How it All Began — With A Scandal


Humble beginnings: the Bureau of Municipal Research in the early 1900s

In the bible of civic reform, the Citizens Union of the City of New York begat the Bureau of City Betterment. The Bureau of City Betterment begat the Bureau of Municipal Research. And the Bureau of Municipal Research begat the Institute of Public Administration, Luther Gulick and a new science of efficient, effective, honest, professional and responsive government.

This is a story of how the begats began.

In the beginning was the Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor, or AICP, founded in 1843. In 1897, AICP was instrumental in the formation of  the Citizens Union of the City of New York, which is still around, one of the oldest and most venerated of the goo-goos, or good-government organizations. The founding chairman of the Citizens Union was a wealthy civic crusader, Robert Fulton Cutting, descendant of that Robert Fulton.

We highlighted Cutting in an earlier post.

In 1905, Cutting and other reformers, notably Henry Bruere and William H. Allen, organized a research wing of the Citizens Union, known as the Bureau of City Betterment. (It would morph into the influential Bureau of Municipal Research two years later.)


The Bureau of City Betterment burst on the scene in 1906 with an incendiary report blandly entitled “How Manhattan in Governed.”  A forerunner of the studies that the Bureau of Municipal Research would become legendary for undertaking across the nation, it fearlessly exposed the wasteful and corrupt administration of the Tammany-controlled Borough President, John F. Ahearn. The impact was devastating.


The report revealed that in 1904 and 1905, Ahearn’s office spent the equivalent of nearly $26 million today on non-bid contracts, work that often went to cronies. And that was only the beginning.

It should be noted that the united City of New York was a mere child at the time, the five counties joining together only in 1898.  As part of the consolidation, the borough presidents sat on the Board of Public Improvements with great sway over highways and streets, rail tracks, sewers, lighting, bridges, public buildings, and purchasing — a patronage-rich portfolio, to be sure.

Ahearn, born in 1853, won election to the New York State Assembly before he was 30, and later served in the state Senate where he started off opposed to the Democratic machine known as Tammany Hall but soon became a reliable ally, gaining Tammany’s endorsement for the borough presidency in 1903. The job at the time paid the equivalent today of about $155,000.

He staffed the office with party hacks, including his chief aide and commissioner of public works, one William Dalton, a butcher and carpenter by trade. When once asked by an Assembly investigating committee to state his engineering credentials, Dalton replied, “I owned an engine for some years.”

Not surprisingly, then, the Bureau of City Betterment found egregious abuses in the purchase of asphalt for the streets, inflated payrolls, and slipshod work. What were then called “incumbrances” — private construction on public thoroughfares — had also run amok, with Ahearn’s office turning a blind eye to the lack of permits. Abandoned trolley tracks that were supposed to be torn up and paved over were allowed to fester, the railway companies pocketing the savings.

It was all laid out, chapter and verse, in the group’s report.

The newspapers jumped on it, giving credit to the scrappy young reform bureau.


So did the city’s two crusading Commissioners of Accounts — particularly John Purroy Mitchel (consistently misspelled by the papers as “Mitchell) who would ride his reformist zeal into City Hall in 1914 as the 34-year-old “Boy Mayor” of New York. Manhattan District Attorney William T. Jerome (a first cousin, once removed, of Winston Churchill) opened a criminal investigation.




Ahearn was not accused of personal enrichment, but rather wasting millions of city dollars on dubious contracts with Tammany sidekicks that left  streets of Manhattan a rutted moonscape. Soon the matter was handed off to Republican Gov. Charles Evans Hughes who removed Ahearn in 1907.

But the story wasn’t over.

Ahearn ran again for Borough President — and won again. By the time the New York Court of Appeals ruled his election illegal, upholding Hughes’s decision, Ahearn had no recourse but to retire. Hughes went on to join the United States Supreme Court and run a losing race against Woodrow Wilson for President.

And The Bureau of City Betterment could justify its name.

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  1. Pingback: The Uprooted: A Century of Immigrants…and Scandal | "An Adventure in Democracy"

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