The commission form of city government, also known as the Galveston Plan, was devised in Galveston in 1901 and became one of the three basic forms of municipal government in the United States. (The others are mayor-council and council-manager.) Under the commission plan voters elect a small governing commission, typically five or seven members, on an at-large basis. As a group the commissioners constitute the legislative body of the city responsible for taxation, appropriations, ordinances, and other general functions. Individually, each commissioner is in charge of a specific aspect of municipal affairs, e.g., public works, finance, or public safety. One of the commissioners is designated chairman or mayor, but his function is principally one of presiding at meetings and serving in ceremonial capacities. Thus the commission plan blends legislative and executive functions in the same body.
The invention of the commission plan was a direct result of the Galveston hurricane of 1900. An estimated 6,000 lives were lost, and millions of dollars worth of property was swept away. Fearful that the island city might never recover its prosperity under the leadership of the incumbent city council, a group of wealthy businessmen known as the Deep Water Committee devised a plan to have the governor appoint a commission to govern the city during the rebuilding period. To appease opponents who contended that appointed government was undemocratic, the plan was altered to provide for popular election of two of the five commissioners. This plan went into operation one year after the great storm. Court challenges to the constitutionality of the partially appointive government led the legislature to make the office of all five commissioners elective, and in this form the commission plan became popular across Texas and the nation.
Galveston's apparent success with the new type of government inspired Houston to adopt the plan in 1905 and Dallas, Fort Worth, El Paso, Denison, and Greenville to follow in 1907. By then sometimes referred to as the Texas Idea, the commission plan began to be noticed nationally and to be regarded as a progressive reform. Des Moines, Iowa, was the first city outside Texas to adopt the commission plan. The Des Moines version included nonpartisan balloting, merit selection of employees, and the direct-democracy devices of initiative, referendum, and recall. Although Dallas, Fort Worth, and some other Texas cities also used direct democracy, Des Moines was able to take credit for making commission government a package of reforms often billed as the Des Moines Plan.
Usually supported by chambers of commerce and other businessmen's groups, the commission plan spread rapidly from 1907 to 1920. In this period about 500 cities, including seventy-five in Texas, adopted commission charters. (Exact figures are not available because of poor reporting and imprecise definitions.) Leading figures of the Progressive Era, including Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, endorsed the plan. Reformist periodicals such as Outlook and McClure's praised the idea. Historians have generally regarded the Galveston-Des Moines plan as an important aspect of the progressivist thrust toward expertise and efficiency. Some progressive reformers, however, questioned the plan because they viewed it as an effort by business interests to take influence away from the working class.
To a significant extent the commission plan served as a precursor to the popular council-manager form of city government. Richard S. Childs, often called the father of the city manager plan, worked through the Short Ballot Organization and the National Municipal League to make the manager plan rather than the commission plan the progressive idea of choice for business-minded reformers. Childs and others pointed out that the specific departmental interests of commissioners often caused internal squabbling and that the absence of a chief executive could result in a lack of leadership. Manager charters, many argued, could retain the beneficial aspects of the Galveston-Des Moines system, such as the short ballot, at-large voting, nonpartisanship, the merit system, and direct democracy, but could replace leaderless bickering with businesslike management in the corporate model.
Indeed, after World War I very few cities adopted the commission plan, and many existing commission cities shifted to the manager system; a few reverted to mayor-council charters. From a peak in 1918 of about 500, commission plan cities had dwindled to only 177 by 1984. In contrast, there were 3,776 mayor-council and 2,523 council-manager cities in that year. Even Galveston abandoned its own child when the island city adopted manager government in 1960. Because at-large balloting is intrinsic to the commission concept and since at-large elections may dilute minority voting strength, some southern cities, including Shreveport, Jackson, and Mobile, have dropped the commission plan because of suits brought under the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and subsequent amendments. In Texas as of May 1993 there were no true commission forms of government. Twenty-seven cities had manager-commission governments, but they were more like mayor-council government than the original commission form.