The Form of Government
288 American Cities



A Summary of a Questionnaire
Sent Cities Over 30,000 Population
August, 1929



By the
Detroit Bureau of Governmental Research, Inc.
February, 1931
No. 121


In the fall election of 1929, a referendum was presented to the electors of Detroit which, if approved, would have made basic changes in the existing form of government.  This proposal prompted an enquiry into the form of government in American cities.  A questionnaire was sent to all cities having a population of 30,000 or more at that time, and the results are summarized herewith.

The form of American municipal government appears to be in constant flux.  These trends can be found by comparison of this report with reference to the tables carried in the Financial Statistics of Cities (U.S. Census Bureau) in the volume for the odd numbered years, terminating with the 1923 volume.

The work of summarizing and classifying this information was done by Mr. Charlton F. Chute, formerly of the staff of the Detroit Bureau of Governmental Research, and now research Assistant, President Hoover’s Commission on Social Trends, The University of Chicago.


The tables following this discussion, indicate trends of the five population groups into which the charts are divided.  These tables are mostly self-explanatory, but the following information augments them in some cases.

The four general types of government reported are:

  1. Bicameral
  2. Mayor-council type
  3. Commission
  4. City manager

Bicameral Type

This type of government is found to be no longer popular decreasing from 24 cities reported in 1917 to 13 retaining this form in 1929.  it is said that about one-third of all cities over 25,000 population in 1903 had this form of government.  The cities now operating under this government are:

Massachusetts       Rhode Island             Connecticut

Worcester                Providence                 New Britain

Springfield              Pawtucket

New Bedford          Woonsocket               Virginia

Brockton                 Newport                      Richmond




Mayor-Council Type

This form is usually divided into the strong-mayor and weak-mayor type, depending upon the powers delegated to the mayor.  It was impossible in this study to make this distinction.

The party system of municipal elections is still popular in cities reporting this type of government.  Two-thirds of the cities vote under the party system, and the balance, non-partisan, although in many cases this only means that the party emblem is not shown on the ballot.

The two-year tem for councilmen is most popular, being reported by approximately two-thirds of the cities.  The four-year term is reported by the remaining one-third.

The staggered of overlapping term of office is not usual.  Of the 129 mayor-council cities reporting, only 32% have over-lapping terms of office for councilmen.

Commission Plan

This was the original form of government which was offered as an improvement on the mayor-council type.  However, it is now being supplanted by the city-manager type.  In 1917, 36% of the cities reported the commission type, but this was decreased to 29% in 1929, a loss of 7% in twelve years.

Under this plan, the non-partisan election is most popular being reported by 78% of the cities.

The term of office has been increased under the commission plan, over that of mayor-council type.  Two-thirds of the cities elect the commissioners for four-year terms, and approximately one-third use the two-year term.

The commission plan is of such a nature, that election at large is most practical.  Only 5% of the cities elect their commissioners from wards or districts.

The overlapping term is used about evenly among the cities reporting, 46% elect for overlapping terms, and 59% do not.

Of the 81 cities under the commission plan, only one does not pay a salary to the commissioners.  The range of salaries is shown in table 7.

The Manager Plan

This plan is the most recent change in government, and is an outgrowth of the commission type.  It has grown rapidly from its inception in 1913 to about 21% of the cities reported.

The councils under this type range from 3 to 25 members, but the most usual is 5 members reported by 47% of the cities.  Other significant sizes are: 9 members reported by 18% of the cities, 7 members reported by 17%.

Non-partisan elections predominate, being reported by 85% as contrasted to 78% of the commission plan and 67% of the mayor-council.  The partisan elections are confined to four states as shown below:

West Virginia        3 cities

New York                3 cities

Virginia                   3 cities

Texas                       1 city.

The four-year term is most popular, which is used by 52% of the cities.  35% elect for two-year terms, and the balance of 13% is distributed among three, five, and six-year terms.

Election at large is reported by 77%, while 15% elect by wards.  The remaining 8% use a combination of the two methods.

Overlapping terms for councilmen are reported by two-thirds of the cities.  This is an outstanding feature of this plan.  Only one-third of the mayor-council cities reported staggered terms, and the commission plan reports 41%.

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