San Francisco City Charters 1916-1932

Historical Essay

by William Issel and Robert Cherny

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Mayor "Sunny Jim" Rolph at City Hall, no date.


Throughout the period from 1916 to 1930, the San Francisco Bureau of Governmental Research (BGR)'s most prominent objective remained a restructuring of "our illogical form of government." New York's Bureau of Municipal Research, in its 1916 Report, had recommended changes in city government

so as (1) to make the mayor definitely responsible for exercising executive leadership; (2) to make the board of supervisors solely a legislative and reviewing body, which shall not exercise any administrative functions; and (3) to make both the mayor and the supervisors readily responsible to the people.

The supervisors, the Report emphasized, should "have no responsibility for leadership.” The assumptions behind these recommendations carried into the 1920s the "progressive" philosophy of the 1890s:

Any charter which is adapted to the successful management of a corporate enterprise, whether public or private, must contain provision for responsible leadership. . . . The only leadership which can be made effective is executive leadership. . . . No successfully managed organization which has an executive, as distinguished from its board of trustees or council of representatives, places on the members of the board responsibility for preparing and submitting plans.

Espousal of a corporate form of decision making, with policy making the prerogative of the president (mayor) and with the board of directors (supervisors) limited to scrutiny of executive initiatives, became a staple of BGR efforts over the next decade and a half. Although the precise features of the plan changed somewhat from time to time, the BGR remained at the center of attempts to reorganize the city government, to make it more "logical,” that is, more like a business corporation.(62)

The Report came on the eve of American entry into the war, but the BGR revived interest in structural reform in 1921 by promoting a conference and involving a wide range of organizations, including the American Legion, Chamber of Commerce, and Labor Council. The Commonwealth Club provided a major impetus for the conference. The major speaker, Professor Edwin A. Cottrell of Stanford University, focused on the advantages of the then-popular city manager form of urban government. Meetings following the conference took up various aspects of city government and produced a series of recommendations including greater centralization, reduction of the authority of the supervisors, and adoption of the city manager plan. The Chamber of Commerce developed some limited interest in these developments, apparently under BGR prodding, but no further effort for extensive charter revision took hold until the late 1920s.(63)

Milton Marks, chairman of the 1921 Commonwealth Club conference, won a seat on the Board of Supervisors in 1925 and, as chairman of the judiciary Committee, secured a board resolution in January 1928 to hold hearings to determine if the charter required fundamental change. The BGR, one of the many groups testifying, recommended adoption of the city manager form of organization as "the nearest counterpart in government to the best form and practice in private business, commerce and industry in this country.” Describing the city as "one of the half-dozen largest corporate enterprises in the State,” the BGR acknowledged that the city "probably has a wider diversity of functions than any private corporation in the State.” The BGR urged a simplified scheme of government in which only the mayor, supervisors, and district attorney would stand for election, and most administrative responsibility would rest with the city manager. The BGR also called for centralization of utility management under an independent commission, creation of a city planning commission to make zoning decisions independently of the supervisors, a centralized pension system under an independent commission, and a centralized budget procedure under the city manager. Thirty-two charter amendments were submitted to the voters in 1928, including creation of a public utilities commission, a city planning commission (with the powers proposed by the BGR), and a War Memorial Board to oversee the as-yet-unbuilt music and art buildings. While the latter two were approved, the first was not.(64)

In the spring of 1930, the BGR created the San Francisco Charter Revision Committee (CRC), with the director of the BGR as the committee's secretary. The committee undertook charter revision in a manner reminiscent of the activities of the Committee of 100 in 1897, but opposition soon arose from supervisor Franck Havenner (closely associated with the Johnson wing of the Republican party, with labor, and with the municipal ownership advocates), the Labor Council and Building Trades Council, and the Hearst papers. The Examiner blasted the CRC as an attempt "to grab control of the city government,” and others charged it with desiring to restrict municipal ownership and to implement a city manager. CRC advocates charged that the only other method of wholesale charter amendment—election of a Board of Freeholders—would mean that politicians would be in charge of charter reform, that the cost would be prohibitive, and that proceedings would be open to any number of wild theorists and cranks. On June 23, the same day the CRC voted in favor of a city manager plan, the Board of Supervisors resolved to elect a Board of Freeholders in August, at the same time as party primaries.(65)

Writing a New Charter, 1930-1931

Fifty-three candidates sought election to the Board of Freeholders, and of the fifteen successful, six had been part of the CRC, and one had also served as president of the BGR. Four freeholders carried the endorsement of the Labor Council, including two who had been on the CRC. Of the other two successful Labor Council endorsees, one was secretary of the Building Trades Council; the other had been president of the Labor Council but lost that position in 1917 for his opposition to the campaign to free Tom Mooney. One of the freeholders, the sheriff’s attorney, had strong support from city employees. In all, the fifteen included seven businessmen, six lawyers, one educator (owner of a private school), and one trade union official. There were no women, and all fifteen males were white. One study of the charter characterized the election of freeholders as “dominated by the conservative, propertied interests of the City, and the characterization seemed an apt one.(66)

The new charter was ready for a public vote in March 1931, and it passed with 56 percent of the vote. It drew the opposition of the Monitor, the official newspaper of the archdiocese, because key officials were appointed rather than elected. The Labor Council strongly opposed it for similar reasons, and also because of limitations on cit employees as well. City employees, both those in the Labor Council (firefighters and teachers) and those organized separately, opposed the charter because it restricted both their right to seek elective office and also their right to participate in municipal campaigns at all, a provision motivated perhaps by the rumors of a Rolph-Reardon “machine” among employees of the Public Works Department.(67)

Voters divided in their reaction to the new charter along the same axis that characterized most voting behavior of the period. The vote in favor of the charter, by assembly district, stood as follows:

District Percentage
22 51.6
23 47.5
24 50.2
25 46.1
29 51.2
26 51.9
30 55.9
27 57.8
28 61.4
33 58.0
32 66.2
31 70.0

Although three labor districts returned slight margins in favor, the overall vote of the five was opposed, 49 percent to 51 percent.(68)

The Charter of 1932

The charter that was adopted with strong approval from the city's upper- and middle-class areas incorporated many of the proposals advocated by the BGR and similar business groups over the pre¬vious decade. Described as a cross between the strong mayor and city manager approaches to city government, the charter created two new positions, chief administrative officer and controller. These two included many of the duties—although not all—typically performed by a city manager. The chief administrative officer (CAO), to be appointed by the mayor, served for unlimited tenure subject only to suspension by the mayor, recall by the voters, or removal by two-thirds of the supervisors. The CAO supervised a wide range of city activities formerly under the mayor or under independently elected officials: the coroner, the department of public finance and records (including the public administrator, county clerk, registrar, recorder, and tax collector), the city purchaser, property director, director of public works (sewers, streets, building maintenance, and building inspection), the health department (including hospitals), the welfare director, and others. The controller became chief fiscal officer of the city, responsible for all funds, financial reporting, receipts, and disbursements; the controller also became responsible for the compilation of a centralized city budget, based on data from the CAO and other department heads. The mayor could cut any item or increase most items in this budget. When presented by the mayor to the supervisors, that body might cut any item but could not increase any items except for capital expenditures or public improvements. The mayor retained an item veto.(69)

Although the position of mayor under the new charter was described as a continuation of the strong mayor approach of the previous charter, in fact the mayor's office lost some of its power. The mayor, to be certain, had the power to appoint the CAO, but only when a vacancy occurred, which might well not happen during any given four-year term. The mayor was also to appoint members of the dozen or so policy-making commissions but could not remove commission members held over from previous administrations. Pay for the mayor was to be less than that of the CAO. Where the mayor formerly presided over the Board of Supervisors, the new charter allowed the board to select its own president. The number of supervisors was cut from eighteen to eleven, to be elected at large (as in the previous charter). The supervisors and the mayor were prohibited from involving themselves in any fashion with administrative services except for inquiry. This provision, designed to focus sole authority and responsibility in the various executive officers and commissions, contained a long list of expressly prohibited actions and defined violation of its provisions as grounds for removal from office.(70)

The old charter provided for twenty-one boards and commissions, some self-perpetuating, most appointed by the mayor, nearly all subject to control by the supervisors through their authority over budget making, appropriations, and auditing. Three of the twenty-one were abolished by the new charter, although one became an advisory board reporting to the CAO. The library board changed from self-perpetuating to appointive, but three others maintained their self-perpetuating nature. Thirteen boards remained essentially unchanged, except for occasional additions or deletions of a member; both the Board of Education and the War Memorial Board retained their previous peculiarities. Three new boards were created, for art, permit appeals, and public utilities. The BGR and others had long advocated creation of a public utilities commission, claiming that "under the old charter, responsibility for the management and the operation of city-owned utilities is divided between the board of public works and the board of supervisors.” O'Shaughnessy had stepped into that situation to become de facto head of both Hetch Hetchy and the Municipal Railway. O'Shaughnessy's supporters claimed that some of the charter provisions had as their purpose deposing the city engineer, and that occurred immediately upon implementation of the new charter. O'Shaughnessy became only a consulting engineer, consulted by no one but his old friends. The Art Commission resulted from the initiative of the Commonwealth Club (see Chapter 5). The charter also provided for a harbor commission should the state ever relinquish control of the city's waterfront. With the exception of the three self-perpetuating boards, the school board, and the War Memorial Board, members of all other boards and commissions were to serve for overlapping terms of four years each. Thus, an incoming mayor faced a formidable array of policy-making bodies, most beyond his reach and most explicitly beyond the oversight of either mayor or supervisors. Overruling a board was purposefully difficult, although not impossible.(71)

The charter of 1932 emerged from a decade and a half of discussion. By the time the freeholders met, the city's business community—led by the BGR—had developed a set of objectives aimed at restructuring city government along the lines of corporate enterprise. Central to these objectives were the need for expert and nonpolitical planning, centralization of executive decision making, and limitation of the supervisors to the approval or disapproval of executive initiatives. However, throughout the period, the office of mayor was itself being as thoroughly redefined by Rolph as the presidency would soon be transformed by Franklin Roosevelt. From the war onward, Rolph exercised less and less executive leadership, increasingly left administrative duties to others, often allowed the chair of the Finance Committee to function as acting mayor, and preferred leading parades and hosting starlets.

Throughout the 1920s, political campaigns rarely focused on issue differences between candidates (with a few exceptions) but consisted instead of rhetoric suggesting that the city was in dire danger of returning to the days of Ruef and Schmitz. Newspapers, at election time, ran stories recounting the graft prosecution findings. In 1927, Sheriff Tom Finn was the object of a clumsy attempt at entrapment. A few years before, former mayor Patrick McCarthy was revealed to have received $10,000 from Pacific Gas and Electric in return for his opposition to a state proposition that the utility deemed harmful; it led, finally, to his removal from the leadership of the Building Trades Council. Accusations that Rolph (or any of a number of others) owed favors to the McDonough brothers were common political fare. This recurring focus on the potential for corruption suggested to many that additional safeguards were needed to prevent future imprecations.(72)

The result of these converging patterns was a charter that imposed numerous barriers to corruption, shifted administrative duties away from the mayor to a nonpolitical expert manager, limited the mayor to making appointments and adjusting the budget (and leading parades and greeting celebrities), removed much of city government from the immediate oversight of elected officials in an effort to remove it from politics, and reduced the number of elected officials but continued the existence of numerous policy-making boards and commissions independent of both mayor and supervisors. Frederick Wirt has described the charter as creating "fractionated decision making,” leading to "the lack of decision making,” but the new charter did not cause decision making to fractionate, nor did it reduce policy making to incrementalism. Both patterns can be found throughout the decade of the 1920s. Although the new charter did not initiate these patterns, it contained nothing to counteract them and much to perpetuate them.(73)


62. Ibid. 3 (Oct. 1923):87; Bureau of Municipal Research, New York, Report on a Survey, pp. 45, 55-56.
63 . Devine, "Adoption of the 1932 Charter;” pp. 9-15.
64. City 8 (March 1928):45, 49, 52, 56-57, 68-69, 73, 77- 78; ibid. 8 (Oct. 1928): 110, 114-11 8, 129-131; ibid . 9 (Jan. 1929):2-4.
65. Devine, "Adoption of the 1932 Charter;” pp. 22-26, 31; Examiner, June 9, 1930, pp. 15, 26; ibid. , June 24, 1930, p. 1.
66. Devine, "Adoption of the 1932 Charter;” pp. 27-31; Frost, Mooney Case, p. 276; "Union Labor Party-Miscellaneous-1929" file, San Francisco Labor Council Manuscript Collection, Bancroft Library.
67. Devine, "Adoption of the 1932 Charter;” pp. 80-88.
68. Voting data are from the San Francisco Registrar of Voters.
69. Devine, "Adoption of the 1932 Charter;” pp. 51-52, 59-61; San Francisco Charter, adopted March 26, 1931 , in effectJan. 8, 1932, sections 69-73.
70. San Francisco Charter, in effect, J an. 8, 1932, sections 9-11, 22; Devine, "Adoption of the 1932 Charter;” pp. 49-50, 53-54.
71. City 8 (March 1928): 43, 49-50; ibid. 11 (March 1931):8-9, 11; Wurm, Hetch Hetchy, pp. 225-226; San Francisco Charter, in effect, Jan. 8, 1932, sections 35-51.
72. Cole, "1927 San Francisco Election"; Scharrenberg, "Reminiscences;” pp. 36-37; Goldbeck, "Political Career of James Rolph;” p. 118; Ryan, Industrial Relations, pp. 185- 186.
73. Wirt, Power in the City, pp. 11- 12.

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Excerpted from San Francisco 1865-1932, Chapter 8 “Politics During the Reign of Rolph, 1911-1932”

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