Recently I discussed the Charbonneau Commission with a colleague, an eminent urban geographer. When I noted that these problems were occurring in Montreal, he added, “Yes – and in 50 other large North American cities”!

Perhaps 50 is a slightly exaggerated number. As I write, in April 2013, Kwame Kilpatrick, former mayor of Detroit, has been convicted on multiple counts of a racketeering conspiracy. Former mayor Ray Nagin of New Orleans has been indicted on 21 counts of conspiracy, bribery and money laundering. Former New York State assemblyman Jimmy Meng has been sentenced in a bribery scheme. Luke Ravenstahl, Mayor of Pittsburgh, will not run again because of a police scandal in his administration. New York City Councilman Dan Halloran, State Senator Malcolm Smith and four other political personalities have been arrested over an alleged conspiracy to pay tens of thousands of dollars in bribes to state Republican bosses to allow Smith to run for mayor of New York City. Here in high-minded, business-oriented Dallas, the city manager, Mary Suhm, lied to City Council about the granting of a lease to oil drillers which would permit “fracking” within city limits. And these are only a few examples taken from news reports in early 2013.

Clearly Montreal and Quebec are not alone in North America when it comes to urban political corruption. With the Charbonneau Commission shedding light on the corrupt practices, setting the stage for appropriate sanctions and new regulations, Quebec is doing more than many other North American political jurisdictions about these problems.

Let me try to place these developments in the context of broader historical trends. During the industrial era, the main struggle in North American urban politics was between “machine politics” and the forces of reform. This played out in Montreal, as it did in other North American cities, in roughly the first half of the twentieth century. Remember that Jean Drapeau was first elected in 1954 as a reform mayor. Our urban governments have since become professionalized in such fields as planning, economic development and public health. But, while political machines have withered away, “machine-style“ politics still exists in different forms, in Montreal as in many other cities.

Machine-style politics is robust, in good part, because of the kinds of opportunity structures that exist in urban governance. Given the amount of money to be made in construction contracts and service provision in both centralized and decentralized institutional settings, private individuals and businesses have strong incentives to seek mutually beneficial arrangements with political machines and city officials.

As cities evolved from the industrial era to postindustrial economies concerned with urban redevelopment and revitalization, North American city politics was dominated by the forces in favour of urban renewal (downtown business interests, developers, planners, activist mayors). The urban renewal era extended from roughly 1945 to 1980. Montreal proved no exception, with large-scale development in the central city and other major projects such as expansion of the highway system and creation of the Metro. Some of the major players in this era, such as William Zeckendorf and the Reichmanns, transcended national borders. Pushback efforts against these forces were recurrent, exemplified in Montreal by the opposition to the Milton-Park project and the emergence of the Montreal Citizens’ Movement. Overall, the forces of urban redevelopment remained important politically, despite increasing opposition, especially in the rapidly growing suburbs.

Urban renewal programs were far from scandal-free, despite the important role of planners, architects and other professionals in the decision-making. Perhaps the most famous scandals involved the Manhattantown urban renewal project on Manhattan’s West Side. These scandals, occurring between 1957 and 1960, began with developers buying tenements at a reduced rate. They were supposed to build new low-cost housing, but instead continued to demand and collect high rents from the tenants. Several close associates of New York’s master builder, Robert Moses, were implicated. Manhattantown also featured another type of corruption – the abuse of power by developers in the relocation of poor tenants and small businesses.

Roughly since 1980, North American cities have entered the postindustrial era. Along with the dislocations brought by economic change, urban political conflicts have become more difficult and complicated. Higher levels of government don’t provide the kind of aid that they did earlier. Urban governments, including Montreal, face the challenges of dealing with a highly diverse immigrant population. Business actors, for a number of reasons, are not as involved with local issues as they were previously. A study of 19 large U.S. metropolitan areas, supported by the Brookings Institution, found that connections to central cities have diminished for many CEOs. Civic organizations with a business orientation have less capacity than in an earlier era.1 As business interest lessens, other institutions gain in influence. A new and important force in many cities consists of the “eds and meds” – universities, hospitals, etc. This is very much the case in Montreal.

In some cases, cooperation between these forces and community organizations has led to hopeful developments in North American cities, including Montreal. One notable example is East Baltimore Development Inc., a partnership of city hall, the Johns Hopkins University and the Annie E. Casey Foundation. This partnership includes an innovative health care agreement as well as a job-training initiative in the biotech field. However, these remain the exceptions. Generally there is an absence of cooperative agenda-setting by governmental and nongovernmental actors in North American cities.

The revelations of the Charbonneau Commission suggest that there is something particular about Montreal, but when we take a wider and more historical perspective, we see that Montreal is hardly alone. By drawing attention to such practices and problems in Montreal and Quebec, the commission could perhaps not only bring needed changes there, but also stimulate some consideration of needed reforms in other North American cities.

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