City Government: Evolving to Meet the Needs of Each Era

Blog Series Part 1

By March of 1867, the need for road improvements, especially after the winter rains, brought Redwood City citizens to a meeting at the courthouse to discuss how to finance the work and consider the possibility of incorporation. They presented a petition for incorporation to the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors on April 1, 1867. The first election of officials took place on May 11, 1867, with five trustees, a Marshal, Treasurer, and Assessor elected to office. The following summer, voters approved borrowing $5,000 to make a total of $7,000 for street improvements and other expenses that year. The town trustees were dedicated to keeping the roads which brought the lumber to the docks along the creek in good condition to sustain the economic vitality of the burgeoning town. 

The population of Redwood City nearly doubled in the decade from 1870 to 1880 (from 727 to 1,383 people), and as a result, social problems began to manifest. In January of 1881, the town trustees passed an ordinance to “protect the peace and prosperity of the inhabitants of the town” by forbidding two or more minors under 16 years old to “congregate … for the purpose of disturbing the peace and quietude of any neighborhood, family or person with loud or unusual noise, tumultuous conduct, obscene, profane or offensive language.” Minors also were required to be off the streets by 8 p.m. unless permitted by a parent or guardian. If they were caught after that hour, they and their parents were subject to arrest and a fine of $20 and possible imprisonment. To implement this ordinance, the trustees passed a second ordinance establishing a salaried police force of five men who would be under the command of a town marshal. 

By 1889, Redwood City needed a Health Officer in the downtown area. The local newspapers noted the presence of pig pens in the heart of town and hoped they would be removed. By the winter of 1893, a rather exasperated health officer’s report noted that his principle occupation was dealing with deficient cesspools in the town, and the problem of people dumping garbage into the creeks. A $23,718 contract for a much-needed sewer system was awarded on Feb. 14, 1893. By April the City Clerk published notices warning, “All property owners are cautioned not to attempt to make connects between the main sewers and private property until the same is provided for by ordinance passed by the town trustees.”

The early government dealt with what might be considered mundane issues. Some examples in the 1890s: a request for a wagon and foot bridge across the creek connecting Second and Webster streets to enable schoolchildren to get to the new school; a requirement that hucksters obtain a license costing $20, which was good for only 24 hours; and an ordinance regulating the riding of bicycles and tricycles on the streets between sunset and sunrise.

All the demands of managing a contemporary town government prompted the officials to reincorporate Redwood City from a town to a city. City Attorney George Ross reported that a major advantage of reincorporation would be the ability of the trustees to make street improvements and build bridges and wharves without the consent of a contiguous property owner. There were also advantages, he reported, in establishing and spending budgets. The reincorporation passed by just four votes on May 3, 1897. 

Check back next week for part 2 in this historical blog series!

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Mary K Spore-Alhadef has been with the Redwood City Public Library in various professional capacities since 1978. She is a graduate of Boston College and has a Masters of Library Science degree from the Peabody Library School at Vanderbilt University.

Sarah La Torra is the Division Manager of Customer Experience at the Redwood City Public Library. She has held various library positions in California since 2003. She holds a Bachelors of Environmental Studies degree from the University of California at Santa Barbara and a Masters of Library and Information Science degree from the University of California at Los Angeles.

Adapted from Redwood City: A Hometown History, Star Publishing Company, Inc., PO BOX 5165 Belmont CA 94002-5165 ISBN: 978-089863-297-2(Available from the Redwood City Public Library Local History Room or Amazon.com)