March 20, 1956: Duluth adapts Mayor/Council form of government still in use today

George D. Johnson was elected the mayor of Duluth in 1953 and again in 1963. (Image: Duluth Public Library)

On this day in Duluth in 1956, citizens of the Zenith City voted to toss out its old form of “commissioner” government, first adapted in 1913, and turn to a “mayor/city council” form of government, still in use today. Under the old system, five elected commissioners were in charge of five different aspects of city government: public affairs, public works, public safety, public utilities, and finance. The mayor served as commissioner of public affairs, and his position as Duluth’s “chief executive” was much more about public relations than being the top dog controlling city management. The commissioner system replaced a “Ward & Boss” system that had been in place since Duluth regained its city charter in 1887. During this period, Duluth was divided into seven wards, each represented by two aldermen; those aldermen often ran their wards as their own fiefdoms. The mayor also wielded a great deal of power, including appointing city officials, from the City Engineer to the Chief of Police. Often a mayor’s first task after taking office was to replace any city official that did not belong to the mayor’s political party with someone who did. In 1913 the commissioner system was viewed as a more-efficient form of government—both in performance and cost—and was thought to be better for the labor class. In 1956, Duluthians voted 20,252–12,554 to replace the 1913 system. This resulted in the ousting of the current city council (those five commissioners, including the mayor). An election was set for May 29—Duluth had to find a new mayor and nine city councilors, four at-large and five representing geographic districts. Eugene R. Lambert, publisher of the Duluth News Tribune, became Duluth’s first mayor under that new system, replacing George D. Johnson. Johnson would be elected Duluth’s mayor again in 1963. Read more about the Commission System here.

2 Responses to March 20, 1956: Duluth adapts Mayor/Council form of government still in use today

  1. Adopting the commission form in 1913 was influenced by the city of Galveston. A devastating hurricane had struck the city and its leaders felt that a group of professional specialists could expedite recovery. This proved true, and inspired Duluth to put management in the hands of five who claimed experience in each of five principal functions, leaving the mayor with the weakest role, mainly the ceremonial head who became responsible for the parks.

  2. Any form of governance is less than perfect because it is a function of frail human natures – – – even the best are eventually corrupted by excessive personal interest over public interest. Our current form needs adjustment…to provide for a RESPECTFUL EFFECTIVE means by which to investigate actions and inactions by the strong mayor. Currently, the legal process available to citizens is financially blocked by the cost and lengthy process of obtaining legal counsel (must be from outside Duluth). The process by which Councilors can investigate Administration renders any such challenge prohibitive. Thus, the “strong mayor” or/and staff are easily vulnerable to corruption by undue outside influence, and there is no realistic transparent means by which to know and understand what is being done/not done and why and how. Please, Charter Commission, I know some of you know this – are you willing/able to try to make the needed adjustments? (Or, as I have been advised, are those who currently benefit going to prevent any change?)

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