The Galveston Plan of City Government
by Commission: The Birth of a Progressive Idea
BRADLEY R. RICE*
N MID-19I WOODROW WILSON PROCLAIMED, "NO SINGLE MOVEMENT
of reform in our governmental methods has been more significant than
the rapid adoption of the so-called commission form of government in the
cities of the country."' By that time over a hundred cities in half the states
of the Union used the ten-year-old plan invented in Galveston, Texas; and
it was still spreading. Galveston's success with the plan was largely respon-
sible for its spread. One enthusiastic journalist proclaimed in 1906, "The
results they have achieved mark a new era in the recent history of American
municipalities." The commission system had many variations, but its essen-
tial feature was a small ruling body elected at-large. Besides serving together
as the council, each member was also the chief executive of one city de-
partment. Eventually this pioneer urban reform yielded to even newer
reforms, and the now common council-manager city government developed.
The commission form of city government has become a municipal relic
used only by a handful of American cities, but while it flourished, it filled
an important role in governmental development.2
The transitional importance of the commission plan was that it helped
self-proclaimed progressive urban reformers win their battles with the so-
called bosses who allegedly plundered the cities. Familiar reform mayors
such as Tom Johnson, Samuel "Golden Rule" Jones, and others had
bloomed and faded, but the less colorful commission system appeared to
promise permanent structural protection from political machines of the
traditional type. Despite wide diversity in reform sentiment, contemporary
*Mr. Rice is a graduate student at The University of Texas at Austin and is specializ-
ing in urban history.
'Galveston Daily News, May 22, 1911 (hereafter cited as Galveston News).
2"Commission Government," Municipal Journal and Engineer, XXX (February 22,
1911), 253-256; C. Arthur Williams, "Governing Cities by Commission," World To-Day,
XI (September, Igo6), 945 (quotation). Because of problems of definition and enumer-
ation, estimates of the number of cities using commission government at any one time
before 1920 vary widely. Currently only 220o cities of 2,500 population or more use com-
mission government, while there are 2,087 council-manager and 3,259 mayor-council
cities. International City Management Association, The Municipal Year Book (Washing-
ton, D.C., 1974), [xi].
Texas State Historical Association. The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 78, July 1974 - April, 1975. Austin, Texas. The Portal to Texas History. http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth117149/. Accessed May 27, 2015.