THE COUNCILMANIC SYSTEM


As usual in the frequent changes in municipal government in New Orleans, the transformation was a radical one. The administrative system was entirely abolished and for it was substituted the councilmanic government, but wholly different from the councilmanic government which had existed from 1852 to 1870. The council consisted of one instead of two chambers, but the old distinction of districts and wards was preserved. Each of the seven districts elected one councilman at large without regard to population, while the seventeen wards elected twenty-three councilmen, based on their population. The council was thus composed of thirty members, there being no difference whatever in the powers between the district and ward councilmen. The councilmen received no pay. The council was the legislative department of the government, levying taxes and licenses, having control over all expenditures, over the repairs of the streets, lights, the extinguishment of fires, the maintenance of levees, the streets, squares, cemeteries, etc.

The executive department was in the hands of the mayor, treasurer, comptroller, commissioner of public works and commissioner of police and public buildings — all of whom were elected at the same time on a general ticket. The other municipal officers, such as surveyor, city attorney, etc., were elected by the council.

The mayor was commander-in-chief of the police and appointed the entire force, which was subject to radical changes with each change of administration. The police ordinances were enforced by four police courts, presided over by recorders, while in the fifth, sixth and seventh districts the justices of the peace had the power of committing magistrates.

The fire department at the time was completely out of the control of the city, being in the hands of the Firemen's Charitable Association (the volunteer firemen), under a contract with the city, which was renewed every five years. (There was, as a matter of fact, four fire departments, for the volunteer firemen had organized separate and independent associations in the fifth, sixth and seventh districts.)

The new city government had really very little to do, the several departments that properly belong to a municipality having been lopped off at various times. The fire department, as already noticed, had always been separate and independent.

In order to protect the city, as well as the bondholders, against the mismanagement which had been the feature of the city government from 1870 to 1882, all control over the debt was taken from the city in 1880 and given to a Board of Liquidation, consisting of six members, two of whom were chosen by the Governor, two by the Lieutenant-Governor and two by the Speaker of the House of Representatives. The mayor, comptroller and treasurer were ex-officio members of this board. With this exception, the city had nothing to do with its municipal debt except to provide for the payment of interest on it; and this act was nearly perfunctory, as the Legislature required that the proper provision be made.

The wharves had been surrendered as early as 1882, when they were leased to a private corporation, the lease being renewed from time to time. As the United States had decided that the revenue derived from wharfage dues could be used only for the commercial improvement of the city, the lease made to the lessees was for so much money to be expended in improving the wharves and port facilities of the city. There can be no question that under the wharf lease a great improvement took place over the conditions that had prevailed under the municipal ownership and control.

In 1892, the city government, having shown itself in no position, from lack of funds, to deal with the problem of the construction and maintenance of levees, and the city being put in danger of a general overflow, the council's control of the levees was taken from it and given to a board, known as the Orleans Levee Board, with power to levy district taxes for the construction, repair and maintenance of levees. This board was appointive, and named by the governor, and was a state rather than a municipal body, although its jurisdiction was restricted to the City of New Orleans.

The control of the city's public schools was wholly out of the hands of the city council, which had no control over them, save in the election of some of the members of the school board. This, however, had always been the case, save for a short period after 1852, when the council had organized the public schools and created three districts, maintaining its control over these three boards.

What was true of the public schools was equally true of the Board of Health. This was a peculiar body, half state and half city, with certain municipal as well as state powers. Its members wore partly elected by the city council and partly named by the governor.

To such a degree was this disposition to vote away municipal functions, rights and duties carried that even the parks, squares and principal streets were given over to commissions, consisting of tax payers of the vicinity. The city being unable to make provisions for keeping these parks, squares, etc., in good condition, the duty of raising the necessary funds by subscription or public entertainments devolved upon the commissioners. In fine, the City of New Orleans had surrendered nearly all its franchises and duties, had sold, leased or transferred the municipal property and privileges to various private individuals or corporations, to state boards or commissions of citizens. About 1884 the city had reached, perhaps, the lowest depths as a municipality. It is true that its credit had improved and its wharves were in better condition, but the city government was powerless and had no jurisdiction or city property to administer.

Perhaps the only function which still belonging to the city, was the control of its police force. This was wholly in the hands of the mayor, and had been so administered that the police was overrun with politics and infected with corruption. Mayor Shakespeare, 1878-82, took the bull by the horns in the matter of blackmail and corruption that existed in the police force, growing out of the gambling business, and introduced a system known as the Shakespeare plan. It was peculiar to New Orleans, and never attempted anywhere else in the country, and provided what could scarcely have been conceived from so remarkable a plan — a success.

Gambling had always been very prevalent in New Orleans, in spite of the fact that the earliest French colonial ordinances contained numerous edicts against it. Mayor Shakespeare took the view that it was useless to carry on the statute books ordinances against gambling that could not be enforced and which only gave the police opportunity to blackmail the gamblers. He could not license gambling; that was against the State constitution; but he agreed with the gamblers that if they paid so much into his hands monthly and carried on an "honest game," he, as chief of the police, would not allow the officers to interfere, or molest them. They accepted this agreement, and the money derived from this source was used by the mayor in erecting the Shakespeare Almshouse — an institution the need of which had been greatly felt — and in maintaining that and other charity institutions. The whole transaction was extrajudicial. The money paid into the hands of the mayor did not have to be accounted for to any one and could be used by him as he saw lit. Its administration and expenditure called for the utmost confidence in the chief magistrate. The system ultimately was abused and the Shakespeare fund gradually disappeared from the extraordinary revenues of the city.

The charter of 1882 lasted fourteen years, until 1896. It was badly shaken by the elections of 1888 and 1896, in both of which the issue of municipal reform was a prominent feature and succeeded in carrying the election. The administration of the city had grown very bad between 1882 and 1888, and the popular demand was for the protection of the public interests from politics and politicians.

The election of a reform city administration in 1888 led to several important changes, especially in the matter of the police and firemen. The police department had become permeated with politics. It was badly demoralized, moreover, by the radical change in the force which came with each change of administration. To correct these evils it was decided to take from the mayor some of the supreme power he exercised over the force and to put it more or less under the control of a police board. This was accomplished in 1890-91 by the passage of the Police Board Act.

The fire department has been for nearly seventy years and from the earliest days of New Orleans, outside the control of the city and in the hands of the Firemen's Charitable Association (the Volunteer Firemen). The contract of the Volunteers, which expired in 1891, was taken advantage of to organize a municipal fire department under the control of the city, through the Board of Fire Control and the Fire and Lighting Committee of the council.

The city soon began to feel the influence of these changes. The administration of municipal affairs showed a marked improvement beginning in 1888, when a great deal of paving was done, and New Orleans began to release itself from the decay into which it had fallen in all matters of municipal administration. This improvement created such public enthusiasm and desire for still further advance that the election of 1896, like that of 1888, turned almost wholly on the question of municipal reform; and it was given out that the success of the reform movement would mean a new charter for the city. The movement having won, the members of the Legislature elected on that ticket set at work at once to carry out the promises made to the people, and the result was the passage of the charter of 1896.

Under the circumstances that existed it was not to be wondered at that popular sentiment should demand an entirely new charter for the city. This was granted by the Legislature in June, 1882.

— STANDARD HISTORY OF NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA
    MUNICIPAL GOVERNMENT, By Norman Walker
    MUNICIPAL AND MILITARY HISTORY
    EDITED BY HENRY RIGHTOR
    THE LEWIS PUBLISHING COMPANY CHICAGO, 1900
    As Written


Storyville, New Orleans Red-Light District
1897-1917


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