The Office Of The Mayor Of NYC 1915 Part I

By John Purroy Mitchel

TO discuss adequately and fully the duties of the mayoralty and the functions and duties of the board of estimate, would be to cover the entire scope and field of municipal government, because the mayor and the board of estimate, taken together, touch the government of the city at every point. I shall try first to outline for you the duties and functions of the mayor, and in general terms the work of the board of estimate, and then to point out—or possibly to point out as I go along—some of the major problems that present themselves to the mayor in the discharge of his duties either as mayor or as chairman of the board of estimate and apportionment.

The first thing that the mayor has to do when he assumes office is to appoint the heads of his administrative departments. There are, if I recollect aright, some twenty-nine .departments under the jurisdiction of the mayor, of which he appoints the administrative heads. I could not enumerate them all for you. You probably know them—the police department, the fire department, the departments of water supply, health, correction, tenements, and parks, the corporation counsel, the city chamberlain, and a number of others. The most important thing to the success of any mayor's administration is the selection of competent, qualified, trained men for the administration of these great departments.

In the days when the government of the city was dominated by political machines the plan and theory were to select these heads of departments for political service rendered. Their appointments were recommended to the mayor by the leader—we call
him usually the "boss"—of the reigning political party; and the mayor in a great many instances—I might say, as a rule—appointed to the administration of these departments the men presented to him by the political party responsible for his election. That
was one theory of government, and at times it worked out to a degree, for often the men who have demonstrated particular capacity in political life are qualified for the discharge of administrative duties, but in a great many instances it did not work out,
and we had in office men who had made successes as district leaders, but who were wholly unfit to discharge the duties of public office and who were without the necessary qualification of common honesty for the discharge of those duties.

The theory of selection upon which the fusion of a year and a half ago, like the fusion which elected Mayor Low some years ago to office, was predicated, was that appointments to the headship of these departments should be based solely upon qualification,
training and fitness to discharge the duties of the office, and without regard to political service rendered. That was the duty that first presented itself to me on assuming the office of mayor. There had been a number of political parties contributory to the fusion movement. Each of these parties felt that, subject, of course, to the prime requirement of competency and efficiency, it ought to receive recognition in these appointments. My point of view toward the selection of the heads of departments was that, first of all, I had to find men qualified; that if qualified and trained men could be found within the lines of these political parties contributory to the fusion, I should be glad to find them, to select them, and to appoint them. But if I could not find them within the lines of those parties within a reasonable length of time, or if I could find better qualified men outside the organizations of these parties, I felt that it was my duty to select those men.

On that basis the heads of the present city departments were selected and appointed. Some few of them are what might be called organization party men; but they were selected not for that reason, but because in the field either of public administration or private business they had demonstrated their capacity and proved their competency. A great many of the others are not what could be called organization party men. Conspicuously I think I might point to the commissioner of the department of correction, who neither is a man, nor is she actively allied with any particular party organization, so far as I know. And yet Miss Davis, the first woman commissioner appointed in the city of New York, has conspicuously made good, and demonstrated that as an administrator and a maker of departmental policy she is quite the equal of any other commissioner, and the superior of any who has held the office which she now holds.

It may seem a simple undertaking to make selections upon that basis, but I assure you that it is no such thing. The pressure, the perfectly natural pressure, that comes from each one of the parties is great. You are urged that this particular applicant recommended by the party is quite as good as any other you may find elsewhere. He may, in fact, have some excellent qualifications. Perhaps the balance is almost even between him and the other man; and yet that other man may have some particular qualification, or some particular experience, that recommends him more strongly; and when the selection is made, then the party that recommended the other feels aggrieved, because it says, "After all, he was pretty nearly as good."

Furthermore, it is by no means an easy thing to persuade the men who are best qualified by training to accept appointment under the city government. -The field of private enterprise offers far better financial returns than does the field of city government;
and to men who have conspicuously made good in private business or in public office are offered opportunities in the private field that cannot be matched in the public service; and it is therefore at times difficult to entice these men into the public service; and it is only a sense of public duty and the realization of the opportunity for real service that has led into the city government some of the men who are now holding office as commissioners. I might point to the instance of Dr. Goldwater, the commissioner of health. Dr. Goldwater in the field of his private work was earning a return for himself more than three times his salary as commissioner of health. I offered him the opportunity of giving up that income and devoting his entire time to the administration of the department of health, and the only consideration that I had to offer him for that sacrifice was the conspicuous opportunity for a public service. He accepted the office, he has rendered that service and he has demonstrated how an efficient health department can be run. I am afraid that we shall not be able to hold him much longer. I do not blame him for feeling that he must return to the field of private work. You cannot expect a man to sacrifice his own interests forever. He has organized that department he leaves it when he goes—and I hope he will not go for some time to come—he leaves it an efficient machine. He has laid down policies that will not be departed from under this administration, and that I believe will not be departed from under any future administration, so long as the people remain vigilant. But his case demonstrates the difficulty which we experience when we try to bring thoroughly competent and trained men into the public service and then to hold them.

The next most important thing, probably equally important, which the mayor is called upon to do, is to take his place as chairman of the board of estimate and apportionment, and participate in the work of that board. The board of estimate is the body of financial control of the city government, constituted as you know: the mayor, the comptroller, and the president of the board of aldermen, with three votes each; the borough presidents of Manhattan and Brooklyn, with two votes each; and the borough presidents of The Bronx, Queens and Richmond, with one vote each. This board appropriates all of the money devoted to the conduct of the business of the city government and apportions that money between departments, bureaus and subdivisions of the government. It authorizes the institution of all our great public works. It sets up the financial control which is administered partly by the comptroller and partly by the bureaus that the board of estimate has created for the conduct of its own business. It in very large measure makes the policy of the city of New York.

By that I mean that it determines such broad questions as the construction of our rapid transit system, and the terms and conditions upon which that system should be constructed and operated. It determines the plan upon which our port is to be developed. It authorizes the institution of the various portions of that plan. It determines the financial policy of the city, as it did recently when by resolution it declared the institution of a new plan for financing permanent public improvements of a non-revenue-producing class, and said that improvements of that kind should hereafter be financed in increasing proportions out of the tax budget of the city of New York, instead of through the issue of fifty-year bonds. All these duties that board performs, and I can assure you that it is about as busy a deliberative body as sits anywhere in this country or elsewhere.

It meets once a week, and its calendar usually numbers upward of 200 separate items. In a great many instances, public debate is had on the items of that calendar. In every single instance some investigation has been made by some agency, either of the board of estimate or of one of the members of that board. For the purpose of making these investigations and bringing to the board the facts on which intelligent judgment can be predicated, the board has established an organization. It has its chief engineer with his staff to pass upon public improvements. It has its bureau of franchises with the chief of that bureau and his staff to pass upon all franchise applications and the terms upon which they may be granted by the board of estimate. It has its secretary and his staff of clerks for the discharge of ^purely secretarial and clerical duties. This year that board established two new bureaus. The first is the bureau of contract supervision, to which are referred all plans for work to be done by contract, and that bureau reports back to the board of estimate upon every such proposed undertaking before it is done by contract, and that bureau reports back to the board of estimate upon every such proposed undertaking before it is authorized by the board of estimate. Frequently on the report of that bureau the board of estimate determines to cut down the amount of expenditure proposed for such undertaking, and finds that it can get the work done for a good deal less money than was at first supposed. Then there is the bureau of standardization.

That bureau prepares and presents to the board of estimate for adoption standard specifications for supplies and for work to be done. It considers and reports to the committee on salaries of the board of estimate upon all applications either for the increase of salary, for the establishment of a salary grade or a new salary grade, or for the increase in the number of employees in any particular department. You can see that through the agency of those bureaus the board of estimate maintains currently a close financial control over the operations of all of the departments, those under the jurisdiction of the mayor and those under the jurisdiction of the borough presidents and others as well.

In addition to that organization the board of estimate has created under this administration a series of standing committees to determine questions of policy and the preparation of great constructive plans. For example, it has the committee on public
education, to which are referred all new plans for financing new departures in the educational program of the city. That committee also considers the budget of the board of education when it comes time to make the budget. The board of estimate also has its
committee on port and terminal development. To that committee are referred all plans for the development of any of the facilities of the port. For instance, the committee laid down the plan which is now before the board of estimate for the construction of a
marginal terminal railway in South Brooklyn, over several miles of the waterfront of that borough, at a proposed cost of approximately $12,000,000, a great enterprise to serve the commerce and industries of this city, which, if it be completed under the bill that the legislature has recently enacted and that we hope the governor will shortly sign, will mean the addition of about $100,000,000 of taxable values to the borough of Brooklyn and of countless millions to the commerce of the port of New York. To that committee is committed the preparation of plans for the re-casting of the terminal facilities upon the west side of Manhattan Island, plans for getting the New York Central Railroad tracks off the streets of the city of New York, putting them under ground or above ground, as the case may warrant, and getting them under cover either by tunnel or otherwise where they now pass through the parks of the city.

We have a number of other committees in the board of estimate; as for example, the committee on social welfare; the city plan committee, to lay down all plans for the development of the street system and the park system of the city; and a number of others. But these which I have named to you are the principal committees. I should also tell you that we have a budget committee; one committee on the tax budget and another on the corporate stock budget, although their membership is the same. These are the
committees which, through the agency of the bureaus and investigative bodies, maintained either in the board of estimate or in the office of the commissioner of accounts or in the comptroller's office, investigate the various applications of the departments for appropriations each year and rake up the tax budget of the city.

There is no more important work than that, because on the making of that budget depends the tax rate of the city, depends the question whether or not departments are going to be permitted to expend more money than they need, depend the plans for the development of the service of the departments. That committee, acting for the board of estimate, determines in very large measure the policies governing the development of administration within all the departments of the city government In addition to membership upon that board; the mayor sits as chairman of the sinking fund commission. That commission, or the members of that commission, act as trustees of all of the sinking funds of the city of New York.

It also has jurisdiction over the making of leaseholds, and it determines the rate of interest which the city of New York will pay upon a bond issue which it is about to advertise for bids. The mayor also sits as chairman of the banking commission, the body which has jurisdiction over the matter of the designation of the depositories of city funds. He also sits as chairman of the armory board, which has control and jurisdiction over all the armories of the city; appropriates, subject to review by the sinking fund commission, the funds for the construction of armories; and has care of their maintenance and control. He also sits as chairman of the board of city record, which handles through its regularly appointed agent all of the public printing and advertising. For all of that work in the control of his administrative departments, as members of these various boards and commissions, the mayor has an exceedingly limited personal staff. He has his secretary, his executive secretary, his assistant secretary, and a few clerks and stenographers. Beyond that he has no personal staff. The direct business of the office is to-day divided between the secretary and the executive secretary. The assistant secretary has been assigned to a supervision of the work of these various boards and commissions on which the mayor sits, and he is the only assistant to-day whom the mayor has available for specialization upon the work of these boards and commissions. For the rest of his contact he must rely upon the work either of these bureaus established by the board of estimate, upon the comptroller, or upon the office of the commissioner of accounts, which, of course, is under the jurisdiction of the mayor, but is organized primarily for other purposes.


Website: The History
Article Name: The Office Of Mayor 1915 Part I
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina


BIBLIOGRAPHY: The Government of the City of New York: (A collection of addresses and discussions held in the City of New York. April 7 to 30, 1915) The New York STate Constitutional Convention Commission 1915
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