National Civic Review 91:1
Note from the President
From its inception, the National Civic League has focused on the importance
of municipal government reform to the quality of our political life.
Longtime readers of this journal will need no review of NCL's role in
developing and updating model city charters. As the charter
revision project moves forward, we are again devoting an edition
of the National Civic Review to issues of local government structure
and performance. The articles collected here examine everything from
charters themselves to the role and position of the mayor, the city
council, and the chief administrative officer in various forms of local
As the presentations at last year's National Conference on Governance
made clear, information technology is having a profound effect on the
practice of politics in this country. At every stage of the process,
from raising money and disseminating information to enhancing transparency,
improving service delivery, and encouraging participation, this technology
is not only accelerating the pace of political activity but perhaps
even changing its nature. Taken together, these multifaceted changes
are a particularly telling example of how politics and political actors
influence and are influenced by ongoing developments in society as a
The flip side of this engagement in the swirl of events is government
structure, which is why constructs such as a municipal charter are so
important. By establishing roles and responsibilities, a charter helps
ensure stability in the governance of a community. Without trying to
sketch a theory of politics here, it is useful to think of political
practices (such as voting and lawmaking) as being embedded in networks-institutions
and institutional relations-that are in turn governed by norms and values.
Municipal charters are part of the codification of institutional relations
and lend order and stability to the political system.
That said, a charter itself must be adapted to changing circumstances,
which is why the model city charter is again being revised. There is
a litany (by now familiar) of problems and pressures with which communities
continue to grapple. Issues of economic development, land use, sprawl,
housing, schools, health care, and crime are but some of the most obvious.
Except for a narrow class of essentially technical questions (which,
despite this status, have significant real-world implications), a charter
by itself cannot solve these political problems. A poorly designed charter
can make political issues more intractable; a well-designed charter
can mitigate certain problems while enhancing the prospects for progress
in others. But most of all, just as a government budget is a political
document that indicates policy priorities, a charter is a blueprint
for the kind of political practice a city regards as desirable.
At the local level, the political arena is being reshaped by numerous
developments, not the least of which is the increasing use of information
technology. These changes are shifting existing patterns of authority
and divisions of responsibility among the principal officials in both
council-manager and mayor-council forms of government. In a number of
cities, council members are playing a more activist role vis-à-vis
the city manager, and mayors are consolidating their authority. At the
same time, new avenues are opening for citizen participation in governance
processes. In response to these developments, an increasing number of
cities are deliberating over whether and how to make basic changes in
their governance structures.
To help make the process of deliberation clear, the articles printed
here offer insightful analysis of styles of mayoral leadership, the
changing role of the city council, and the characteristics of the chief
administrative officer. A number of the articles are closely integrated
with each other. James H. Svara introduces a framework for assessing
the city council by the type of role it performs and analyzes the trend
toward greater council activism. Craig M. Wheeland's piece refines earlier
work by Svara in distinguishing among mayoral types and qualities of
mayoral leadership. Wheeland developed his set of types using the forty
most populous cities in the United States. In her work, Kimberly L.
Nelson identifies the characteristics of the chief administrative officers
in the twenty-six most populous cities having a mayor-council form of
government and examines the roles they play. Finally, Lawrence F. Keller
gives a historical view of municipal charters and underscores their
continuing importance to public life.
This issue is rounded out by complementary work that looks at the emergence
of regional governance in the metropolitan Chicago area and by articles
that examine the state of the civic renewal movement as well as look
ahead to some of the divisions that may affect civil society in the
years to come. The importance of devising regional solutions for regional
problems has been evident for some time, but developing effective means
for doing so has notably lagged this realization. In addition to the
advances noted by David K. Hamilton in his article, there are some other
promising efforts under way. The salience of regional governance and
cross-sectoral collaboration continues to increase, and the National
Civic Review will be part of the ongoing dialogue in this area.
The growth of the civic renewal movement also offers encouraging signs
for the development of more comprehensive and citizen-based governance
processes. Carmen Sirianni and Lewis A. Friedland review progress to
date and issue a call for a "national civic congress" to reinforce
these efforts and to ensure the movement's continuing momentum.
In their article, Ted Halstead and Michael Lind remind us of some of
the challenges civil society faces in this century, ranging from persistent
racial problems to exacerbation of generational tensions and the possible
emergence of genetically engineered divisions.
A century ago, this country experienced a wave of progressive energy
that led to substantive reform in government and governance. As the
National Civic League again revises its model city charter, there are
indications that another progressive wave is building.
Christopher T. Gates
President, National Civic League