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The Dayton Plan
By Isaac F. Marcosson 1914



A City


The “Dayton Plan”



Isaac F. Marcosson



“Colliers” January 3rd





Issued by




Less than twelve months ago the heart of the nation leaped in sympathy to flood-swept Dayton in her hour of travail; today the eyes of the country are turned on the once stricken area to watch a kindly spectacle of civic rebirth and reconstruction.  Out of rain has come leadership.  Such is the resource and the resiliency of the American city.

The new year has brought to the whole American people no more cheering or significant gift perhaps than the example of the new form of strictly business government just instituted in the alert and undaunted city in the Valley of the Miami.

Under the most radical of commission charters, providing for a city-manager administration, she leaps to the fore in the march of municipality toward freedom and efficiency.


Another Distinct Step Forward


            Clearly to understand the peculiar importance which attaches to Dayton’s position it is first necessary to refer briefly to the institution of commission government.  Most people are familiar with the straight plan, born at Galveston, developed by Des Moines, and now employed by nearly three hundred places.  Its main features are the election of a non-partisan commission by the short ballot, the initiative, the referendum, and the recall; in short, an agency for real popular rule without the aid of political machinery.

            Under this form each commissioner—and there are usually five—becomes the head of one of the operating branches of city work.

            But Dayton has taken a distinct and progressive step forward in the development of the whole commission idea, and because of this really epochal innovation, combined with the dramatic fight made for it, the procedure becomes invested with value for every citizen, no matter where or under what kind of city government he happens to live.


The Commission-Manager Plan


            Why should there be any change in a proved antidote for the ills that have so long assailed municipal life?  Simply because the generally accepted commission plan, admirable as it is, is neither flawless nor completely businesslike.  The chief objection has been the combination—in the commissioners—of the legislative and administrative functions.  Running a city is purely an expert job.  Yet everywhere, under old and new systems, men without experience or the necessary technical training are being called to it.

            Technical experts, and especially those in city matters, do not usually run for office, and when they do run they are not likely to be good vote getters.

            Hence came the inspiration to modify the stereotyped commission plan along the line of a business corporation; that is, to elect commissioners whose sole task is to create policy and then have a hired expert manager to carry it out.

            The little town of Lockport, up New York State, was really the pioneer in devising a charter that divorced the representative and legislative wings and called for a hired city operator.

            It was an adaptation of the German professional mayor process, but an unsympathetic Legislature prevented action on the scheme.

            The idea bore fruit, and strangely enough, in the heart of an ancient conservatism.  Down in South Carolina was the bustling town of Sumter with less than ten thousand people, struggling with misrule under the old Federal elective plan.  The citizens wanted commission government.

            “Why not get an expert to operate the town?” asked the Chamber of Commerce.

            So a charter was framed to answer the question and make possible what came to be called the commission-manager or “controlled-executive” system of government.  Sumter adopted the charter and hired a Virginia civil engineer with wide railway experience to take hold.  He proved the efficacy of the project by saving half of his salary the first year on two items of expenditure.  Other Southern communities took up this plan.  They were small and obscure, however, and attracted little attention.


The Dayton Upheaval


            But events were shaping to give this new freedom from partisan inefficiency its fullest and largest scope.  In Dayton, where the smoke curled from a thousand factories, lay the opportunity.

            Dayton was no better or no worse than the average city with the old-time elective mayor and council system.  The hand of the “machine” lay heavy on the public service; city-hall inadequacy and greed knew no party line.  The treasury was always empty; government was by deficit.

            In ten years the public debt had grown from $26.37 per capita to $46.13.  To obtain funds for street lighting during a single year meant the issue of bonds running for thirty.  Similarly, bonds to pay for moderate street construction long outlived the highways.  And so on down the familiar line of extravagance and mismanagement.

            Then began a movement that, in the completeness of its organization, in the big drama that punctuated its progress, and in the moral of education that it carries for every other city struggling to be free, is almost with precedent.  The approach to the Dayton charter was along the path of remarkable preparedness, and it is well worth explaining.  It is the business prelude to a business era.

            Along in the fall of 1912 the Chamber of Commerce, appalled by the failure of city government, appointed a committee headed by Leopold Rauh and including John H. Patterson, E.A. Deeds, Frederick H. Rike, and E.C. Harley—five representative business men with widely differing interests and experience—to investigate and recommend some new plan.


A Gospel by Word of Mouth


            They ranged over the whole commission field, noting its advantages; realizing its defects.  They knew nothing about politics, but they were schooled in commerce.  They saw the city as a sick business panting for a remedy.  So they set about find a cure.

            The committee understood from long contact that all there was to the conduct of a corporation was to select the right kind of trained men and then to direct them.  They reasoned that what was true of a big business was equally true of a community, whether large or small, and what was good for one was good for the other.  If the city was to be run efficiently, then it was necessary to get an expert administrator and watch him from a nonpartisan side line.

            On a big sheet of paper these men of large business affairs sketched out a commission-manager plan that carried the Sumter scheme far beyond that first real vision of expert municipal conduct.  It adapted the process to all the needs of a large municipality.  When they showed it to a city expert he said: “It’s ideal, but you cannot carry it out.”

            “Very well,” was the reply.  “We will fall with this ideal, but before we fall the people of this town will know what progressive government ought to be.”      

            At that time scarcely a dozen persons in Dayton had ever heard of commission-manager rule.  So the committee said: “If we are to break the old bondage, then we must first educate the people.  Education lies at the root of all permanent progress.”

            A picturesque crusade, without red-fire trimmings but very earnest and intimate, was launched.  The committee worked with small units.  Little groups of men were asked in to lunch or conference and shown the chart of progress and then sent on their missionary way.  By word of mouth—always the most effective publicity—the gospel of the proposed order was spread.  Dayton is a group of smaller communities, each with some sort of civic club.  They were enlisted and formed an endless chain of advocacy.  This was the seed sown.


The New Civic Creed


            The idea of the small unit for education was kept up almost to the end.  At all the meetings, then and thereafter, cards, on which the voters pledged themselves to the project, were circulated for signature.  Typical sections of this new civic creed were:

            “I want the commission to pick out for Dayton the best man that can be found anywhere for manager.”

            “I want this manager to be subject to recall and able to get one hundred cents’ worth of service for every dollar expended.”

            This card catalogue became the roster of the militant charter host. It placed a majority of the voters definitely on record on a specific issue, and they could not well repudiate their signed bond.  It enabled the managers to realize that when the opportunity came to vote, the voter would know just what he wanted.

            There was plenty of opposition to the commission project.  The old “machine” and the Socialists fought it tooth and nail.  The former saw in it the destruction of seasoned privilege; the latter a menace to their party solidarity.


What the Flood Did


            Then destiny took a hand in the charter campaign.  In March the angry waters swept down the Miami Valley inundating Dayton.  When the muddy waters subsided, and even amid the stark desolation that such devastation leaves in its wake, the people turned resolutely to the twin task that confronted them.  For now they would rebuild civically as well as physically.  They knew what to demand, too.  The brotherhood of the bread line, kindled amid common need and danger, found expression in a combined stand against the larger city peril.

            With the mud and debris still clinging to their houses, the Daytonians circulated a petition for an election to determine the charter question. So admirably had the campaign done its work that over 3,000 signatures (more than enough) were secured overnight.

            The charter election ordered had to be carried.  But this could only be done with organized effort.  At this point the spectacle of the reviving Dayton assumes heroic proportions.  It was a situation that would have staggered everything but a dauntless optimism.  Ninety thousand people had been compelled to leave their homes; the street-car service was paralyzed; elevators in tall buildings were not running; the entire telephone system was out of order.  The only way to reach men was by personal visit.  How, then, was civic pride to be stirred when it was a pressing problem to get three meals a day and a dry bed to sleep in?  Yet the scattered citizens’ organization of 800 men was welded anew under these depressing and harrowing conditions,--further tribute to the zeal and faith of a courageous folk.  The old battle line was thrown out, and all through the spring, when Nature was mantling the scarred and stricken valley, the fight was waged.  In May the people overwhelmingly declared for the city-manager form of government, and named fifteen drafters headed by Mr. Patterson, all pledged to the manager system.  Nothing had been left to whim or chance.  The charter, prepared within thirty days because its essentials were understood before the election, thus preventing endless discussion and confusion afterward, as happened in Detroit and Columbus, was ratified by the same vote; so, too, with the choice of the five commissioners, George Shroyer, John R. Flotron,  J.M. Switzer, A.I. Mendenhall and Jno A. McGee, who now sit in executive judgment on the destinies of Dayton.  The solidity of this continued vote shows that public opinion, molded by education, does not readily change.


Choosing a City Manager


            The very personnel of the commission—upstanding men who stood shoulder to shoulder amid flood and famine—typifies the spirit of this new working democracy.  Four are self-made merchants and the fifth a printer, who still works at the case. 

            The way they went about their first and most important task—the selection of a city manager—shows their appreciation of high responsibility.  Their initial choice was Colonel George W. Goethals, the master builder.  They felt that he incarnated the ideal of what a city builder should be.  When the news of the invitation to him became known the country suddenly awoke to the significance of this bloodless municipal revolution.

            After Colonel Goethals declined the place the commission set systematically about filling it.  They had, indeed, set a lofty standard.  On the theory that home rule did not necessarily mean home talent, they scoured the country.  The list of eligibles included chief engineers and general superintendents of railroads; men with military training and experience; managers of great corporations; university presidents (the White House was the cue here); experts in budget making and budget saving; even ex-mayors of proved worth and wide technical opportunity.  Expert administration in Dayton is to be a condition, not a theory.

            I was present when one of these eligibles appeared by invitation at the bar of the commission.  It was an event that might easily have happened in the board room of a great corporation.  The commissioners sat as directors, and to all intents, they were quizzing a possibility for general manager.  When the commissioners entered the assembly room they left their politics, their business interests, their personal prejudices, and their religion outside.  The amazing thing about the whole session was that the word politics was never mentioned.  Instead, the commissioners probed into their guest’s experience, grasp of civic affairs, method of handling men, and last but not least, his vision of the city-manager domain.  So with all the rest of those who seemed to measure up to this epoch-making post.  Fitness was the first consideration.

            After many such meetings and a month’s careful combing of the field, the commission selected Henry M. Waite, of Cincinnati, to take up the duties which will doubtless set a new mark in the conduct of the American city.

            Mr. Waite is a trained engineer who has constructed and operated railroads, developed coal fields, and had big part in the actual operation of a metropolitan community.  His most recent activity fits him peculiarly for the Dayton work, for he has been one of Mayor Hunt’s chief aids in the physical rehabilitation of Cincinnati under the reform era which ended all too soon.  He has built streets and sewers, handled large groups of men, and built up an organization that is a model.  He knows buildings and he knows business.  Big of bone, deep of chest, and keen of eye, he looks as if the terrific task of blazing a whole fresh city path would be bread and meat to him.

            This stocky, spectacled man who now sits as city manager in the gray and weather-beaten City Hall down on Main Street in Dayton is in reality the general superintendent of a humming and far-flung corporation of 125,000 stockholders.  It is up to him to produce the dividends of service.

            How are these dividends to be earned?  By the most businesslike system of city government yet devised for an important community in this county.  The keynote is centralization of administrative authority.  One man—the city manager—is head and front of city operation, and what is more, he is responsible for it.  He can appoint, discharge, and fix the salaries of all his immediate subordinates, including the heads of the five principal departments of law, finance, public safety, and public welfare.  He can choose them wherever he pleases.  Their one qualification must be training.

            This unification of power not only enables the city to have a permanent expert, and professional administrator, but permits him to name a cabinet that will be sympathetic as well as efficient.  Having no political enemies to punish and no friends to reward, he can proceed with one idea—to get the largest service for the best cost.

            Why concentrate so much power in one man, you ask?  Simply because business experience proves that centralization of authority in one man and the subsequent decentralization in his chief aids is the best formula for efficiency.   The city manager can never usurp his power because, like the commission, he is subject to recall.

            The commission, therefore, sits as a legislative body.  It decides what the community job is, and the city manager sees that it is done.  For example, if a new street is to be built, the commission, certain that the improvement is needed, calls in the city manager and tells him what is to be done.  He in turn summons the chief of the Department of Public Service and gives the necessary instructions.  If the work lags the commission can jerk up the city manager.  Thus responsibility is definitely fixed.

            This is a big advance on the cumbersome old Federal councilmanic plan with its waste and delay on public work.  Dayton has knocked the bottom out of the municipal “park barrel.”


Food and Graft-Proof Methods


            The charter framers went on the theory that corrupt government is due more to the badness of methods than to the badness of men.  Hence they devised complete methods of management, so specific that officials cannot go wrong, even if they try.  In brief, the methods are fool and graft proof.  The city’s financial record, old stamping ground of manipulation, is as simple as an elementary lesson in arithmetic.

            The whole purpose of the financial system is to do two things—spend money more scientifically and account for it scientifically.  It is the adaptation of private science to public affairs.

            You will be able to step into the City Hall any time and find out just what the state of municipal finance is.  There is a continuous audit of accounts.  Dayton is now to have that rarest of municipal documents—an accessible balance sheet which, in the opinion of many experts, is more important to a community than a charter.

            The budget is carefully guarded.  Public hearings are held on the estimate before it can be enacted into law.  The appropriation shall never exceed the estimated income.

            Every check that system and ingenuity can devise is put on expenditure.  No pay roll is complete without a certified time sheet; city purchasing is centralized and made by competitive bids; service and compensation are standardized, thus insuring equal pay for equal work in all branches of city government.

            To enumerate all the details of this radical but practical regime would require a very long catalogue.  But one step, unique in practice in this county, has a far-reaching moral.  It is borrowed from Germany and provides for the appointment, by the commission, of non-partisan citizen boards to advise with the city manager or his chief aids on specific public matters.  It may be parks, playgrounds, or policy.  Here is just a continuation of the idea of having the largest and best advice on each phase of administration.

            Not content with all this pioneering both in system and procedure, Dayton goes further and provides for a whole new branch of American city government.  It is the Department of Public Welfare and is based on the theory that the municipality should be the leader in community activity.

            A definite business idea is behind this innovation.  The big industrial magnate (and there was one notable example right there in Dayton), has demonstrated that welfare work in his factory makes his employees happier and more efficient.  Why, argues the charter framers, should not welfare work for the city make all the citizens happier and more efficient and therefore better able to play their part in the city drama?   Hence came the vision of this department which not only takes in the conventional features of health, playgrounds, parks, communal Christmas tree, charities and corrections, but has the larger outlook on benefits that will touch and uplift all the people.

            Among its projects are a municipal loan shop created to put the shylocks out of business; a welfare loan agency to end the cruelty of the sharks; a free legal aid bureau where the poor man can get protection for his legal rights; a municipal employment bureau; a municipal rock quarry to furnish work for men without steady jobs; a social survey, and an inquiry into women’s wages.

            You have now seen the unfolding of this new and inspiring civic order.  But what of permanency is there to the system?

            Thorough in all things—as the narrative of its emancipation shows—Dayton has again left nothing to chance.  Even before the cheers announcing the adoption of the new charter had died down the progressive men of the town were saying: “The success of this commission government lies in having a strong and constant public opinion behind it.”

            In other words, it needed a perpetual prop, and that prop came in the organization of The Greater Dayton Association—a by-product of the Old Chamber of Commerce, but with bigger perspective and broader powers.  Here then is the force to stoke the fires of civic patriotism.

            Like the flood-prevention fund and charter sentiment, it was reared by systematic and intimate effort.  The foremost and most striking features of its membership of six thousand (greater than any similar body in the country, is that is includes three hundred women.  One of them is on the board of directors.

            The Greater Dayton Association is a welding of all the people. Even mill hands were canvassed and made members.  Big employers have subscribed for memberships and given them to their people as premiums for good service.  Thus the millionaire magnate and his shop foreman, the storekeeper and his clerk, sit side by side in the meetings, each with a single vote.  With such a well-knit and democratic unit the city conscience can be stimulated.  It is an eternal vigilance committee.  Dayton was reclaimed from flood and is now on the way to redemption simply because an aroused and educated public intelligence proceeded along definite business lines, guided by business men.  Back of this machine is a significance that touches every community.  The city manager idea lights the fresh path for the whole future of city conduct.  It is the beginning of the end of election of administrative officials by popular vote; it means, further, that city running will become a profession and career here as abroad.  No longer will grocer, merchant, or lawyer be called to fill a mayor’s chair.  “Business administration” can be a constructive reality instead of a campaign promise.

            In any event, Dayton is pointing the way with a plan well worth heeding.


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