City Government: Evolving to Meet the Needs of Each Era

Blog Series Part 2, Read part 1 in the series here.

New migrants pouring into the city from San Francisco’s earthquake and resulting firestorm of 1906 began to change the political life of Redwood City. The new homeowners organized to influence the political and business life of their new hometown, forming a “Good Government League” in December of 1907. In January of 1908, the League sponsored a well-attended meeting at Forrester’s Hall, with speeches entitled “Judging a Community by its Political Leaders” and “The Duties of a Citizen.” The event climaxed with a political platform and slate of candidates for the April town trustees’ elections. As the election campaign lingered, a sharp divide between “old” and “new” Redwood City became notable with the “saloon question” at the forefront. The Redwood City Democrat printed front page headlines to the League’s position on saloons, pointing out that Redwood City had more saloons per capita than either Los Angeles or San Francisco. The Good Government slate claimed that they were interested in a “high license” fee to reduce the number of saloons, stating that there was “a place for a few orderly and well-conducted saloons,” but that “the town should not be retarded in its growth, degraded and debauched for the sake of keeping a few saloon keepers in business.” The Good Government League elected their three candidates to the town council, starting the process of tightening the controls over the saloons and moving toward the image of a “progressive” City.

In 1912, the new City Hall finally opened with a public dedication 10 days later. The two-story building of rustic brick with terra cotta trim housed the town officials and even contained a large safe for use by the marshal. The assembly room on the second floor accommodated 150 people and served as the site of the trustees' meetings.  The town officials who were provided office space included the Clerk, Marshal, Treasurer, City Attorney, and Superintendent of Streets. This structure was incorporated into the 1939 city hall, the ground floor serving as the City Clerk’s office.  The Council Chambers in the current City Hall are, most appropriately, on the same site. 

Having met the need for civic offices, the trustees turned their attention to the beautification of the city by establishing a Park Commission in 1912, to plant trees and maintain the parks. After women received the right to vote in California in 1911, there was no great change in the governance of Redwood City, but women began to be appointed to civic bodies like the Park Commission and the Board of Health. 

The Redwood City Standard newspaper exulted in the increase in building permits in March of 1924. The number of permits increased 420 percent over the year before, with a corresponding value of $158,685. With all the new construction, the population had climbed to 6,534 by early 1924. This building boom prompted the town trustees to establish the Planning Commission to take some of the responsibility for future development in Redwood City. The first Planning Commission was comprised of the President of the Board of Trustees, City Engineer, City Attorney as an ex officio, as well as local residents.

City Hall soon became crowded as the neighborhood known as Five Points and its 1,500 residents incorporated within Redwood City in 1926, and more police officers were hired to serve the growing City. These concerns were overshadowed on Feb. 10, 1927, when Frank Towne, the treasurer of Redwood City since the election of 1908, committed suicide in the hills behind Emerald Lake. Towne had been the Chief Cashier for the First National Bank and San Mateo County Savings Bank of Redwood City for many years, and president of both the Kiwanis and Chamber of Commerce.  The day his body was discovered, it was announced that $20,728 was missing from the bank. Within the week, Mayor Henry Beeger attempted to quell rumors about the financial condition of Redwood City by announcing that while payment on warrants had been suspended temporarily, four accountants had been brought in from Haskins and Sells in San Francisco to examine the books. The City government economized in early March by firing two policemen, a reserve officer, one fireman, and many of the workers in the street and park departments. The remaining police officers were put on a seven-day work week, with no time off allowed, and Public Works was cut back to the basic essentials. The accountant’s full report in April was stunning, stating that more than $80,000 (about $1 million today) was missing from the City accounts, and raising concerns about both Towne’s transfers of funds to other banks, and the fate of two checks totaling $31,000 – the product of bonds sold to extend Broadway toward the new Dumbarton Bridge. There was also a question as to the presence in the vault of $27,000 in cash during the audit of 1924, leading auditors to conclude that there had been a shortage of $27,000 at that time with cash found from some unknown source to cover the shortage. The auditors were scathing about the lack of cooperation from the First National Bank of San Mateo County, Towne’s employer, which had both held and transferred various funds. However, they noted that no one really knew just where the money had gone.

The trustees, attempting to restore public confidence, appointed B.E. Myers, as Treasurer to fill out Towne’s term in office, raising the bonding on him from $20,000 to $50,000. The long-term impacts of the Towne affair influenced City government for years. The most immediate effect of embezzled funds was to halt plans for expanding City Hall. In time, the embezzlement led City officials to advocate converting the City to Charter City status. The Charter institutes its powers and authorities compared to a general law City, with powers approved only by the State. Taking advice from professors at Stanford and the University of California at Berkeley and the director of San Francisco’s Bureau of Governmental Research, a committee settled on a council-manager form of local government that combines the strong political leadership of elected officials in the form of a council or other governing body, with the strong managerial experience of an appointed local government manager. The voters of Redwood City approved the charter on April 9, 1929, and promptly elected the two new council members the charter required.

The search for the first City Manager culminated with the selection of E.A. Rolison, an engineer, who had previous experience as a manager, with a salary of $400 per month. Rolison’s first action was to confirm the current staff at City Hall in their positions, thus guaranteeing a smooth transition to the new form of governance.

The biggest unsolved City problem was that of inadequate space in City Hall. While waiting for the charter commission’s work to be completed, the Council had studied four proposals for expansion, recommending to the voters in the June 1929 election that they approve $65,000 in bonds for the “Civic Center,” which would expand City Hall and build a new library beside it on land acquired from the Towne estate. The voters rejected this just as they had the two previous bonds for expansion of City Hall, and the issue became dormant while other civic needs were met, most notably acquiring land on Chestnut Street east of Broadway to expand and reorganize the corporation yard, and the beginning of recreation programs for both children and adults in the parks.

By late 1932, the pages of the local newspapers were filled with stories on charity fundraising events to help the destitute, and County work projects to give employment to those without jobs -- both necessary in the Great Depression. Locally, the public used theatrical productions at Sequoia High School to raise money by selling baked loaves of bread from the free flour received from the federal government.

By mid-decade, the federal government had implemented projects to put people to work and was making money available to cities for Public Works projects. This prompted the City Council to apply for and receive funding from the Federal Public Works Authority, and to ask the voters once more to support a bond issue to construct the long-desired and by now desperately needed City Hall and library buildings. Nine months later, on June 25, 1939, the City held a parade before 8,000 people and dedicated the new City Hall, library and fiscal building added to the front of the San Mateo County Courthouse on Broadway. These buildings were paid by funds from the Public Works Administration of the federal government, and all of them are now demolished. 

Within two months, the events in Europe which had been filling the front page of the Tribune had erupted into World War II. Redwood City sent it sons to war and hoped for a quick and successful end of the conflict. Most difficult to bear was the news of men who would not return; there are 43 names inscribed on the memorial located in the garden outside City Hall. 

The joyous end of the war in August 1945 released all the yearning for “normal” life which had been constrained by the sacrifices and hardships of the past five years. By mid-September of 1945, the City Council was requiring municipal employees to announce their plans to relocate to Redwood City.  Several of them reported difficulty in finding suitable housing for their families in town, and at least one police officer resigned. Both economists and would-be developers, eager to respond to the desire for housing, predicted a boom in home building once the shortages of construction supplies and workmen could be overcome. Indeed, the story of the latter part of the 1940s and the following decades became the growth of Redwood City’s population from 12,453 in 1940 to 76,800 in 2010. Managing this growth, along with the efforts to bring in firms to employ the residents and create the tax base that provides the protection, services, and recreation for a growing and diverse population, has been the continuing task of local government since the Baby Boomer Era began. 

But by 1945, it was clear—Redwood City was no longer a town born out of the Wild West; it was on its way to becoming one of the Peninsula’s premier suburban cities with a strong business climate and a history of elected officials dedicated to solving the problems of their day.

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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)