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

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 wards (four in 1870; nine by 1912), 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. Cloquet native Eugene R. Lambert, who later became the publisher of the Duluth News Tribune, became Duluth’s first mayor under that new system, replacing George D. Johnson. Johnson was appointed Duluth’s mayor again in 1962 following the unexpected death of Mayor E. Clifford Mork.

The seal for the City of Duluth, established (for the second time) on March 2, 1887.

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