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Encyclopedia Dubuque


"Encyclopedia Dubuque is the online authority for all things Dubuque, written by the people who know the city best.”
Marshall Cohen—researcher and producer, CNN

Affiliated with the Local History Network of the State Historical Society of Iowa, and the Iowa Museum Association.


From Encyclopedia Dubuque
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Map prepared by City Engineer Kenneth J. Cullen in 1959. Photo courtesy: Bob Reding
WARD SYSTEM. Dubuque residents voted to adopt the ward system of government on June 3, 1980. Proponents of changing the city form of government were led by John P. KLAUER, president of the Committee for Civic Responsibility. Klauer and his organization pointed to the fact that petitions in the 1960s had failed to block URBAN RENEWAL or the recent closing of a fire station. It was also their opinion that the direct election of the mayor would remove the influence of the city council which had been choosing the mayor. (1)

The election result came as a shock to the city council that, elected at-large, had chosen their MAYOR annually. The change meant that city voters would elect their own mayor to a four-year term. The City of Dubuque would be divided into four wards with one member elected to the council from each. Two council members would be elected at-large. For Dubuque, the election meant a return to a form of government it had known until 1920. The change in that year to the manager plan had been in response to those who felt such a plan would save money and make government operate efficiently like a business.

Municipal government came to Dubuque in 1837. In late 1836 the Wisconsin territorial legislature, which governed Dubuque, decided to allow MINING settlements with over three hundred inhabitants to incorporate as cities. This allowed such communities to legally regulate commerce and administer justice. In the spring of 1837 white males over twenty-one years of age living in Dubuque voted to incorporate and establish a board of trustees to govern. The board was comprised of five men elected at-large with one appointed by the trustees to serve as president.

This form of government lasted until 1841 when a CITY CHARTER was approved.

Dubuque autonomy was restricted in 1897 when the Legislature stated that Dubuque could not continue its strict ward system. The state mandated no more than five alderman, two at-large council members, and an at-large elected mayor.

The legislative system mandated in 1897 lasted until April 1920. During that time, efforts were still made to change local government. The commission form of government in place in Des Moines, Cedar Rapids and Sioux City. seemed to be popular. A straw ballot of sixty-seven members of the Des Moines Trades & Labor Congress showed that sixty-five were unwilling to return to the ward system. (3)

In 1912 the Committee on Legislation of the DUBUQUE INDUSTRIAL CORPORATION proposed retaining the ward system with the following recommendations: (4)

          1. retain special charter
          2. adopt non-partisan election
          3. adopt preferential ballot
          4. referendum on initiative, referendum and recall
          5. abolish township organization
          6. give mayor $300 annually
          7. give mayor's secretary $1,800 annually
          8. mayor ineligible to two successive terms
          9. city engineer and police and fire chiefs appointive and 
             removable by mayor
         10. city engineer to absorb duties of street commission and
             and sidewalk inspector

In 1914 consideration was given to the commission of government as practiced in Des Moines. In an editorial published by the Dubuque Herald, the writers pointed out that the mayor lacked a veto, a power which the mayor of Dubuque possessed. While the commission form had some virtues, according to the editorial, this lack of veto made it a bad alternative. (5)

On April 20, 1920 the city council adopted a resolution approving "The Manager Plan of Municipal Government. On April 26th, Ossian E. CARR became the first city manager. (6) An attempt to repeal the manager form failed in 1934. In 1967 a bill passed in the Iowa Legislature allowed council-manager cities to enlarge their councils from five to seven members. Four of the council representatives were to be elected from wards and two council members and the mayor were to be elected at-large. Councilman Eldon Pfohl favored the changes especially making the mayor's position a full-time job. A petition he circulated asking for a referendum on a change to wards, he noted, was not to get rid of the council manager but to elect a full-time mayor. (7)

The city in 1980 was using the council-manager-at-large system of government. The mayor was selected from among the council members. In 1980 James BRADY believed his seniority entitled him to be mayor. The council, however, chose Sister Carolyn FARRELL, the first female council member and the top vote-getter. That resulted in a petition drive and referendum that created the ward system. (8) James Brady became the first mayor elected by voters in Dubuque in 1981 and the first mayor chosen by popular vote since 1918. Six new council members were also elected. (9)

In April, 1981 the city council began studying three different plans for creating wards. Two of the plans emphasized neighborhood boundaries. The third attempted to include broad demographics in each of the four wards. Under the new system, seven people would serve on the council. Four would be elected from wards representing their district's interests as well as general city concerns. Elected at-large would be two members and a mayor. All three plans attempted to match populations in the four areas with none having less than 23.5 percent and none with more than 26.7 percent. (10)

To facilitate the introduction of the ward system in 1980, special arrangements were made for the first council. For the first term, the winners of the 1st and 3rd wards, mayor and the highest vote getter of the two at-large council positions were elected for four years. Two-year terms were awarded to the representatives of the 2nd and 3rd wards and the second-highest vote getter from the at-large contest. After the first election, all winning candidates would be elected to serve four years.

As established in 1981, the First Ward was the city's biggest and most affluent area. With a panhandle region on the north bordered by Carter, Kaufmann, and Chaney, the region stretched eastward along Asbury and West Locust before heading south along Grandview, east on Dodge, south on Highway 61/151 and then east to the river along Railroad Avenue. The ward ran south of Railroad Avenue along the river to a point well below South Grandview.

The boundary started west, southwest and west again before climbing staircase-like in a northwest direction to junction Highway 20. The ward's western border ran eastward along Dodge before running north along Born Street to Pennsylvania and then Deborah Street to Carter to enclose the region.

According to 1970 census statistics, the First Ward had Dubuque's highest number of white-collar workers and the lowest percentage of laborers and factory workers. The residents were generally well educated with 68.5 percent high school graduates. The average number of years of school completed equaled 12.5. Less than 7 percent of Dubuque's industrial property was located in the First Ward, but residential property was valued higher than in any other ward. Less than 15 percent of the residents rented their homes. The average income, according to 1970 statistics, was the second highest in Dubuque, behind that of the 2nd Ward. The conservatism of the ward was shown by its being the only ward that voted against the change in city government.

The city's Second Ward, lying on Dubuque's west side, was planned with its northern border running more or less parallel to the north of West 32nd with its eastern edge bordered by Davenport Street. The southern border was a twisting route running west along Kaufmann, south on Grandview and then west along West Locust and Fairway. The panhandle of the First Ward jutted up into the southern border of the Second Ward along Chaney, Kaufmann, Deborah and Born STREETS. The Southern border of the Second Ward then ran westward along Dodge to beyond STEPHEN HEMPSTEAD HIGH SCHOOL before twisting north to West 32nd.

In 1981 most of the land in the Second Ward was assessed as residential. Households averaged 3.48 people. Most of the workers had blue-collar jobs, although there was also a sizable population of professionals. In 1981 the Second Ward had the least amount of industrial land, although this fact began to change with the dramatic development of the Dubuque Industrial Center along the NORTHWEST ARTERIAL and south of Middle Road (Pennsylvania), the expansion of KENNEDY MALL, and the development of Wacker Plaza. The Second Ward in 1981 had the second greatest concentration of commercial land in Dubuque, next to the downtown area. The ward's value was equal to 33 percent of the city's total commercial valuation.

Twenty percent of the residents of the Second Ward were newcomers. The least stable ward in Dubuque, this area joined the First Ward in having residents with above average amounts of education. In 1970 seventy-five percent had high school diplomas.

Dubuque's Third Ward lies on the city's north end. With its eastern edge along the MISSISSIPPI RIVER, the ward is bordered on the west by Peru Road and an area west of Peru Road westward to Highway 52. The ward reaches west from the highway in the area north of West 32nd and then runs south-southeast along Davenport and Fulton Streets to 16th Street. The southern border strikes northeast parallel to Rhomberg Avenue and then south along Kerper Boulevard to the area of CITY ISLAND.

When the boundaries were drawn, the Third Ward resident was generally a proud life-long Dubuque resident. Census results have indicated the number of native Dubuque residents in this area as high as 90 percent. The Third Ward has also been high in the number of registered Democrats. A majority of the workers, 90 percent, are considered blue-collar. While there have been many renters in the ward, as many as 66 percent of the residents own their homes.

The Third Ward has contained 39 percent of Dubuque's industrial property valuation, placing it second to the Fourth Ward. While facing such problems as deteriorating housing and heavy traffic, the North Dubuque Improvement Association has achieved many goals, including street improvements and the development of the Comiskey Recreation Center.

The ward with perhaps the most contrast ran from Kerper Boulevard, Central Avenue, West 22nd and Kaufmann Avenue on toward the north to Dodge and Railroad Avenue on the south. The western border of the Fourth Ward is a twisting line using Grandview Avenue in many places. The Fourth Ward includes the residents of the FLATS and the people on the bluff.

Both the Third and Fourth wards have had active NEIGHBORHOOD ASSOCIATIONS. The Flats has been represented by the Washington Neighborhood Organization. Farther west the Fourth Street Neighborhood Association has been politically active in promoting the area around the shops on Fourth Street and the city's TOURISM industry. Hill residents have been active politically through the West 11th Street Neighborhood Association. Flats residents, however, have cooperated more often with the residents of the Third Ward while the people living on "the Hill" have usually found themselves taking the side of their friends living in the central city. Hill residents generally have more education and higher salaries. Residents of the area have shared the concern about the placement of the elevated roadway through Dubuque and the traffic problems associated with any long-term closing of the JULIEN DUBUQUE BRIDGE.

The Fourth Ward with 60 percent of Dubuque's industrial value has contained 40 percent of the commercial property valuation. In August 1991 the City Council adopted new ward boundaries. While the number of wards remained the same, the boundaries were slightly shifted to create areas approximately equal in population.

In 1987 voters in Dubuque were set to cut from five to two, the field of candidates for an at-large seat on the city council. At the same time, the number of candidates from wards had been few resulting in little choice for voters. This indicated less interest in the ward elections than at-large seats. An editorial in the Telegraph Herald suggested dropping the ward system and electing all council members on an at-large basis. (11)

John Klauer blamed the public and press scrutiny of potential council members and the time commitment of the office. Ward council representatives reported receiving up to 40 phone calls each week--many more than at-large representatives. Proponents of the ward system were convinced that the ward system prevented the council from coming under the control of powerful elites. Despite the concern, there was no interest in changing the form of government. (12)

In 1990 the Telegraph Herald editorial writers again called for a change in government. Citing the results of the previous election, only one council member had an opponent. By electing council members at-large, the editorial writers suggested voters could elect candidates without regard to their home address. (13) Observers of the Telegraph Herald would find their opposition to the ward system as early as 1984 when it editorialized on the "log-rolling" being done by one councilman. In placing his ward's interests above the city's, a councilman refused to approve repairing Kennedy Road before Rockdale Road was improved. The editorial noted former mayor Ruben V. AUSTIN observation that at-large government officials had to "appeal...to a broad cross-section of our community to get elected." (14)

The IOWA TRUST FUND scandal led to a short-lived petition drive in 1992 to end the council-manager-ward system of government. Leaders of the drive, however, stopped their efforts after being advised their efforts might make it difficult to fill the manager's position after the resignation of Kenneth GEARHART. Change was further complicated by the hiring of Michael VAN MILLIGEN. Forcing a referendum required at least twenty-five percent of eligible voters who voted in the last city election signing a petition. The city council then had to schedule a special election within sixty days. (15)



1. Freund, Bob. "Many Had Signed to Change Council, But Few Attend Referendum Debate," Telegraph Herald, June 2, 1980, p. 19

2. Oldt, Franklin T. The History of Dubuque County, Iowa. Chicago: Western Historical Company, 1880, Online: http://books.google.com/books?id=u9xDAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA464&lpg=PA464&dq=Burton%27s+Furnace+%28dubuque+history%29&source=bl&ots=0CkCGLFR0v&sig=a0Ou1vN3ew6nQUYoq2aOJsXF9Mg&hl=en&sa=X&ei=j3HVT5XALaP42QXVp9iFDw&ved=0CGgQ6AEwBQ#v=onepage&q=Burton%27s%20Furnace%20%28dubuque%20history%29&f=false (p. 523)

3. "Virtue in the Plan," Telegraph-Herald, January 3, 1911, p. 8

4. "Our City Government," Dubuque Telegraph Herald, March 28, 1912, p. 4

5. "The Virtuous Plan," Dubuque Herald, February 23, 1914, p. 4

6. "Change in Blowing in the Wind," Telegraph Herald, December 6, 1992, p. 11

7. "Ward System for Dubuque?" Telegraph Herald, July 7, 1967, p. 1

8. "Farrell Learned Much as Mayor," Telegraph Herald, August 26, 1991, p. 1

9. "Change in Blowing in the Wind..."

10. Hendricks, Mike. "City Council Offered 3 Ward Plans," Telegraph Herald, April 30, 1981, p. 1

11. "Drop Dubuque Ward System?" Telegraph Herald, September 30, 1987, p. 4

12. Kirchen, Rich. "Does City's Ward System Work?" Telegraphy Herald, May 9, 1988, p. 3

13. "Abolish the Ward System," Telegraph Herald, November 5, 1990, p. 3

14. "City Held Hostage," Telegraph Herald, January 22, 1984, p. 4

15. "Change in Blowing in the Wind..."