top of page

HoP: A City of Homes and Government, #9



Helen Stoddard Chenoweth

Piedmont High School - March 15, 1929.


The City of Piedmont in 1915 was a unique community in that it was entirely residential. 1929 brings a little, but only very little business. The magnificent view and the mild climate are only two of its many attractions. In 1915 Piedmont was said to have thirty-two millionaires among its residents and it had the highest per capita wealth of any community in the United States.


In 1928 Piedmont had a population of 9,000 and 1929 brings many new homeseekers.




Submitted by Elizabeth Moore

March 18, 1929

(Website note: 22 years after incorporation)




The most important factor of modern civilization is our perfected system of organization enforced by government. The enforcing power is represented in a great many different ways, for in nearly every country a government has originated that is different from that of others. Some nations must exist under a monarchy, others desire a more democratic form--and so it goes. There is, however, some form of this power present in every country for even the so-called uncivilized tribes residing in the depths of the African forests have formulated a means by which they enforce such rules and regulations as are necessary. In such small groups the government may be very simple, sometimes resting in the hands of only one man, but in a country like America where there is such a large population and such a vast amount of territory to be ruled, the. system must be a very complicated one. We must divide and sub-divide our powers so that too great an amount shall not rest on the shoulders of any one man or group of men. This is done by a very intricate means of division. The government is separated into three main sections; natiocal, state, and city, each of which is sub-divided into numerous parts. That which is closest to us is the city government, which is in turn responsible to the state.


Therefore, this paper is written with the purpose of making clearer the government of our city, Piedmont.




Prior to 1907 the territory that is now Piedmont was merely a part of Oakland township lying beyond the boundaries of the city of Oakland, and consisting of a few homes, a large park, and many acres-of undeveloped hillsides. As is the case with all unincorporated territory it came under the jurisdiction of the Board of Supervisors of the county in which it was located, in this case Alameda County.


The growth of that particular section, while it had been slow, had been steady for a period of several years. Immediately following the earthquake of 1906 the whole east bay district fairly leaped into prominence, and this rolling, hilly country felt the stimulating effects of increasing population. Prospective residents from across the bay, attracted by the marvelous views from the higher points, came in considerable numbers, and several influential families built homes within a period of a few months. By the close of the year quite a colony had been established. Accustomed to living in an incorporated municipality they did not take kindly to the township or supervisorial form of government, and a great deal of discussion was indulged in regarding the organization of an independent city with a government of its own.


As a result petitions were circulated asking permission to organize, and early in 1907 an election was called to determine whether or not a new city should be formed. It was to be called Piedmont. Its boundaries were the same as exist today. The project received a favorable vote and Piedmont was incorporated as a city of the Sixth class in accordance with the general law of 1883 covering the organization of municipal corporations having a population of less than three. thousand.



The government of cities of the sixth class is delegated by law to a board known as Trustees, so, following the requirements of the act, at that first election such a board was elected. They were to serve for four years or until their successors were elected, and were to receive no pay. On the Monday next succeeding the general election they were compelled to meet and organize by choosing one of their number as president. This was done, and Hugh Craig was duly elected president of the board. He held this position up to the time of his death several years later. The other members of the first board were H. S. Farr, C. S. Girvan, George McNear Jr., and M. K. Vickery. While all the trustees were elected for a four year period the law has a clause stating that the respective terms of the members of the first board of trustees elected under the provisions of the act shall be determined as follows: the two persons elected by the highest number of votes shall hold office for four years and the three persons elected by the lowest number of votes shall hold office for two years. In the event that two or more persons shall be elected by the same number of votes, the term of each shall be fixed by lot. The last named contingency did not arise, and the official terms were decided by the votes received.


This provision regarding allotment of terms was incorporated into the general law to insure the continuity of policies which any board might inaugurate, as no full board would ever go out of office at any one time, except in the case of resignation. The general provision relating to officers says that the government of a city or town shall be vested in a board of Trustees to consist of five members; a clerk, who shall be ex-officio assessor; a treasurer; a marshal; who is appointed by the board of Trustees, and who shall be ex-officio tax and license collector; a recorder to be appointed by the board of Trustees; and such subordinate officers as are here-inafter provided for. The first treasurer to be elected was J. B. Richardson, and the first clerk F. J. Staiger. This group of nine made up the governing body of the newly organized city. The tenure of office of the treasurer and clerk was for two years or until their successors were elected and qualified. Under the general law all subsequent elections prior to the adoption of a charter were held on the second Monday in April in each even numbered year.  Section 852A has a rather interesting provision which grants the board of Trustees the right at any time to submit to the electors at any municipal or special election to be held for that purpose an ordinance to divide the administration of the municipality into five departments, and further provides for the assignment of its several members to be the heads of such respective departments and to be appointed as commissioners of such departments. These appointments were to be made by a majority vote of the board of Trustees. More than one department could be assigned to one Trustee if deemed advisable.


This plan was early submitted to the electorate and received an affirmative vote. The appointments followed in due course, and for many years Piedmont has been operating under what is commonly called the Commission form of government.




For sixteen years Piedmont continued to operate with varying success under the terms of the general laws governing municipal corporations. During those years population increased tremendously.


Schools were built, property values altered, magnificent homes were erected, and, with business limited to a very restricted area, Piedmont had become in every sense a residential city. New problems arose as governmental functions changed and the citizens and officials began to discuss the advisability and necessity of adopting a city charter. A survey of the several laws made it perfectly apparent that Piedmont had by this time outgrown them.


The general laws were made so all inclusive as to include cities of every type, because, while the local council had certain powers delegated to them, the right to make changes of any magnitude lay in the hands of the State legislature. Thus laws or regulations which were excellent for Emeryville with its industrial problems, Stege with its rural situation, or Pleasanton with its agricultural surroundings, had no bearing on the needs of Piedmont. Furthermore, the city had grown to a point where the citizens were quite capable of setting up a government for themselves, and no longer needed the nursing of the State legislature, under whose direct supervision they were operating.


A brief review of some of the general laws will prove how little they applied to Piedmont. Under them the method of acquiring and disposing of property is specifically set forth with the further provision that the Trustees should not have power to sell or convey any portion of any waterfront. Piedmont has none. The Trustees are given the power to acquire or construct aqueducts or other works necessary for irrigation within the boundaries of the city. Excellent legislation for Tracy, but not applicable to Piedmont! They had the right to levy and collect annually a property, tax which should not, without the consent of two thirds of the electors voting at an election held for that purpose, exceed one dollar on each hundred dollar valuation. That sum proved to be inadequate. They were given the further right to levy and collect annually an additional tax which should not exceed twenty cents per hundred dollars of valuation, for the purpose of building embankments, sea walls, or other works which would protect them from overflow. Funds so collected were to be kept separate from the general levy and used only for the purposes mentioned. They also had authority to improve rivers and streams flowing through the city; to widen, deepen, and straighten the channels thereof; to remove obstructions from them; to improve the waterfront; to construct jetties and seawalls; and to acquire, own, construct, maintain, and operate on any lands bordering on any navigable bay, lake, Inlet, river, creek, slough or arm of the sea within the city limits, wharves, chutes, piers, bath houses and life-saving stations.


They could also acquire, own, construct, or maintain and operate street railways, telephone or telegraph lines, light and power were works, as well as other public utilities. They were specifically given the right to compel prisoners to work on public streets, public property, or public works within the city limits. They could regulate advertising and could expend an amount not to exceed five per cent of a property tax levy for music. Under an emergency measure they had the right to take private property in order to build bridges across streams swollen past the safety point by winter rains and floods. A great deal of space is devoted to outlining the duties of the assessor, treasurer, clerk, attorney, and marshal.



Public sentiment in favor of a charter finally crystalized into action, and a petition was circulated requesting the Trustees to call an election to elect a board of freeholders whose duty it would be to formulate a charter for the city--a charter which, if ratified by the state legislature, would make Piedmont a self-governing municipality free from outside supervision except so far as the constitution was concerned. The petition meeting all legal requirements, an election was called on November 7, 1922. At this time a board of fifteen freeholders was elected and instructed to proceed. The board consisted of Edson Adams, Mrs. E. B. Kimball, Samuel H. Taylor, R. C. Maclachan, Mrs. R. E. Beach, F. O. Nebeker, James Tyson, William H. Wheeler, A. C. Wagener, Oliver Ellsworth, . O. Morgan, Theo. H. Lerch, R. C. Warner, J. B. Richardson, and A. M. Merrill. On November 13, 1922, the results of the election were canvassed and declared by the board of Trustees. Under the law the feeholders were allowed 120 days in which to prepare and propose a charter. Much of the preliminary work having been done already, the board of freeholders completed the balance rather quickly, and on December 19, 1922, a little over thirty days later, they filed the proposed charter in the office of the city clerk. As soon as the proposed charter had been filed and found complying with the law, the board of Trustees called and ordered held a special election for the purpose of voting on it. They also caused copies of the proposed charter to be printed in pamphlet form.


These pamphlets were used for reference and were kept in the office of the city clerk, a place easily accessible to all the citizens of Piedmont. They also advertised in the Piedmont Weekly News that such copies were available and might be had upon application.


In accordance with the terms of the call the election was held on February 27, 1923. At that election 348 votes were cast; 316 favored the adoption of the charter and 32 voted against it.


The results of the election were officially canvassed by the board of Trustees on Monday, March 5, 1923, a statement setting forth the results being entered in the minutes kept by the board. A copy of the charter and the results of the election as well as all proceedings connected therewith were then sent to the state legislature, with the request that they ratify and approve. After investigation unanimous approval was given by both bodies, the Senate voting on March 15, 1923, and the Assembly on march 20, 1923. Since that time Piedmont has been master of its own destinies, subject only to the constitution.


Two very interesting sections of the charter known as numbers three and forty, state that "said city, by and through its council and other officials, shall have and may exercise all powers necessary or appropriate to a municipal corporation and the general welfare of its inhabitants, which are not prohibited by the constitution, and which it would be competent for this charter to set forth particularly or specifically, including all powers now or hereafter granted to cities of the sixth class: and the specification herein of any particular powers shall not be held to be exclusive or any limitation of this general grant of powers."# "All general laws of the state applicable to municipal corporations, now or hereafter enacted, and which are not in conflict with the provisions of this charter or with ordinances hereafter enacted, shall be applicable to the city. The council may adopt and enforce ordinances which, in relation to municipal affairs, shall control as against the general laws of the state."* Thus was lopped off and made null all legislation under which Piedmont had been organized but with which it had no concern.


Section 3, page 6, City charter

Section 40, page 18, City charter


The charter is divided into six sections as follows: preamble, administrative department, fiscal management, department of education, and miscellaneous provisions. Loosely speaking it follows somewhat the old general laws enacted for the government of municipal corporations though there are many modifications which are interesting to follow and the reasons for whose adoption has sprung from actual experience and not from theory. The date on which municipal elections shall be held has been changed from the second Monday in April of every even numbered year to the first Tuesday of April in each even numbered year. Under the old general laws nine officers of the city were named as constituting the official administrative body. The charter declares that "The administrative officers of the city of Piedmont shall consist of five members of the council, a mayor, a city clerk, a city auditor, a city treasurer, a city attorney, a city assessor, a city tax collector, a city engineer, a street superintendent, a city judge, a chief of police, a fire chief, a health officer, five park and playground commissioners and five library trustees."* Others may be appointed by ordinance. The council may by ordinance affect combinations in certain of the offices where economy of operation or expense may prove such action to be either advisable or necessary. Such combinations have been made in several instances. The members of the council--note that there is no longer any board of Trustees as of old--are the only officers elected from the city at large. All other offices are filled by the appointment of the council. Thus we no longer find the clerk and the treasurer elected as before. They too are now appointees, chosen to serve at the pleasure of the council. The members of the council serve four years, as did the Trustees, and still elect a president, but 1n addition to being president of the board he is ex-officio mayor of the city.


As mayor he is the executive head of the city, and as such is the official representative of the city at all ceremonials is or functions where it desirable to have the city represented. In case of riot, insurrection, or extraordinary emergency it is his duty and right to assume general control of the city government as well as all of its branches, and he is held responsible for the suppression of disorders and the restoration of normal conditions. He has authority to sign on behalf of the city all contracts, deeds, bonds and other legal documents in which the city is a party. For his services as mayor he receives no compensation whatsoever. This is also true of all of the members of the council. In every sense the councilmen of Piedmont are public servants.


The duties of the city attorney are much more clearly defined under the charter than they were under the old general laws. He must have been admitted to the bar of the Supreme court of this state and have been in actual practice in this state for at least three years immediately preceeding his appointment. He is the legal advisor of the council and all other city officials on all matters pertaining to their official duties. He drafts all ordinances, resolutions, contracts, etc., and must attend all mèetings of the council unless excused by the mayor or the council itself.

One entirely new office created by the charter is that of city judge. Under the old general laws the nearest approach to the office of judge lay in the office of the recorder, which has been eliminated in the new charter. The duties of the recorder were somewhat restricted, and in a certain sense he operated about as a justice of the peace. The newly appointed judge, however, presides over a newly created "municipal Court" and has jurisdiction concurrently with the justice's courts of actions and proceedings civil and criminal arising within the corporate limits of the city of Piedmont which might properly be tried in a Justice's court.

All violations of any city ordinance are tried before him and he. has exclusive jurisdiction for the recovery of all fines, penalties or forfeitures in the collection of which the city is interested.

Every case in which a fine of less than $100 is imposed must be tried before him. He has all the duties and powers of a magistrate, and as such can administer and certify acknowledgments. Appeals from his decisions go to the Superior court.

The charter says "There shall be a tax collector appointed by the council. The city clerk or such other officer as may be designated by the council may perform the duties and possess the powers of this office, which shall be prescribed by resolution or ordinance of the council."* This provision differs materially from the old general law which made the city marshal tax collector.

The chief of police, a new officer, assumes the office formerly held under the title of marshal. His duties are prescribed by the council, by whom he is appointed; thus he is made very directly responsible to that body, as well as making them directly responsible for his acts, be they good or bad. He has authority to appoint and remove his subordinates, and also prescribes tests and examinations for the persons in his department. It is his duty to see that the ordinances of the city are observed and to make arrests where necessary. He has control of the prison of the city of Piedmont, and can keep prisoners there or place them in the Alameda


* ibid., Section 4, page 6

* ibid., Section 18, page 11



county jail. His other duties are the same as are assumed by every chief of police. Nothing is said as to his right to make prisoners work on city streets, which right was given to the peace officer under the former law. Prior to the adoption of a charter the police function, as has been said, belonged to an official designated as marshal, the men on his force carrying the title of deputy marshal instead of policeman. In case of riot or some abnormal situation which required an increase of force and authority the marshal automatically became a deputy sheriff, and as such could claim all the protection which the sheriff's office could afford. His duties as set forth in the general law were quite extensive. He prosecuted before the recorder all violations of the Piedmont ordinances and was responsible for the collection of fees and fines.

All taxes were collected by him, the monies so collected being turned over to the treasurer at the end of each month. He was also responsible for any tax lists which might have been given to him by the city clerk. He received a definite amount of pay per month fixed by resolution of the board of Trustees, and in addition was entitled to certain fees for serving papers. The fees were to be the same as were allowed to constables. So in a sense he was mar-shal, constable, prosecutor, and tax collector all in one.


Under the charter Piedmont has a health officer appointed by the council, who must either have been licensed to practice medicine in the state of Callfornia or have had special training in public health work. His duties relate to the general preservation and promotion of health and such other requirements as usually go with the office.


The duties of assessor are those which generally belong to that office and do not require special comment. The same is true as regards the offices of city clerk, city treasurer, city engineer and street superintendent, city auditor, and expert accountant.


Under the municipal corporation act no definite provision was, made for a fire department, though the board of Trustees was permitted to create one by ordinance. The city charter, however, specifically says that there shall be a fire chief appointed by the council, who shall be head of the fire department of the city; that as such he shall have charge over all matters relating to the prevention and extinction of fires, and shall by inference at least, establish a department for that purpose. Like the chief of police he has the right to appoint and discharge subordinates in his department, and makes rules and regulations for its conduct subject to the approval of the council.


Certain new sections of the charter relate to the establishment of a free public library, which shall be managed in accordance with general state law provisions and by resolution of the council, and to the creation of a park and play ground commission. The latter is to consist of five members appointed by the council, to serve without compensation. Their duties and terms of office shall be prescribed by resolution or ordinance of the council.


Under the present charter a new privilege is accorded the council, namely that of selecting a member of the board of education. The method of procedure is as follows. At any regular or special meeting, on the vote of the majority of the council, they have the power to select a qualified elector of the city of Piedmont, who has been such for at least two years, to be a member of the board of education. Such elector should serve for a period of four years and until his successor should be selected and qualified. He can not be chosen by the council during even numbered years. Vacancies caused by the resignation or death of a selected member were to be filled by a new council appointment. The other four members of the board of education were elected at large, members serving four years. The first board drew lots, two for two year terms, and two for four years. Thereafter elections were held in even numbered years, at which time two members were elected.


All contract work, street work, and granting of franchises are under the jurisdiction of the council. Following the example set by the national government the city charter requires the city auditer to present to the council an estimate or budget of the revenues and expenses of the city for the ensuing year. This bua-get must be presented to the council not later than thirty days before the time fixed for the annual tax levy. After considering the budget, the council then passes the tax levy.


The right to borrow money through the sale of bonds for any purpose must first receive the sanction of the council, though the transaction cannot be completed until the project shall have been submitted to the electors for ratification. The total amount of

bonded indebtedness, exclusive of school bonds, cannot exceed fifteen percent of the assessed valuation of the property in the city subject to direct taxation. The amount of the tax levy, exclusive of such sums as are required for interest payments and certain maintainance charges, shall not exceed 1.25 on each hundred dollars valuation of the assessed property.


Careful provisions are made for the election of a board of education to consist of five members, one of whom shall be selected by the council as previously set forth. The functions of the board of education, their term of service, the method of allotment, meeting times, rules for filling vacancies, etc., are all clearly stated. The books of the board of education are to be audited once each year.


The section described as miscellaneous covers a number of matters of rather minor importance, but in addition one that is major so far as our residential situation is concerned and one that really caused the new charter to be written. About it legal battles are raging at present. That article has to do with zoning. Section 4) declares "The city of Piedmont is hereby declared to be primarily a residential city and the council shall have power to establish such zoning systems within the city as may in its judgment be most beneficial, and in such zoning systems may prohibit the erection or maintainance of any class or classes of buildings within certain areas and may classify and reclassify the zones established. The council may also prescribe the character of materials and method of construction of buildings erected within any zone area and may establish such set-back lines as it may consider necessary and proper."# Suits to test the validity of this section of the charter have been instituted, and are now being prosecuted by those who wish to open to business certain sections which under the present zoning ordinance are now closed to business.


An interesting thing in connection with this charter is that it has been studied and adopted by many municipalities since the time the state legislature gave Piedmont the right to operate under it. By many students it is declared to be a model for cities of the sixth class. The present board of Trustees still functioning under the commission form of government are: Mayor Oliver Ellsworth, H. W. Dawson, L. F. Moore, S. H. Phelan, and I. G. Wolfe. Piedmont has not remained unprogressive and her laws have been changed to meet her growth and requirements. It is probable that many years will elapse before any more such radical changes as those mentioned will be made.




The author gratefully acknowledges the invaluable assistance and helpful suggestions kindly given by Mr. Weare little, city clerk, and Mr. Girard Richardson, city attorney.


* 1b1d., Section 41, page 18


bottom of page