Anoka reformed government 100 years ago

On April 1, just four days away, the city of Anoka will mark the 100th anniversary of council-manager government.

Bob Kirchner
Bob Kirchner

In fact, Anoka was in the vanguard of local government reform in the United States.

As waves of immigrants poured into America’s growing cities in the 19th century, political corruption took advantage. Boss-led machines rose up to turn votes into financial ventures by dispensing jobs, power and positions to their cronies via political patronage.

By the early 20th century, such corruption had become widespread in many U.S. cities.

Probing journalists exposed the nefarious workings of Tammany Hall in New York, Pendergast in Kansas City and Daley in Chicago.

In 1892 the Anoka County Union bemoaned that the Tammany Hall machine “has conquered New York city and state” and “today the tiger is drinking the very life blood of that great commercial capitol and that imperial commonwealth.”

In fact, Anoka had its own problems. There existed from the earliest days of settlement an unholy alliance between city government and saloon owners. Up to 30 percent of city revenue came from liquor licensing and saloon owners made sure their interests were protected.

But there were those who opposed licensing, and they worked for political reform and professional administration under emerging civil service standards.

An alliance of business owners and church leaders rose up and called for reform.

After years of agitation, a charter commission was appointed and in 1913 produced a new charter featuring initiative, referendum, recall and appointment of a professional city manager.

It would be up for a vote.

Newspaper editors encouraged voters to adopt it, arguing that “the city’s affairs must be conducted in the future under a new charter in contrast to the chaos which has prevailed in the past.”

On October 28, 1913, by a vote of 212 to 146 (a margin of only seven votes over the 4-7 majority required) the new charter was adopted, replacing the flawed 1888 version.

One month later the Minnesota State Attorney General ruled that the new charter was constitutional, including the section for appointment of a city manager.

In February 1914, the Anoka Herald proclaimed “in adopting the manager plan of city government the City of Anoka has entered an unprecedented field of achievement.” It noted very few other American cities had tried this and the jury was still out on whether it would be successful.

This form of local government is based upon the business model of a corporate board of directors and a professional chief executive officer. It provides for the separation of powers between political leaders (elected officials) and professional managers (appointed employees).

The city council is responsible for policy making and hiring a city manager who, in turn, hires employees under federal, state and local civil service laws and rules.

Public employees are hired by professional merit, not political patronage. They are protected from political influence and interference by elected officials.

Council-manager government encourages an open political process, diffuses the power of special interests and removes partisan politics from municipal hiring, firing and contracting decisions.

In the United States, council-manager government is the most common form among cities greater than 2,500 people. More than 3,500 cities and more than 370 counties operate under this model.

This governance structure is now also popular in Canada, Australia, the Netherlands, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Honduras, Chile and Brazil. It is an American invention and export for which we can be proud.

But council-manager government is no guarantee that local politics will not become dysfunctional as unscrupulous politicians attempt to roll back reforms to gain advantage. Voter vigilance is still vital.

So when Anoka’s first professional city manager, John Palmer, started work nearly 100 years ago, Anoka became only the 12th city in the United States to activate council-manager government by citizen approved charter.

All of Anoka’s neighboring communities function under a similar structure with either a professional city manager or administrator.

Anokans can be proud of leading the way to professional local government in the United States. Ten city managers later, it has proved to be a wise decision with a long successful run.

Bob Kirchner is a local historian, seminary student and retired as the city of Anoka’s community development director.

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