The Vagabond – Gadsden’s Old Commissioner Government


The Vagabond recently came across a rare document from the early 1930’s that is now at the Etowah Historical Society. Since the beginnings of the little town of Gadsden, there was different form of city government, what The Vagabond calls the pioneer form of governing, in which the mayor and other municipal officers was paid little or no money.

At a special meeting of the Gadsden City Council on Jan. 12, 1931, the con-solidation of Gadsden, Attalla and Alabama City was discussed. A resolution was adopted stating a bill was being introduced into the state legislature providing for this consolidation, and that the city disapproved because the people should be allowed to vote on the matter.

In March of 1931, the present commissioner form of government was established and remained until 1986 when the city changed to a council form of government. The city commission form of government was elected at-large, a system once commonplace but now mostly dismantled in what one scholar calls the South’s “Second Reconstruction.” A commission form of government was viewed as a bastion of white political power, because blacks seeking representation from their areas were outvoted by the white majority. The old commission form of government was composed of a chairman or mayor and two associate commissioners, each of whom has certain functions of government delegated to him or her for supervision.

The first meeting of the newly elected Board of Commissioners was held on March 17, 1931 with L.L. Herzberg as chairman, and Dr. George S. Vann and Mr. A.W. Woodliff as associate commissioners.

Alabama City voted to be annexed to Gadsden in July of 1932. When the merger was effected on the 13th of that month, it brought the city limits into touch with those of Attalla.

The assessed evaluation of Gadsden that year was approximately $14,000,000. By the annexation of Alabama City, another $2,000,000 was added, bringing the total assessed valuation to about $16,000,000.

Because of the merge, Gordon Cantrell was elected as Associate Commissioner for Alabama City for the remaining term of the city commission.

The document (that is now stored at the Etowah Historical Society) wanting a change in city government was the voice wanting to make the changes from the old pioneer form to the commission form of governing. All The Vagabond knows is that it was written in the late 1930’s. It is not known who wrote it or where it came from. It reads:

“Commission Mayor and Aldermen?

“The question as to whether we should have a Mayor or and Aldermen or a Commission form of government is not yet well settled. While there is much to be said on both sides of the question, we think the same rule should be applied to our city as to other corporations. After all, a city is nothing but a corporation, but one would not think so from the way her citizens ‘manage’ her business.

“A corporation that is a successful one selects as its officers men who are well-fitted for their jobs, and such men see to it that every interest of the corporation is looked after. The officer who neglects his duty and the corporation suffers thereby is promptly relieved, that is, asked to resign. The officers of a city should be handled in the same way. The officers of a city should be men who would give their time and attention to the business of the city, and the salary of such officers should be such as to compensate them fully for their services.

“Gadsden has real estate and personal property with a market value of $10,004,907.80, Alabama City $769,046.80 and Attalla $757,869, making a total valuation of $11,531,823.60 on which the citizens of these three towns are now paying taxes at about 60 percent valuation.

“In addition to this, there are industrial plants and other property now exempt from taxation to an amount of nearly $5,000,000, which of course, when their time limit of exemption expires will be taxpayers. They, however, are deeply interested in our city government, for they, like all other taxpayers, will be bound to bear their part of the burden of any mismanagement in our government.

“The total income from taxation is now about $125,000 per annum. This vast sum of money properly handled and used for the good of the public demands more time and attention than any man can afford to devote to it who simply holds the office for the honor attached to the job.

“No corporation with this vast amount of capital and income would for a minute think of putting its property into the hands of another man who had his own business to look after and who devotes his time and attention to his business in preference to that of the corporation.

“Under the present municipal management, Gadsden, Alabama City and Attalla have more than twenty (20) men whose duty it is to look after the business of the city of which they are officers. Every one of these men has some other business of his own to look after. They get very little, if any, compensation from the city for their services. Most of these men, especially the aldermen, get practically nothing save a little ‘honor’ and much ‘cussing’ for neglecting the city‘s business.

“Each administration goes out condemned as the ‘worst we have ever had.’ We are not saying these men are not good citizens and good men, but we do say [that] the system or method under which they are managing the business of the city is not that which produces such results as obtained by other corporations.

“The last legislature attempted to remedy the matter by creating an office, the President of the Council, and by increasing the number of aldermen, but we think [it] failed to improve the system. In fact, [it] only made the city government more complicated and unsatisfactory.

“Suppose we try the co-mmission form of government and make the salary enough to induce men who are fitted for the job to give up their other business for that of the city. Elect men and demand of them the same kind of service that would be expected of them were they put in charge of an industrial corporation of large capital.

“A management of this kind, in our judgment, would save enough money out of that which is now wasted to more than pay their salaries, and at the same time give the taxpayers value received for every dollar expended, with no increase on the taxes now paid. They would put our city in a condition as it should be, equal, if not superior, to any other city in the South of the same size.

“That is to say, we should have our streets paved or macadamized as the necessity requires. We should have them well lighted [sic] and the sanitary condition of the city kept first class. Water should be furnished of the best kind at about one-half the present rate, or not over 15 cents per thousand gallons. Municipal ownership under the present conditions is a failure, so far as the water consumer is concerned.

“Public improvements should be made of equal burden on the taxpayer. Improvements made on the streets or public highways of the city should be done by bond issue and the interest paid out of the street and road tax. The tax, arising from the various departments that constitute the revenue of the city, should be applied to the expense of that department from which it arises, such as street, water and school taxes. The city should furnish to the consumer the commodity that the city supplies at actual cost, and no profit. All other expenses should be paid out of the common fund of the city so that all taxpayers may participate in the burdens of their civic government.

“We simply call your attention to these matters that you may give them that consideration that you may deem proper and decide whether it is best to have a commission form of government, or continue under the present system and [see] our income wasted year after year and no improvement worthy of the name to show for it.

“If we adopt a commission form of government, we should elect men of character and experience fitted for the job, one of the commissioners [being] a man of financial and executive ability as chairman of the board; another man who is a practical business man of affairs, a good general manager, a live, energetic and capable operator; and the other commissioner a man who is a commercial lawyer. We mean by that not only a man who is learned in law and competent to handle the law end of any proposition that may come before the commission, but a man with sound business sense.

“Such men at the head of our city’s affairs will doubtless employ such other men of ability so as to handle the various departments of our city in an economical and businesslike manner.”

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