Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Aldermanic and Mayoral History

Whenever there's a political or social controversy, it can be helpful (or at least interesting) to take a look back through history to see how we got to this point. I've spent some time over the past week or so sifting through newspapers on microfilm and in online databases, and rooting out old charter revision reports tucked away in the basement of the Bronson Library. As a result, I've found some interesting information about the origins of Waterbury's Aldermen at Large system, which will be coming to an end next year.

The City of Waterbury was incorporated in 1853, but included only the center of Waterbury, where the population was the most dense. The Town of Waterbury formed a ring around the City, extending out to the current borders of Waterbury. The City and the Town each had their own form of government: the Board of Aldermen and the Selectmen.

1874 Map of Waterbury, showing the City of Waterbury highlighted in yellow, surrounded by the Town districts, which formed the basis of some of today's neighborhoods. (Map courtesy of UConn Libraries)

The division between the Town and City has lingering effects today. The outer ring neighborhoods, which were part of the Town of Waterbury, have a much more suburban feel to them than the neighborhoods that were part of, or close to, the City of Waterbury.

The City of Waterbury was divided into four wards, while the Town of Waterbury had ten districts. By 1893, the population in the Town of Waterbury had grown large enough to be in need of city services.

Waterbury's four city wards in 1893 (soon after, there were five wards). Everything outside of the wards was part of the Town of Waterbury, which had a separate government system. All that remains of the old division between the City and the Town is the existence of a City Clerk and a Town Clerk. (Map courtesy of David Rumsey Map Collection)

A merger of the City and the Town was approved by the Connecticut General Assembly in 1895. The new City Charter specified that the Board of Aldermen would consist of three Aldermen elected from each of five wards. The Town and City were fully consolidated as a single government in 1902.

Waterbury's Aldermen in 1898, as listed in the Municipal Register.

I was wondering when we switched to the Aldermen at Large system, and I came across this tantalizing paragraph printed in the Hartford Courant in 1931:

"Democrats Elect Hayes in Waterbury," Hartford Courant, 7 Oct 1931.
(Waterbury municipal elections used to be held on the first Tuesday in October.)

Although the above snippet of an article implies that Hayes instituted Aldermen at Large during his time as Mayor, I have since found out that it actually went into effect earlier (you can't trust everything you read in the news, even back in 1931).

Until 1917, Aldermen were elected by Ward: three Aldermen from each of five Wards. During this time period, a majority vote was defined as a two-thirds vote of all members.

Board of Aldermen listed in the 1917 City Directory

In 1918, a hybrid system was introduced: two Aldermen from each of five Wards, and five Aldermen at Large.

Board of Aldermen listed in the 1918 City Directory

Finally, in 1920, the system switched to only Aldermen at Large. During this period, until 1927, the Aldermen had staggered terms of office, similar to the Board of Education. I haven't figured out all of the details of how the elections were run during this period. There were seemingly endless amendments to the City Charter during the 1920s, and the newspapers weren't too interested in writing about the details.

Board of Aldermen listed in the 1920 City Directory

Waterbury fell afoul of serious political trouble beginning in 1918, the same time that the Board of Aldermen began transitioning from being elected by Ward to at Large. By 1920, the city's expenses were spiraling out of control and the Board of Aldermen raised the mill rate to what was then a record high of 29.55 mills ("Committee Now '100%' Guilfoile," Hartford Courant, 4 Jan 1920).

The Hartford Courant later described the period beginning in 1918 as “Twelve years of misgovernment,” involving out of control municipal spending and increasing municipal debt (“Waterbury Airs Fight At Hearing,” Hartford Courant, 8 Apr 1931). By 1929, the fiscal crisis in Waterbury was so bad that the State Legislature’s Finance Committee established a special commission to conduct a two-year study and find solutions to the problem.

Waterbury's voters were fed up with mismanagement by the "at large" Board of Aldermen, and they eagerly embraced transferring power from the Aldermen to the Mayor. Waterbury's charter was changed to establish what was then called a "strong Mayor" system of government. It was also sometimes called a “business man’s government” (“Cellar ‘Plottings’ in Waterbury Told,” New York Times, 2 Feb 1939). This wasn’t exclusive to Waterbury—“strong Mayor” governments were a popular trend during the 1920s and ‘30s, placing most of the government power with the executive, ideally to create an “efficient and economical” administration.

Waterbury's voters were ready for a strong mayor to take charge of the city’s finances. What they got was T. Frank Hayes.

Hayes was elected Mayor in 1929, after campaigning as a business man who would run the city like a business. Sounds good, right?

Full page campaign ad in the Waterbury American, 2 Oct 1929
(Microfilm at Silas Bronson Library)

As it turned out, trusting Frank Hayes with power was a terrible idea. Almost as soon as he was in office, he took advantage of his power to award no-bid city contracts to associates who kicked back a large portion of their pay to Hayes and his cronies. Over the span of eight years, Hayes and his friends skimmed more than $1 million (possibly as much as $3.5 million) from the city coffers, raising the mill rate to 40 in order to support his scam.

Hayes was a major proponent of a 1930 Charter Revision, which gave the mayor power to name all the members of city boards each year, and to veto any measures enacted by the Board of Education. The proposed Charter Revision also included the creation of a Council-Manager (or city manager), who would run the city. This part of the Charter Revision Report was rejected.

The proposal to adopt a Council-Manager system of government was hotly debated for over a decade in Waterbury. The city’s Republicans were divided on the issue, while the Democrats were all opposed (Frank Hayes was a Democrat). William J. Pape was a supporter of the system, voicing concern that if current trends weren’t stopped, Waterbury would end up with “a Socialist mayor” (“Waterbury Airs Fight At Hearing,” Hartford Courant, 8 April 1931).

Opponents of the system preferred revising the charter to give the mayor more power. It finally came to a referendum vote in 1939, when voters were given a choice between adopting a city manager charter or keeping their existing “strong Mayor” charter. The campaign for a city manager charter was led by the Waterbury Good Government Association, which had been involved in exposing Mayor Hayes’ corruption. Despite Frank Hayes’ rampant abuse of the “strong Mayor” system, the city voted 14,726 to 10,513 to maintain the dubious status quo (“Waterbury Turns Down City Manager Proposal,” Daily Boston Globe, 4 Oct 1939).

From 1939 on, Waterbury was firmly committed to the "strong Mayor" system of government. When a good Mayor is elected, the system works well; but when a corrupt Mayor is elected, it's a catastrophic disaster.

The Hartford Courant said it best in 1938: “In the end, the real assurance of a good government is the constant vigilance of the electorate.” It falls on each one of us to be vigilant, to pay attention to what's happening in local politics, and to encourage good people to get involved.

Now that we are switching to Aldermen by District, I hope that Waterbury's neighborhoods will be empowered to get involved, to think about who in their district would be a good representative, and to encourage the Town Committees to select those individuals as candidates.

The system will work if the voters do their part. It starts with finding great Aldermanic candidates for the new districts.

1 comment:

Jack said...

Raechel, this is an informative post and an interesting blog. It has been helpful to my own book project on proportional representation in American cities, which Waterbury rejected when it rejected the broader council-manager proposal in 1939. I look forward to reading more from you as time goes on.