Time machine: The history of governing Cedar Rapids

City went from aldermen to commissioners to council-manager

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On the eve of city elections, let’s look back at how Cedar Rapids has been governed in the past century-and-a-half.

Cedar Rapids was incorporated in 1849 when it was granted a town charter by the territorial Legislature.

Seven years later, residents asked the Legislature for a new charter, one that would proclaim Cedar Rapids a city. Since the Legislature granted the new charter before the state Constitution was adopted in 1857, it was referred to as a “special charter.”

The city’s first form of government was the one in use in municipalities across the country. It included a mayor and aldermen elected from city wards.

The city’s first charter election was held Aug. 7, 1855. Those taking office in 1856 were Mayor Isaac N. Whittam; Recorder D.M. McIntosh; Treasurer S.C. Koontz; Marshal Charles Weare; and Aldermen J.T. Walker and J.J. Snouffer (1st Ward), J.F. Charles and A. Hager (2nd Ward), and H.S. Ward and W.D. Watrous (3rd Ward).

Ward politics, however, gained a reputation for corruption in other American cities. At the very least, the form was susceptible to partisan politics.

COMMISSIONERS

The city, after a little more than 50 years of ward organization, switched to the commission form of government, with a mayor and four commissioners — a form it would have until 2005.

The commission form of government was popular after the Civil War in Southern cities, including New Orleans and Shreveport. But it was Galveston, Texas, that served as the model for Cedar Rapids’ conversion to the commission form of city government

After a violent storm wreaked havoc on the Texas coastal city on Sept. 8, 1900, the city adopted a commission form of government as a means to quickly rebuild the devastated city. With each of four commissioners overseeing a division of the city government and the mayor as its administrator, Galveston recovered.

By 1908, Galveston also had cut its annual expenses by a third, added sewers, rebuilt the water works and public buildings and added lighting and streets. Other Texas cities followed Galveston’s lead.

In 1907, Des Moines sent a delegation to Texas to investigate. A bill was presented to the Iowa Legislature that allowed for the commission form of city government in Iowa, and Des Moines became the first city outside of Texas to elect a commission.

CEDAR RAPIDS

In Cedar Rapids, voters approved the switch to the commission form on Dec. 2, 1907.

In the first primary election under the commission form, 48 people ran for commission seats; nine people ran for mayor.

In March 1908, the city’s first commissioners, each in charge of one department, and the mayor took office. The mayor, John T. Carmody, was in charge of public affairs. The commissioners were Charles D. Huston, streets and public improvements; Henry S. Keffer, parks and public property; Ernest A. Sherman, public safety; and Matt J. Miles, accounts and finances.

Each had one vote on the City Council. Miles took over as mayor after Carmody was murdered in 1909.

After the election, council member Huston said the organization had the advantages of eliminating wards; of applying business principles to city affairs; of eliminating partisan politics and corporate influences; of placing responsibility on individual councilmen, who were accountable as department heads; and of establishing a majority form of government.

One of the first things the new commission did was engage civic improvement expert Charles Milford Robinson, of Rochester, N.Y., to advise the city on changes and innovations.

Almost 40 years later, Cedar Rapids’ commission plan was still serving as a guide to other municipalities. Its success was attributed to the better-than-average city commissioners who had been elected.

But The Gazette, in a 1946 editorial, observed the commission plan “has not functioned in Cedar Rapids in quite the way it theoretically is supposed to function. There is a tendency on the part of city commissioners to confine their interests mainly to matters that affect their own departments and to disclaim any responsibility for the efficiency of other departments.”

In 1953, Cedar Rapids’ four-time mayor, J.F. Rall, told The Gazette, “There’s still too much of a tendency for the city commissioners to refer to MY department and to have little to do with the other fellow’s responsibilities. The commission form of government presupposes that ALL problems and ALL responsibilities shall be the job of ALL the members of the City Council.”

CHANGES TRIED

Discontent with the commission form of government festered and erupted several times over the years.

In 1965, those opposed to the Cedar Valley Road (later Interstate 380) forced a referendum on the form of government. A council-manager form was presented to the voters. It was defeated.

In 1996, voters were offered two government systems to replace the commissioners: a council-manager plan; and a home rule charter that featured a strong mayor, an appointed administrator and part-time council. By then, no other city in Iowa still had the commission form of government. But Cedar Rapids kept its commission government, with 63.2 percent of the vote.

THE SWTICH

In 2004, 10,000 voters signed a petition supporting the resurrection of the 15-member Home Rule Charter Commission was resurrected. It met weekly to decide what new form of city government to present to voters. The decision: council-manager.

This time, on June 14, 2005, 69.8 percent of Cedar Rapids voters agreed, adopting the home rule council-manager form of government. The new nine-member council would have a mayor, five members elected from districts and three members elected at-large. The council would hire the city manager.

By then, Cedar Rapids had kept its commission form of government 45 years longer than its model, Galveston.

The election on Nov. 8, 2005, had 38 candidates — two for mayor and 36 for City Council. Kay Halloran became mayor. The part-time council members were Brian Fagan, Tom Podzimek and Pat Shey for the at-large seats; Kris Gulick, District 1; Sarah Henderson, District 2; Jerry McGrane, District 3; Chuck Swore, District 4; and Justin Shields, District 5.

l Comments: (319) 398-8338; d.fannonlangton@gmail.com

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