A small item in the Personals column in the Staunton News Leader in April, 1908, was a casual hint at an innovation that was to ultimately sweep the world.
That small Personal item reported that one "Mr. C. E. Ashburner and wife, of Richmond, are registered at the Virginia Hotel. Mr. Ashburner is the newly elected city manager for Staunton.”
A City Manager… It was a new idea. Cities had mayors, councilmen, aldermen and even the occasional department superintendent. But a city manager was something completely new.
Beset by an unwanted change in government, lots of street and political problems, Staunton was having a tough time getting things accomplished in the first years of the 20th century. It’s growth had triggered a state-mandated change to an awkward, two-part City Council structure, and growing needs for infrastructure – with their even more rapidly growing costs – had essentially brought the city to a standstill.
The answer was a new approach to government, an approach that brought a single professional in to manage all day-to-day city operations. And it was something unique. Staunton became the birthplace of the City Manager form of government. Today about 3,700 U.S. cities and more than 525 counties – governing 76 million Americans – use the government structure created first in Staunton. Thousands of other cities around the world have also adopted the City Manager form. Indeed, it is the standard for city government worldwide.
Staunton is proud of its place in the history of government, and of the recognition of that place by the International City Management Association (ICMA), by the Virginia General Assembly and by a host of national and municipal authorities.
More Detailed History
(The following is based on a booklet "The Origin Of The City Manager Plan In Staunton, Virginia" published by the City of Staunton in 1954. Copies of the booklet, which is footnoted and contains far more detail, are available from the Staunton City Manager's Office)
Leading Up To A Revolution In Government
Staunton, located in the historic Shenandoah Valley, was first settled in 1732. The hamlet was named in honor of Lady Staunton, wife of Sir William Gooch who served as lieutenant-governor of Virginia from 1727 to 1749. The Virginia General Assembly established Staunton as a town in 1761.
In 1801, the town was formally incorporated and the first officials were elected… A mayor, recorder, four aldermen and six common-councilmen. The mayor, aldermen and recorder served as justices of the peace, and the alderman voted with the councilmen as a single or “unicameral” body.
Staunton slowly grew, reaching a population of about 2,500 by 1850. But the city’s prime location and role as a supply base for Southern armies stimulated more rapid expansion and, by 1870, the population doubled. In 1871 Staunton was incorporated as a city and growth continued, although at a slower pace. In 1905, when the city annexed a small area from Augusta County, the population jumped to more than 11,000.
Staunton had become a conservative, prosperous city that served as a trading center for the surrounding agricultural region. It’s most distinguished son, Woodrow Wilson, was serving as president of Princeton University.
An Awkward Government Structure
The city government remained in the form of a mayor and a council made up of aldermen and councilmen. The primary responsibilities for administering the various municipal activities was vested in council committees. The main function of the mayor, who possessed veto power over the council, was to review ordinances passed by council an make sure they conformed to state law.
Like most cities of the time, Staunton had about 15 committees: auditing, finance, fire, health, lights, ordinances, police, printing, public buildings, relief of poor, retrenchment, safety, schools, streets, and water.
Aldermen and members of council were usually prominent businessmen who conscientiously tried to run the city well. However, many simply did not have the time to actually administer the actual operations of the growing city. Others simply did not have the expertise. As a result, the city streets and infrastructure grew increasingly worse.
At about this time, Staunton had essentially three fairly distinct geographic areas. The business district, about four square blocks, lay on the floor of a small valley surrounded by hills. The second area lay on the slopes of those hills and was the main residential district. The third area, about a mile from the business district and on top of the hills, included a lot of scattered residences, what today would be described as suburbs.
The streets connecting these areas played an important role in the eventual development of a more efficient kind of government. While the city worked to pave streets in the business district, streets in the primary residential area were simply mud. A writer of the time, Henry Oyen, described the streets:
“Each of these streets had a single street car track laid on ties only at one side. The rest was plain mud. In wet weather wagons went hub deep in the mire and it was a feat to make a crossing on foot…. As for the side streets, picture a red clay country road with a gully washed out in the middle and you may know what they were like.”
Street work was performed under the direction of a street superintendent who reported to the council’s street committee. However, records of work were rarely kept and local contractors routinely charged the city significantly more for work than they did for private parties.
Citizens routinely petitioned council for better streets, but little changed.
The inefficiencies of the street department were out for all to see. But the same kinds of inefficiencies also existed in most other city operations, and the city began to sink in a sea of debt. The situation, however, was not unlike that affecting many small U.S. cities of the time.
Growth Brought A Mandated Change
The annexation and a special census of 1905 found that Staunton had suddenly grown to more than 10,000 persons. That growth triggered a state law that the small city now would have to abandon its “unicameral” city council in favor of a two-part body, a Board of Aldermen and a Common Council. The old Council voted to establish an 8-member Board of Aldermen and a 14-member Council. So there were now two legislative branches with 22 members.
A special election was held in June 1906 and the new government was installed two days later. Problems began to appear at the first meeting of the two bodies. The Aldermen did not wait to meet with the Council over committee appointments. As a result, each body appointed its own 15 committees. Consequently, each city department reported to two committees, one for each body.
That split endured through the summer before calmer heads prevailed and the Council and Aldermen agree to merge committees with three members on each from each body. But the result remained noticeably inefficient. For example, when a citizen wanted a streetlight on his block, he first made a request to the members of the light committee. If the committee approved the request, it had to then go to the two branches of council for approval. Then the chair of the light committee would ask the chair of the street committee to have the hole dug for the light pole. Finally, in order to pay for the materials, the light committee, finance committee, auditing committee, Common Council and Board of Aldermen would all have to approve the expenditure.
It’s not surprising that many people began to think of ways to improve operations.
In 1906, Hugh Braxton, a member of the Common Council, introduced a measure that would have the street committee hire an engineer to manage streets. The street committee, however, went further and proposed hiring a Municipal Director to manage all major functions. The Council approved the committee proposal, but the Aldermen did not.
Three men in Staunton’s leadership at this time are generally credited with initiating the manager movement.
John Crosby, a member of the Common Council, is generally regarded as the father of the City Manager plan. He had served as county clerk in Augusta County for 15 years and had found broad responsibilities in that position. Unlike Clerks of today, he acted almost as general manager or executive officer for the county. He found that the county was able to operate efficiently under this system, and wanted to adapt it to the city where he lived.
W. O. Sydnor, an alderman, served on the Board’s street committee and wrote that committee’s report calling for a general manager for the city. He was the first to drawn parallels between running the city and running private businesses.
Hugh C. Braxton, a member of the Common Council and the street committee, was very practical businessman who simply had a great enthusiasm for the city manager plan.
Various resolutions were offered by Common Council through 1906 but died among the Alderman. A strong resolution to again appoint a manager or commissioner for the street department – with options to assume other responsibilities – was floated late in the year, and evolved to call for a municipal director. The idea passed Common Council but, when it got to the Alderman, prompted that body to call for a joint committee to examine the idea further, to look closely at the Commission form of government, and to look at what other cities were doing.
The joint committee began meeting in the summer of 1907, and made its report in January, 1908. The group expressed great enthusiasm for the Commission form of government, but observed that Virginia law would not allow the City to adopt it. State law was explicit in ordering a city the size of Staunton to have the Aldermen and Council.
The group then recommended the creation of a city manager. The praise for the Commission form of government was apparently a payoff to those who advocated that approach and they then supported the new city manager concept. The Joint Committee presented a resolution to bring about the appointment of a city manager. The Common Council approved the proposal on a 7 to 1 vote. The Aldermen, on a Jan 16 vote, approved it 5 to 1.
The new ordinance called for the appointment of a “General Manager” by the Council and Aldermen who would “devote his entire time to the duties of his office, and shall have entire charge and control of all the Executive work of the City in its various departments, to have entire charge and control of the heads of departments and employees of the city…”
Staunton kept the official title of General Manager for several years, but the job was almost immediately called City Manager by all those within and outside of the city government.
The First City Manager
The City Council elected Charles E. Ashburner of Richmond as Staunton’s first City Manager on April 2, 1908. There had been many candidates for the position and the Council chose a man qualified in a variety of ways. Ashburner, the son of a British army officer, was born in Bombay, India, and educated in England, France and Germany. He was a trained engineer and had worked in the field, including a stint as maintenance engineer for the Staunton division of the C&O Railroad several years earlier.
Author Leonard D. White painted a verbal picture of Ashburner years
“The original and in many ways the indelible impression of Ashburner is that of an inexhaustible human dynamo, forever driving ahead with constant acceleration, never content with the achievements of the past, but with full realization burning up the ultimate treasure of reserve power in the relentless pursuit of the immediate objective…” (Leonard D. White, The City Manager. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1927. P. 90)
Ashburner remained in Staunton for three years and went on to serve as city manager of Springfield, Ohio; Norfolk, Virginia, and Stockton, California. As awareness of the importance of his position and his skills grew, so did his pay. In Staunton he made $2,500 a year. By the time he moved to Stockton, his pay topped $20,000.
When the City Managers Association (now the International City Management Association or ICMA) was formed in 1914, Ashburner became its first president.
Staunton’s first City Manager brought immediate results to the city. He began to call for bids for streets and sidewalks. Dissatisfied with the bids offered, he decided the city should go into the paving business itself and the costs of sidewalks and streets dropped. He paved miles of city streets using only current revenues.
Ashburner also looked hard at every other aspect of city operations. He cut the consumption of coal by 1,000 tons a year by simply improving firing methods. And, in his three years with the city, he laid about six miles of new water and sewer lines.
The Staunton City Manager also became a civic leader, active in community organizations, and a clear representative of the city. His professional and personal conduct was not only a real benefit for the city, it set a model for the thousands of other City Managers that were to follow.
In 1916, the Commonwealth of Virginia changed the law so that cities like Staunton no longer had to have a two-part or bicameral council. Staunton immediately converted to a single council with a mayor elected by that council.
It is interesting to note that the concept of a city manager has not changed materially since Staunton made the historic break from the traditional practice of committee administration.
There is not much doubt that the present day council-manager form of government would have evolved without the initiation of the city manager plan in Staunton. However, the emergence of the professional municipal executive in Staunton and the publicity afforded he successful operation of the city manager plan in Staunton by magazines and newspapers across the nation proved the workability of the plan to many of the cities and counties that later adopted it.
Harry Toulmin Jr., an early student of the city manager form of government, has succinctly stated the Staunton contribution:
“The city manager idea has been a distinct improvement and success in Staunton. True as it was that the city manager plan was yet to be developed in its entirety, nevertheless, Staunton had the basic idea and pioneered the innovation despite risk and ridicule. To Staunton then goes the laurels for the first practical application of a business manager scheme to civic affairs.”