(Photo courtesy: The Library of Virginia)
Beck, Folkes, Hirschberg,McCarthy and Whittet may sound like either a band or law firm, but as members of the Administrative Board of 1913 to 1918, they symbolized a movement to reform Richmond’s cumbersome government. The board rose from the demands of an electorate wearied by gross government inefficiencies and constant eruptions of scandal. I touched on the Administrative Board last December in Part 2 of our series, “Richmond’s Government Problem,” but it’s worth some detail as the mayoral and City Council campaigns heat up.
Richmond’s serio-comic government at the time imitated the state and federal levels. An elected mayor sat between a two-house city legislature of a Common Council and Board of Aldermen. Fifty-six white men administrated through a Rube Goldberg arrangement of boards and committees.
In 1907, a committee comprising members of Common Council and the Aldermen sought a way out of its self-made labyrinth. This came in the season of national and regional political foment amid the progressivism of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, and the labor organizing and socialism of Eugene V. Debs. The power of labor appeared to be on the rise in Richmond, as well. As Christopher Silver noted in his “Twentieth-Century Richmond: Planning, Politics and Race,” of the 61 candidates for 47 seats on the Common Council and Board of Aldermen in 1910, a bit more than half worked as “clerks and salesmen, mechanics, laborers, shop foremen and saloonkeepers.”
That didn’t mean that labor organizations supported the committee’s reform agenda. Nevertheless, in 1909 and 1911, the committee issued reports calling for extensive overhauls. In 1912, the Virginia General Assembly granted permission for the city to modify its charter.
In its new form, a smaller City Council would be assisted by a five-member Administrative Board, elected to serve four-year terms. The board’s duties included overseeing appropriations, the city works, utilities, the engineer’s office and hiring and firing officials. The council retained control of the purse strings and made law. For these responsibilities, the board members each earned $5,000 a year — around $118,000 today.
Councilman Marx Gunst grumbled that the board just added another layer to an already bloated government. Then he campaigned for a seat.
Progressives pushed for a nominating convention for the five board members. The East End Citizen’s Association, in large part comprising white workers, refused to participate in such wire-pulling politics. The city Democratic Committee caved and the selection of the board was placed directly into the hands of the voters. The editorial board of the Richmond Times-Dispatch disapproved, cracking: “Hereafter, whenever a few malcontents threaten that they will desert the party, the Democrats of Richmond must stop in their tracks and sacrifice progress and good government to the whim of a few mossbacks with a bad case of the pip.”
On Sept. 10, 1912, almost 8,000 voters turned out to elect the new Administrative Board. The five chosen were:
John Hirschberg, 45, a men’s garments store clerk, former state legislator and one-time member of the Common Council, who received the backing of the Central Trades and Labor Council.
Elben C. Folkes, 39, who started out as a factory man at the American Can Co. and became a lawyer who served three terms in the House of Delegates before becoming a state senator.
Robert Whittet, 37, president of the Whittet & Shepperson printing company and a former alderman and acting mayor; Whittet favored improvements like parks, playgrounds and libraries, aggressive annexation, and guiding the growth of the city’s African-American population though city planning. His opposition to streetcar line consolidation and affiliation with labor alienated him from conservative businessmen.
Carlton McCarthy, 66, a favorite of the business-backed Citizens Association. A Confederate veteran and memoirist, McCarthy was also a former city and state accountant, mayor from 1904 to 1908, anti-saloonist, and editor of “The Live Wire” newsletter.
Henry P. Beck, 44, one “of the great army of men now employed in City Hall,” summarized the Times-Dispatch, was a civil engineer by training who served five years as building inspector.
The new era began on Jan. 1, 1913, and ushered in an unexpected labor-progressive coalition. The quintet called for a comprehensive urban plan, though the council refused to fund a city planner. The board pushed for street improvements and public school construction that adhered to the policy of racial segregation. The Hirschberg-led coalition blocked sale of the city’s gas works to the Southern Gas and Electric Co. The board stood against Virginia Passenger and Power’s monopoly of the streetcars and, in 1917, voted against its acquisition of the city’s electrical plant.
But, as the board did its work, criticism of the city’s management mounted. The newly-formed Civic Association of Richmond sought to do away with the two-chamber city government and the at-large elected mayor. It also wanted to reduce the pay of Administrative Board members to $500 a year, which would return city administrative matters to the hands in which the association felt such matters belonged: wealthy businessmen.
The Richmond Chamber of Commerce and the Civic Association retained the Bureau of Municipal Research of New York City to undertake a study of Richmond government. The firm found the city administration woeful in its inefficiency and recommended lodging administration authority with a “central executive officer” rather than the five-member board.
And that was the end of the short-lived Administrative Board. In 1918, voters supported its dissolution. The Common Council remained, as did the elected at-large mayor, but voters ignored the firm’s recommendation that what Richmond really needed was a city manager.
The city wouldn’t heed that advice for another generation.