Patronage jobs allowed local and regional businesses to flourish, offered political viability for minority groups, and ensured welfare services that state or federal funding would not have provided.
However, urban machines also colluded with organized crime, created impenetrable legacies of city boss cabals, and fomented corruption. Voters cast ballots based on the spoils system, diminishing the relevance of democratic freedoms. The patronage system also boosted special interests and prevented businesses from thriving independently of the machine. Around the 1920s, muckrakers began exposing the inner workings of the urban machine. Progressive politicians championed legitimate social welfare reform at the local level, speaking out against government corruption and collusion with big business (Caswell 2001).
The Progressive movement helped to eliminate or at least to diminish the scope of urban machine governments, even though Chicago's would persist well into the 1970s. In other cities like New York and Boston, the strong mayor system prevailed. A strong mayor system is the local equivalent of federalist-style government. In especially large metropolitan centers, city issues and institutions are shared throughout an entire county so that the municipal government has a considerably wide scope and extensive power. Mayor-council forms of government may include a strong or a weak mayor. A strong mayor has executive powers that far supersede that of a weak mayor, who may be little more than a figurehead. New York and Boston both have strong mayors. Both New York and Boston also once boasted strong urban machines including New York's infamous Tammany Hall.
The Council Manager form as well as the Commission form of municipal governance offer more directly democratic alternatives to the strong mayor model. In cities with a Council Manager form of government, a major may be elected but has less power than in strong mayoral cities. Commissioner systems also include officials directly elected by voters and the mayor usually holds a ceremonial rather than authoritative role. Whether a council or commissioner form, most large cities must allocate special duties through different departments. Taxation and treasury; public works, transportation, elections, welfare administration, and a host of other duties are shared among council members or city managers. Department heads are often highly specialized professionals who may be elected on the basis of their abilities as well as their professional connections. At least in theory, city commissioners and managers avoid patronage in favor of legitimate contract bids for service projects. For example, waste management manager might offer the city's garbage collection services to the most competent and lowest price bidder rather than one that would promise a certain number of votes in an upcoming election. However, local politics can never be completely divorced from business and special interest. All career politicians, whether commissioners, managers, or mayors, depend on votes for the perpetuation of their careers. In the absence of urban machine-style governance, elected officials can still form corrupt relationships with local interest groups or businesses.
The Progressive era heralded the emergence of three basic modern models of local governance: the strong major form; the commissioner form; and the council manager form. Furthermore, exposure of endemic corruption at the local level of government has encouraged more awareness and exposure of the deep connection between city bosses, law enforcement, organized crime, and big business.
While the Industrial Age gave rise to the aptly-named urban machine, progressivism ushered in more populist and directly democratic models of local government. Because state constitutions vary and because the federal government has little jurisdiction over local affairs, city governments vary considerably throughout the nation. The variations in city governments across the United States also reflect the conflicting beliefs of the Founding Fathers. Federalist trends ensured shared powers among federal, state, and local governments, allowing regional differences to flourish. Democratic trends allowed council-style city governments to retain viability in regions where they work or have been historically extant.
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Caswell, T. (2001). "Progressive Era Reform." Regents Prep: U.S. History. Retrieved Feb 7, 2007 at http://regentsprep.org/Regents/ushisgov/themes/reform/progressive.htm
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