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The Position of the Engineer in Municipal Service

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



THE Detroit Engineering Society has always avoided any semblance of political action. We have at times discussed matters of engineering interest so closely akin to what we recognize as politics that our discussion took a distinctly political tinge; but the tendency of each discussion was towards the education of our members as individuals and away from any action or even expression of opinion by us as a society. In choosing the subject of this Presidential address I have not forgotten our laudable custom. The intent of this discourse is educational. It is based on personal experience and observation as an engineer and is offered to you as engineers in the belief that it will be of interest and perhaps of service.

You will find my text in the Evening News of April 5th, where Public Lighting Commissioner James E. Davis is quoted as saying: "I used to think that municipal ownership was a good thing, but my experience has taught me that it is impossible to divorce public business from politics. It is all politics and just now the Public Lighting Commission is composed of two Republicans and four Democrats."

The Politician in Municipal Service

It is quite true that the Public Lighting Commission is suffering from politics—Democratic politics, labor politics, reform politics, and just enough Republican politics to season the mess. I suppose the labor men and the reformers object to being called politicians. Perhaps they are not such. Perhaps they are merely playing at being politicians—you know the tale about the man who thought he played poker, but really didn't—but they are partisans, and it is not the politician in the honorable sense of the word but the "offensive partisan," to use the expression invented by Grover Cleveland, who is a discredit to politics. The man who in public service endeavors to represent or to serve a faction instead of to represent or to serve the whole body politic, is an offensive partisan. What his faction is or calls itself is a matter of no consequence.

He may represent the Good Government League, or the Women's Christian Temperance Union, or the Associated Charities, but when he announces that his service as a Commissioner or his employment as a subordinate of a Commission is in the interest of, or as the special representative of, any part of the people, and not all of the people, he is a partisan.

In my experience the most offensive partisans have been those who claimed to represent moral agencies. When they were honest they were doctrinaires; when they were dishonest their dishonesty overpassed exceedingly the dishonesty of the politician who admits that he is a politician. My experience is not peculiar. A friend of mine who has paid for his knowledge of city councillors in an Ohio city, where there is an organized reform party, tells me that the only difference between Democrats and reformers is that the reformers don't stay bought.

The common form of speech by which we express the offensive partisan is to call him a practical politician. This expression differentiates him from the man who takes an occasional whirl at politics because he has a momentary feeling that it is his public duty to do so. The practical politician calls that kind of a man a mugwump, and I think he deserves the name. I shall use the euphemistic expression in the remainder of this address and you will understand that when I speak of the practical politician I am calling the person by the, name which he has himself chosen.

The interest of the practical politician in any public department is primarily the money paid by that department as wages. The politician believes that the jobs belong entirely to him. He is even more interested in these than he is in the contracts which are given for supplies or for construction. On these contracts he and his friends can only expect a percentage of the profits, but he and his friends are ready to place their names on the pay roll of the city for all the money in the treasury. Whether they can earn their stipends is immaterial. Of course the work must be done by some-body, but the politician believes that if he and his friends are employed in sufficient numbers the work will be well enough done to keep the public quiet without anyone wasting too much of his time or energy on the performance of the small part which becomes his share.

You must not suppose that the politician in office is an idle man. Be is exceedingly busy—as busy as the devil in a gale of wind.

The trouble is that he is not doing the work he is paid to do. He spends his time in promoting the interests of his party. He attends conventions, sometimes forgetting to get leave of absence and always forgetting to have his name removed from the time book. He is active at caucuses and is a worker before elections—a very hard worker. And when after election his worn out system requires repose he takes the same cheerfully; still omitting to notify the timekeeper of his absence from duty. The interference with the work he is paid to do is just about the same as if he went on occasional drunks. The only real difference is that his irregularities are exceedingly regular, being predetermined by the laws fixing the dates on which elections shall be held.

Public opinion has long ago officially and practically condemned the man who allows his pleasures to interfere with his duties, but public opinion has not yet reached the stage of practical condemnation of the man who lets his politics interfere with his doing the work for which he is paid by the public. When it is effectively recognized that politics and dissipations are on the same footing when they prevent a man from doing the work which he is hired to do, public service can be performed as cheaply and as efficiently as is private service.

When a practical politician holds an office which gives him the power of appointing other public servants he attains his maximum power for mischief. He not merely fails, himself, to earn his salary, but he employs others of his kind with a distinct understanding that they are to justify their employment by work done in the interest of him and his faction. That they are supposed to make some kind of a bluff at filling the nominal duties of their office is true; but the politician so appointed looks to his sponsor for protection in his idleness and does not in the least hold himself amen-able to the taxpayers whose money he eats. He is not the servant of the city, but he is the "man" of such and such a boss. Sometimes the "boss" is a recognized party leader and the appointment is made in the interest of the party. "The party owed me the job after all these years of work for it; I intend to take things easy and have a rest." That is how a man in this city, receiving such an appointment stated the case; and he is even now resting at the public expense.

Politics Divorced from Public Business

To return to my text. My experience is different from that of Mr. Davis. It has taught me that it is entirely possible to keep public business separate from politics, even the public business of the very Commission on which Mr. Davis gained his experience. My experience has led me to believe it possible to divorce public business from politics after the two have formed such an unholy alliance. To keep them separate in the beginning was the work of an engineer, and I now propose to tell how it was done. Hereafter I may justify my belief that the old condition can be restored.

The first Lighting Commission was absolutely nonpartisan. In its constitution there was the usual recognition of each of the great parties, but each of those six men stood for the whole City and never for a moment for his own political friends. That was as it should be. A bipartisan board is not a nonpartisan board. You can't neutralize three aggressive Republicans by appointing three equally aggressive Democrats. Two blacks don't make one white, and the result in practice is at best a deadlock. If by any chance a Republican partisan votes with the Democrats he is called a traitor, and there is a howl for his political scalp.

This nonpartisan Commission decided that its duties were essentially legislative. Its members were business men who certainly could not give attention to details of Commission work. You remember that these Commissioners are unpaid—well perhaps I should not put it so, but the payment they get is of the kind best described by a tale concerning our fellow member, Mr. Frank E. Kirby, who served a term as a Water Commissioner of this City. The Water Board of a large eastern city visited Detroit in the course of a tour in search of information. Mr. Kirby dropped his other duties to entertain the visitors, one of whom in conversation, spoke as follows: "In our city there are three Water Commissioners; we each get $3,600 a year. How many are there of you in Detroit and what do you get?" The answer was grim but precise; "There are five of us and we get hell." The first Lighting Commissioners were well paid in the coin named by Mr. Kirby. Some of them are, I think, still receiving small installments of their salary. Be that as it may; they decided that their duties were legislative and therein they made a wise decision. They sought as their executive an experienced electrical engineer of good administrative ability. They failed to be satisfied by any of the numerous applicants who asked for the position; they made guarded inquiries concerning a number of men who were engaged in such work as they had to do; and they ended by offering the appointment to a man who was about as thoroughly surprised as any one could be by such an offer. That was I.

From the beginning the separation of legislative and executive functions was complete. The Commission decided on a policy. I reported on and advised as to possible plans whereby that policy could be carried out. The Commission authorized the execution of a general plan presented by me, and then it became my duty to carry out that plan, myself selecting the immediate agents and settling the details. On me lay the responsibility for results. Logically, to me was given the choice of means.

Given full charge of the work and the force; given power to employ and discharge help; ordered positively to see that each employe earned his pay; to require no qualifications other than citizenship and competence; to disregard all endorsements which were not supported by my own observation of the work actually done for the Commission, it would appear that I should have been able to keep practical politicians out of the service of the Public Lighting Commission. Did I do so? Well, I think I did. I was convinced of it by the fact that the Republican politicians of the City condemned me for a Democrat, and the Democratic politicians cursed me for a Republican. That was at first—after a year or two they sized me up better. Towards the end of my service I had the expert opinion of a recognized authority on such subjects as to whether I had succeeded in organizing a nonpartisan force. The authority was the Hon. Hazen S. Pingree. I don't think any one here will question his competence. The opinion was given to me personally in explicit language and at some length. I do not know that it is advisable to quote it in full or verbatim; indeed, my memory fails me. But the salient point thereof was that "You people down there at the lighting plant are political eunuchs." Now really, I don't like being called a eunuch; and I think that the Hon. Hazen S. Pingree's metaphor is somewhat startling, but it is so thoroughly expressive that I venture to pass it on to posterity by embalming it in this Presidential address.

Selection of Lighting Plant Employes

How did I do it? Well I began, so far as the laborers and mechanics were concerned, at the top of the long list which was arranged according to priority of application. I called for these men in bunches, sized them up personally after the fashion of all engineers who have to hire men—you know how it goes, you don't have to be told that some men are not worth a continental —you can see that by looking at them. I questioned them as to their citizenship and previous experience, rated them according to their claims and set them to work. I personally hired each man and the hiring was a big part of my work. In a short time I could tell whether or not a man was competent. If he showed himself such he remained in the service. Some of the men employed in this way seven or eight years ago are still on the Public Lighting Commission's pay roll. If he showed himself incompetent he was summarily discharged. The orders of the Commission were that no man should have a time appointment—that each man should be hired from day to day or from month to month.

There was an application blank which had spaces for name and address, trade or profession, previous experience and references. The references were often autographic. The rule that a man should be a citizen and a bona fide resident of Detroit led to many of the applicants establishing their status by presenting the signature of one of the aldermen of their ward or some other well known Detroit man. Our foreign-born residents almost always secured the alder-man's signature before presenting their application. The rule as to local residence was not absolute; but (after my own name) there never was but one selection made outside of the City; that selection was Mr. Walter D. Steele, a former member of this Society, and who became my chief assistant and afterward my successor. Mr. Steele brought to my aid a knowledge of high tension electric constructions and particularly of underground cables such as was not possessed by any Detroit man, and which was essential to the performance of the duties which fell to him.

In the original selection of employes many presented the endorsement of local politicians. During the first three years, which were years of very hard times, there was an unusually large selection of employes available. Capable tradesmen were glad to get work as helpers or laborers, and for every position, excepting those requiring special technical training, there were from twenty to fifty applicants. It would have been possible to fill each such place after turning down every man endorsed by a politician. That would, however, have been a mistake. A selection from men endorsed only by the "goo-goo" element of our citizenship, would, I think, have furnished about as large a proportion of utterly useless and worthless employes as could possibly have resulted had none but pernicious politicians been chosen. Some of the poorest specimens of mankind that were tried in the service brought the most magnificent endorsements from preachers and pillars of churches. I honestly don't believe the average preacher knows the making of a decent workman. I must expressly exempt the Catholic priesthood from this reproach. I noticed that a man who referred us to his parish priest was almost always a good find. On the other hand, some of the best men whom I found, including men who are still employed by the Commission, carried the endorsements of politicians whose reputations are far from saintly. I don't say that a tough alderman invariably .recommended a good man for a job; what I mean to say is that, especially in these years of business depression, the tough aldermen could and did furnish from among their constituents enough mechanics and tradesmen of a thoroughly reliable character to fill any number of positions such as I had to offer. Of course the tough aldermen sometimes sent worthless men to me, but I had an effective method of dealing with such cases. If the man proved worthless I summarily discharged him and then I did not wait for his political sponsor to come to me complaining that this man had been "thrown down." I made the announcement myself to the sponsor and followed it up by a few well chosen remarks, in the vernacular, which let him understand that it was his business to know that a man was a good capable worker before he sent him down to the Public Lighting Commission, and that if the said sponsor did not know any better than to send such a damnable specimen as the one just discharged, I would decline hereafter to consider any of his recommendations.

I commend this prescription to any of you who may find your-selves in such a position as I then was. The first dose, if liberal, effects a complete cure.

The places which required technical training were more difficult to fill. I have already mentioned that one place had to be filled by employment of a man from outside the City. The first draftsmen and inspectors were found by inquiry among the manufacturing and technical concerns in town. They were college men and their coming to the service was followed by a succession of applications for employment from other college graduates, largely University of Michigan men. The names of most of those men have been on the roll of our Society.

The engineering staff of the construction period was formed of these young men and when the operating force was organized a number of positions were filled from the construction staff. The pay of these places was not high — $75 per month being the standard. I could not expect to retain permanently such men at the salaries which were possible, but I could and did arrange for a continuous succession in office. There was no place which was not well filled and behind each occupant of a place there was a possible successor, the final vacancy of the series being a draftsman's position which could naturally be filled by any graduate of the engineering department of the University of Michigan. The plan worked during my term and the men. have assured me that they found their Public Lighting experience of value; and I am proud to say that they are all today filling positions of responsibility with credit to themselves and to their earliest employment.

I see in the press that one of these positions formerly filled by a graduate engineer is vacant and that a competent man cannot be had for the pay. Well, I think the trouble is that a competent man will not take the place under the present limitations. The pay is aplenty and if the place were vacant at the salary named in one of my plants instead of in the city plant, it would be filled mighty promptly by an Ann Arbor man.

The steam engineers and similar expert mechanics were selected from the list of applicants. In these classes the plan of putting a man to work and seeing what would happen could not be tried with the same freedom as was permissible with laborers. An incompetent engineer might wreck an engine in demonstrating his incompetence; or an unskillful electrician send himself to Paradise by the electric route and thereby cost the city five thousand dollars or so. It is really remarkable how valuable such a man becomes after he is dead. But the method was modified only in degree—not in kind. A man was first questioned and then tried. His endorsements counted for nothing—his politics for less than nothing.

The relations of the plant to what is called "union labor" were very early defined. The first Commission announced that it recognized citizenship and competence as being the only essentials for employment. It classed union labor affiliations together with politics and religion, as being immaterial so long as they did not interfere with the performance of a man's duties. It resulted that we made no inquiry as to a man's being union or nonunion; and that, naturally, a large proportion of the men employed were union men. I think the ground taken in the matter was solid, and is the only ground which promises permanent freedom from trouble.

It was not sufficient to obtain employes who were free from political obligations. It was necessary that they should remain clear of such entanglements. Our rule in the beginning was clearly stated and it was reiterated from time to time as occasion required. It was that every employe should have opportunity to vote at primary and regular elections; that there should be no inquiry as to how or for whom he voted; but that no employe should on any pretense engage in what is called party work. A report that an employe was making himself notable in politics caused him at once to be called on the carpet and notified that a persistence in such activity would surely lead to his dismissal. In more than one case in the early days of the Commission it was necessary to warn men individually of the consequence which would follow their persistence in political activity. These warnings took the form of a statement that the Public Lighting Commission was nonpartisan; that the retention on the roll of an active partisan of either party would lead to demands from the other party that some equally active partisan of that stripe should be employed; that the Commission did not propose to engage in any such balancing of evils, and that, therefore, the employe must limit his activities or quit the service. No man was ever discharged for political activity. One man resigned with the friendly statement to me that he thought he could better himself otherwise by his political work and that he therefore preferred to sacrifice his present job. There were anonymous charges made occasionally that men were discharged because of their politics, but the record was easily cleared. These charges were all made in the early days, when each party said I was a vile tool of the other party.

Functions of the Engineer and the Lighting Commission

For five years—three years of my service and two years of my successor's term—the relations of the Commission to its electrical engineer were unchanged. You will recognize that these relations were essentially those of a board of directors of a corporation to their general manager. In my own case they were exactly the relations which I now hold to the directors of the corporations whose property I manage. They were the relations which exist in every such department in every city whose work is well done and free from political taint. Instances can be multiplied not only of the successful operation of this distribution of duties, but also of the evil results following when any other distribution is essayed. The Chicago newspapers have just furnished an excellent illustration of success and failure. The success is in the management of the South Parks. The South Park Commissioners have performed in the past and present precisely the duties of a directorate of an incorporated company. The name and title on their letter heads—"J. Frank Foster, Gen. Supt. and Engineer," means just what it says. Mr. Foster is General Superintendent in fact as well as in name. The West Parks have been managed on the other plan. The Commissioners have been partisans and have appointed partisan employes. The general superintendent has too often been chosen for his efficiency as a party worker. The engineer has always been a subordinate and too often a negligible quantity in the equation. I speak from knowledge because I have done engineering work on behalf of both these municipal bodies. The results of the two systems are summed up by the published cost of maintenance per acre of each system. The average cost of maintaining the West Side Parks is $498 per acre per annum. The cost of Washington Park is $220 per acre per annum. And those who know their Chicago and can mentally compare the two park systems will promptly agree with the newspapers that the condition of each system is in the inverse ratio to the money spent upon it.

In Canadian cities the man in charge of public works is usually a civil engineer and he is actually in charge. The Public Works Committee has legislative functions only, and a law duly enacted, not merely a ruling of a Commission, prohibits the activity of any city employe in politics.

I have spoken of the successful operation of the Public Lighting plant while the functions of the Commission and the engineer remained clearly defined. It is now in order to tell what happened when this definition became hazy. After five years' operation of the plant, ill-advised economies insisted upon by the Board in direct opposition to the advice of the engineer, caused a strike of the arc lamp trimmers. The question of detail was whether the trimmers did or did not do enough work for their pay—whether, in fact, their duties were proportionate to their wages, or they had what in the newspaper discussion at the time was called a "snap." I don't think the trimmers' duties were any snap, and I know whereof I speak. A man who trims sixty open lamps on a circuit of average length daily, Sundays included, summer and winter, in fair weather and in foul, in the early hours of the summer morning and in the bitter sleet storms of our winter and early spring, has no snap if he does his work properly. Electrical Engineer Steele told the Commissioners this. They over-ruled him. Be this minor fact as it may, the major fact was that the Commission, to secure a small economy of operation, overruled its executive officer and ruined the discipline of the plant. The damage to the Commission directly and indirectly by loss of discipline from that day to this, by the loss of capable employes, and the expense of educating others, has offset many times the saving which was expected to be made. The trimmers struck as I have said, and thereby put themselves in the wrong. They had no right to conspire to put the metropolitan city of Michigan in darkness. They forgot they were public servants when they planned such a stroke. That also is a minor detail. The major fact was that the Commission assumed control of details which, even had it been competent to judge, it could not personally oversee, and deliberately permitted employes to feel that they had a grievance.

The Engineer did his best. He won the strike for the Commission, feeling that his duty to the City overrode his sympathy for the men; but thereafter he avoided responsibility, knowing that he could not depend on the support of his directors; and the clamor raised by the aggrieved employes had its unavoidable result. The appointing power, the Mayor of the City, tried to remedy the harm done by nominating a Commissioner who undertook to specially represent these employes, and who entered on his duties with a prejudice against his associates. This appointment was followed by another, this second nominee frankly declaring himself the special representative of organized labor; partisans, both of them, these Commissioners; well meaning, no doubt, but limited in their action by the circumstances of their appointment; carrying to their duties not a receptive mind but a preconceived hostility to the past management. Charges and countercharges, criticisms and squabbles, took the place at meetings of the Board of frank discussion and willing submission to the decision of the majority. Tale bearing by employes was encouraged, different members assuming the protection of different employes or cliques of employes. Matters of detail took up the time of the Board and business was impossible. The plant kept on going from sheer inertia; but the Engineer concluded very early that he should end his connection with the institution. He had been wiser for himself, I think, had he come to this conclusion a year sooner than he did; but he, like almost all engineers, was faithful to his salt and tried to do the best for his masters, the public, under adverse circumstances. He economized to a fault; he left his machinery in perfect condition and a surplus of over $50,000 in the treasury. The older Commissioners finally gave an opportunity for the restoration of harmony by resigning almost in a body, and new nominees of the Mayor, on whom by these resignations has devolved the appointment of every present member of the Commission, accepted appointment to the vacancies.

Had the Commission then reverted to the original system of operation, all might now have gone well. They could, seeing that all personal difficulties had been eliminated, have assumed again their proper legislative duties, placing the executive responsibility in the hands of one competent engineer. If a local man were impossible they could have sought for such an engineer beyond the City as did the first Commission. Unfortunately the factional spirit still survived. Employes and ex-employes who had given aid and comfort to the Commissioners now dominating, during the time when they were a minority, apparently had to be taken care of and these Commissioners found themselves the representatives of a faction of the most impracticable kind. A general superintendent was chosen, who is, however, superintendent in name only. He did not when appointed know the elementary principles of electrical generation and distribution and thereby became dependent on one of the reap-pointed ex-employes who was nominated as his assistant. There is nothing in the public reports and specifications of the Commission to indicate that during the past year the General Superintendent has learned any more about the electrical business than he knew when he started. I regret to say also that these reports and specifications indicate that not merely the General Superintendent lacks essential knowledge, but that the assistant is far from having engineering ability to make good the deficiencies of his chief. It seems ridiculous that a plant which has sent a dozen smart electrical engineers to profitable employment elsewhere should not be able to find one able man to take intelligent charge of its own affairs. A private plant offering the same salary would have found such a man very promptly.

Of course (as shown by my text) the belief has gone abroad that partisan politics have dominated the selection of employes by the new Commission. There is too much evidence in favor of this belief to allow one to lightly contradict it. The retiring president of the Commission has announced that the only politician on the Board is Commissioner Davis. Now Commissioner Davis may be several things, but he is not a politician. He and his associates in the minority come nearer to being nonpartisan than any of the other Commissioners. There is a good working majority vote in the Commission and under those conditions it behooves the majority to be careful of its appointments if it desires that its motives shall not be impugned. To appoint as a general superintendent a person who has been a practical politician since the memory of man runneth not to the contrary is a proceeding subject to criticism under the best of circumstances. When the person so appointed knows absolutely nothing about the business he is running; when he and his assistant jointly send around to their subordinates a subscription paper inviting the donation of campaign funds for the party having the majority vote on the Public Lighting Commission; when other appointees to office are also notably party workers and either with-out electrical experience or with an experience which is a record of failures, it seems to be a prejudged case that politics control the department.

The results financially do not clear the record. The past President started in with a remarkable program of proposed economies. He announced that expenses could be reduced $20,000 per annum. During the year of his control the expenses apparently have been increased to the tune of $10,000 per annum, and the Commission for the first time in its history comes before the Board of Estimators reporting that it will apparently have a deficit at the end of the current fiscal year. That result indicates that there was something wrong with the program and adds to rather than decreases the evidence against the present system.

In Conclusion

My conclusion is, gentlemen of the Society, that a public works department can be operated efficiently- and economically on the same lines as is the service of a private corporation, the commissioners assuming the duties of the directorate of such a corporation, and the general superintendent, who must be a thoroughly competent engineer, performing all the executive duties. I can admit no exception to this rule. I am aware that in some organizations the peculiar knowledge of individual directors makes their advice exceedingly valuable in the executive department. This was the case in the first Public Lighting Commission of the City of Detroit. Of that Commission there was not one man who had not a general knowledge of the apparatus and methods involved in the electric lighting business; three of these had served as directors of electric lighting enterprises; the factory of one was a pioneer in the use of electric power distribution and the Commissioner who knew the least of electrical affairs was surprisingly familiar with the routine and costs of a model street railway plant in which he had an interest. Two of the members had technical knowledge and ability which brought them in the course of their business a large recompense, and which they gave freely to the service of the City of Detroit. One of these men had been a pioneer in telephone, electric light and electric railway developments and is now an officer and director of the largest telephone companies in the middle West. The other, whom I may name, seeing he is dead—Mr. George Howard Lothrop—was reputed the best authority on electrical patents west of the City of New York. The advice of these men was constantly sought by me as the executive officer of the Public Lighting Commission, and was always freely given and always valuable. I have indicated sufficiently the peculiar fitness of the first Lighting Commissioners of this City to take charge of detail and to perform the executive duties of their department, and yet it was these Commissioners who knew exactly what they were doing, and who were without exception better fitted for their public work than any of their successors have ever been, who positively declined to depart from their legislative functions, and insisted on the assumption by their General Superintendent and Engineer, of the full responsibility and the full authority which his executive duties required. It has remained to men of less knowledge to initiate and to fail in the contrary policy.

What has been done can be done. Let the Public Lighting Commission of the City of Detroit reenact the rules of the first Commission. Let it place the execution of these rules in the hands of a general superintendent who shall be—who must be—a thoroughly competent electrical and mechanical engineer. Let the Commission confine its members to their legislative functions and loyally support its superintendent in his executive duties. Then there will be again a Public Lighting Department free from politics, free from partisans, economical in operation and a model to be followed not only by other municipalities, but by private corporations. Go outside of Detroit if necessary to find the right superintendent. If he is an honest, capable engineer—and an engineer to remain in his profession must be honest and capable—his freedom from local acquaintance and entanglements will tend to his success.



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