Community Columns

How Modesto's original city charter came into being

By 1910, the citizens of little Modesto couldn't take it any longer.

They were fed up with the rampant crime, the unruly drunks on the streets and the day-and-night noise and rowdiness emanating from the many saloons. They were repulsed by the gambling and prostitution houses in the area of Seventh, Eighth, G and H streets. They wanted law and order, adequate fire protection and responsible, clean government.

The population of about 4,000 finally did something about these problems, resulting in a document that altered the town forever.

For 26 years, since its incorporation in 1884, Modesto had been controlled by what the newspapers called the "gambling and saloon interests." Party politics had dominated and controlled every election. In April 1910, a large group of citizens had a meeting, resulting in the selection of 15 "freeholders" -- chosen to frame Modesto's first city charter. All were well-known community and business leaders: J.W. Bell, J.R. Broughton, L.L. Dennett, L.E. DeYoe, Thomas Downey, Z.E. Drake, John Dunn, Sol P. Elias, C.W. Evans, E.I. Fisher, N.C. Hansom, George Perley, Al Schmidt, B.J. Smith and C.A. Williamson. This slate was then elected by the voters, and Elias was chosen as president and DeYoe as secretary.

A subcommittee of Elias, DeYoe and Fisher was appointed to research and write the charter, with Elias later called the "Father of the Charter."

They studied different forms of city government and examined charters written for other cities. Then they decided what would be best for Modesto and presented it to the main committee.

Elias and DeYoe became spokesmen for the charter, each giving speeches and writing articles published in the Modesto Morning Herald.

They explained the charter's main provision, which was the adoption of the commission form of municipal government. Lauded by Elias for its "purity and simplicity," the charter mandated the election of a mayor and four councilmen (no women mentioned). Each councilman would also serve as a commissioner and be responsible for the operation of one of four city departments: public health and safety, public works, finance and revenue and public supplies. The mayor was the overall supervisor or manager.

The council was given broad, liberal powers, with the authority to appoint all city officials and boards and to support and finance any endeavor which it deemed would benefit the community. Elections were to be decided based on majority vote, without any notation of a candidate's political affiliation.

The new charter authorized the election of a five-member school board, giving the board full control over the operation of the schools. It was also the first charter in the country to provide for the building of a municipal airport.

The result was the city's first charter, which voters ratified Sept. 11, 1910, by a vote of 432-72, a 6-to-1 ratio.

The first test of the new government came June 5, 1911, with the spirited election of four councilmen and a mayor, all representing the nonpartisan ticket. Now, with this milestone, a new era in Modesto's 40-year history was under way.

Bare is author of several books about area history and is on the board of directors of the McHenry Mansion Foundation. E-mail her at columns@modbee.com.

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