Saturday, August 30, 2014

A Century Ago in New York

There is talk these days about appointing an ad hoc committee to study the city charter and recommend changes. Hudson's charter was enacted in 1921 and amended in its entirety in 1973 (in the heyday of urban renewal--not that there's necessarily a connection), so it may be time to take a look at the charter again. A couple of things in the charter that many people seem interested in changing are the ward boundaries, as they translate into election districts, and the Common Council weighted vote. 

With this in mind, it is interesting to note that September 1 is the 100th anniversary of home rule in New York. To mark that anniversary, Gossips shares this article, which appeared in the Hudson Evening Register on September 1, 1914.

Law Secured by Governor Glynn Goes Into Effect.
The Benefits of Optional City Charter Act.
The cities of the state which have chafed under the necessity of going to the state legislature every time they desired to secure needed changes in their charter are now freed from the red tape which has bound them for the past twenty years.
This month the optional city charter law goes into effect, and home rule for New York's cities becomes something more than a promise.
To Governor Glynn and the Democratic party goes the credit for this reform in municipal government. Although the enactment of a law which would give to the cities of the state the right to select their own charters without interference from the legislature has been agitated for many years, it was not until Governor Glynn threw his influence to the support of this measure that it became a law.
Party Pledge Redeemed.  The optional city charter act formed part of the legislative program of the state conference of mayors and the Municipal Government association. Forty-two mayors petitioned the governor to urge its passage and because the Democratic platform of 1912 promised the fullest measure of home rule to the cities of the state Governor Glynn took it upon himself to redeem the party's pledge.
The underlying principle of the new law is home rule. As its name implies, it is purely optional in character. It does not impose any sort of charter on any city, but it does give every city the opportunity within certain limitations to choose the sort of charter that the majority of its voters want.
Under the law seven optional forms of charter are offered to the cities. Two of these are variations of the so called commission form of charter under which approximately 400 cities in the United States are at present operating and which the legislature of 1914 provided for the city of Buffalo. The third option provides a charter of the city manager type, similar to the recently adopted charters in Dayton and Springfield, O., and to that enacted by the legislature this year for the city of Olean.
There is another form which provides for a mayor and a small council or commission of three or five members elected at large. Still another plan provides for a mayor and common council of nine elected at large. Still another provides for government by a mayor and a common council to be chosen from the existing wards.
The seventh option is applicable to third class cities only. It allows them to adopt the White uniform charter law for second class cities with salaries on a lower schedule.
The Short Ballot.  Through all of these charters runs the short ballot idea. Even under the plan in which aldermen are chosen from existing wards the short ballot idea is maintained, the mayor and the aldermen being the only elected city officers.
Under all of those forms such administrative officers as assessors, city engineers, city attorneys, city treasurer and comptroller are made appointive either by the council or mayor.
There are three classes of officials, however, who will not be affected by the adoption of one of these charters. These are the county supervisors, who remain elective as heretofore, and the judicial officers and members of the boards of education, who remain either elective or appointive.
Except as to the framework or structure of the city government the existing city charters will remain as before. The law does not pretend to provide complete new charters for the cities adopting one of these forms. It is clearly provided that all the existing laws and ordinances shall continue in full force and effect until repealed. The newly created legislative body may, however, reconstruct the charter to a considerable extent by superseding existing provisions of law by ordinances.
The salary of the mayor and councilmen is fixed according to the population of the city. All other salaries of city officials may be fixed by the city council. The terms of office of mayor and councilmen under all the plans are four years, part of them being chosen every two years. 
Altogether the new law enables the cities of New York to live under the form of government best suited to the local needs and most in accord with local ideas. It relieves the cities of the state from the necessity of running to the legislature for every trifling change that is desired. Best of all, it enables the state legislature to devote its whole attention to legislation affecting the entire state and prevents half of its time from being expended on local issues, half understood and of little concern to the majority of senators and assemblymen.
Half Digested Legislation.  In the regular session of 1914 more than 200 municipal bills of a purely local nature were introduced in both the senate and the assembly. Had the optional city charter bill be in effect this mass of half digested legislation could have been avoided. The legislature could have confined itself to state problems and adjourned a month earlier than it actually did.
More important perhaps than the practical side of the question, however, is the principle involved in the legislation.
The optional city charter law is a recognition that the cities of the state should govern themselves instead of being governed by a distant legislature, the members of which are not responsible, save in one or two instances, to the citizens of the affected cities. 
It is clear that the City of Hudson chose the sixth option: "a mayor and a common council to be chosen from the existing wards." What is not clear is how and when the city treasurer became an elected position and why the elected officials in Hudson all have two-year terms. 

Photograph of the Council chamber when City Hall was located at 327 Warren Street, known now as the Hudson Opera House, courtesy Historic Hudson

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