The Union Advocate was irate.
The charter reform plan, scheduled to come before voters in a few weeks, would "turn the entire administration of the city over to a hired agent … who is removed from popular influence," the labor paper warned its readers.
The year was 1929. The city was St. Paul.
That year, the Advocate's ire was aimed at a charter plan to establish a city manager for Minnesota's capital city. Under the plan drafted by the St. Paul Charter Commission, the manager, a bureaucrat appointed by the St. Paul City Council, would have broad authority over a full range of St. Paul municipal functions.
Today, more than 90 years later, some members of Minneapolis's counterpart commission are talking about creating a similar appointed position in Minneapolis City Hall. If the plan for a Minneapolis city manager moves ahead it would come before city voters during next November's municipal election.
This push for charter reform is being fueled by a widespread view that Minneapolis's municipal institutions are unwieldy and out of date. "Our creaky old structure ... is not up to the age of social media and hyperpolarization," Minneapolis Charter Commissioner Greg Abbott told the Star Tribune recently.
But the political resistance to the St. Paul city manager plan nine decades back provides a cautionary tale for modern day reformers in Minneapolis.
Under the 1929 St. Paul charter plan, the city manager was to serve at the pleasure of the St. Paul City Council for an indeterminate term. In turn, the manager would appoint the heads of the major city departments. The charter plan represented a major change from St. Paul's existing municipal structure, then known as the council/commissioner system, under which individual council members served as the heads of the various departments.
In order to sell the city manager plan to St. Paul voters, the charter reformers organized an unofficial advocacy group, the New Charter League, to promote the plan. In its promotional materials, the league argued that St. Paul needed to overhaul its governmental structure because the existing system was not meeting the needs of residents.
In a Pioneer Press ad running just a few days before the Nov. 6 election, the league maintained that "St. Paul Needs a Change. Its Streets Getting Rougher — Two Big Deficits — A Wonderful Library Decaying — And Yet Your Taxes Go Higher — VOTE 'YES' For a Bigger and Better St. Paul."
The league's supporters believed that a city manager would help St. Paul City Hall operate in a more efficient, businesslike manner. But the manager was expected to do more than oversee the machinery of local government day-to-day. In order to provide leadership for his city, the manager, at least indirectly, needed to become a policymaker as well as an administrator.
Behind the scenes, the manager had the potential to become City Hall's most powerful single official, wielding his power without being held in check by St. Paul voters.
The St. Paul Trades and Labor Assembly and opponents of the city manager system would focus on this lack of accountability as they worked to defeat the charter overhaul plan.
As the charter campaign entered its final weeks, the Union Advocate served as the public voice of the campaign to defeat the charter amendment. In the end, despite the best efforts of the New Charter League and St. Paul's daily papers, all of which supported the plan, the city manager charter was defeated. While the vote was almost evenly split, with opponents edging out proponents by only 500 ballots, a 60% vote had been needed for passage.
The charter vote reflected the city's political, economic and social differences. In the heavily working-class wards on St. Paul's East Side, the charter change lost decisively, while it carried in the more affluent neighborhoods on the west side.
The following year, the New Charter League tried again to win approval for the city manager plan after tweaking several of its provisions. But on June 16, 1930, St. Paul voters again rejected the city manager charter, this time by a larger margin.
During the hard-fought charter campaigns, proponents faced one major challenge that they were not able to overcome. They argued that a city manager would take politics out of St. Paul government. But they could not bring themselves to acknowledge that city government, by its very nature, was political in the broadest sense.
Particularly in the country's largest cities, with their diverse and often competing interests, another model of municipal organization, the strong mayor system, was intended to make local government more efficient while, at the same time, taking account of the political environment within which it operated.
St. Paul needed to wait 40 years before it could move on to this new municipal model. Following the defeat of the city manager charter in 1930, St. Paul would retain the council/commissioner system until 1970. That year, St. Paul voters finally voted to replace that system with a "strong" mayor — a single elected chief executive who was able to hire and fire city department heads.
As Minneapolis looks forward to a municipal election in 2021, its charter reformers might well take the lessons of the 1929 St. Paul city manager battle to heart.
Iric Nathanson writes about local history. His most recent book, "Minneapolis's Lake Street," was published in 2020.