated.

(b) The classification of expense estimates should be uniform for the main functional divisions of each department, rather than "as nearly uniform as possible."

(c) The clause requiring that the first publication of the budget be made after the public hearings should be changed to read before. This was an unintentional error. A provision requiring that the manager's estimate of expense be published parallel with the appropriations of the commission has been found unnecessary.

(d) Recently considerable change in budget procedure has been suggested by the publication of a budget program for the city of New York for 1915, as devised by the New York bureau of municipal research. The details are too long to be discussed here but are worthy of consideration by any charter drafting body.

In providing for the salaries and compensation of employees, the charter states that the city manager shall fix the number and salaries of officers and employees excepting those in the division of fire and police, and the heads of departments. Such a section is theoretically unsound as delegating to an appointive officer powers which should be retained .by the legislative body which is responsible to the people. This was recognized by the city manager of Dayton who voluntarily relinquished this charter right, and the salaries and period of service of each employee are made an integral part of the appropriation ordinance.

The charter by requiring that the money shall be in the treasury before obligations are entered into automatically limits the period of contract to one year. In the main, this has proven beneficial but absolutely prevents long-term contracts for public lighting, garbage disposal, etc. Contracts of this character should be exempt from this provision.

These are some of the important changes found desirable in the Dayton charter after one year of operation. Doubtless there are others which further experience will develop. This document was never presented as the last word in charter-making, but claims to be only a step in advance over those in common use.  Cities contemplating the adoption of the Dayton model of government should profit by the weaknesses which have risen, remembering that the most adequate charter, if it contains administrative procedure, will require periodic amendment in order to take advantage of improvements developed through the experience of their own and other cities.


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