Special Charter


Davenport is a Special Charter City

Davenport was granted a special charter by the Iowa legislature in 1851. Although many Iowa cities were given this status before the act was prohibited in 1859, only five remain special charter cities: Davenport, Camanche, Wapello, Muscatine, and Glendale.
Special charters were given to assist in municipal administration at a time when the Iowa State Legislature was in its infancy. The charters helped regulate everything from election processes to control over city streets and property to the organization of the city Council. Under Davenport’s charter, the city was originally to be governed by Aldermen chosen from six wards (24 Precincts). In 1957, the Council voted, in accordance with the rules in the charter, to add two more wards.
Some of the provisions given by Davenport’s charter have had more of an impact than others. One of the more detailed points was the duty of the City Clerk. According to the charter, the Clerk was required not only to record the city Council meetings and proceedings, but also keep records on the Marshall’s returns, property sales taxes, the works of the street commissioner, the mayor’s docket book, the city budget allowances, and all deaths for the city. Later, more duties were assigned, such as the recording of streets. Davenport clerks might have been among the busiest of city officers, but it is due to their work that we have such a rich archive of city history available to us today.
Most Iowa special charters didn’t mention bridges, although the river cities were usually authorized to “improve and preserve” navigation within city limits. However, Davenport’s Council was given power to “establish, erect and keep in repair” bridges.    This power no doubt assisted the Davenport Bridge Company in the construction of the first bridge across the Mississippi, which was built between Davenport and Rock Island, Illinois, in 1856.
Davenport’s charter gave the Council power to “license, tax, and regulate” taverns, groceries, and all places that sold alcoholic beverages, and to “restrain, prohibit, and suppress” drinking establishments. Throughout its history, however, the special charter proved helpful to Davenport’s breweries and taverns.   In 1909, Ernst Wenzel was prosecuted under Iowa’s “Moon law”, which regulated the number of salons in a city or town to one establishment for every 1,000 residents. At that time, Davenport, which had not even reached 50,000 citizens by that time, had approximately 200 drinking establishments. Ficke and Ficke of Davenport, Mr. Wenzel’s attorneys, successfully argued that the Moon law was not simply an amendment to previous regulatory laws, but new legislation that did not specifically mention special charter cities; the law therefore did not apply to Davenport, and so could not be violated by Mr. Wenzel.
Even when this oversight was (quickly) corrected, Special Charter cities were given a year to meet the terms of the new law; ‘regular’ cities and towns had to comply immediately.
A major advantage of special charters is a certain type of legislative independence.   Residents may initiate amendments to the articles of incorporation, or of the charter, in local matter, such as when the city limits expand, or when the council divided the city into 8 wards in 1957, as mentioned previously. But the most basic freedom for the residents of Davenport is the choice of municipal governance; citizens may choose to keep the charter or not, to become incorporated under the general law, or to adopt the manager plan or the commission plan.
Granted, the present Iowa Code does not take much notice of the original differences of special charter cities.  Evolving laws have, for practical purposes, made most municipalities equal. Davenport and the other remaining special charter cities do not appear to have more or fewer rights, privileges, or powers than those organized under the general incorporation laws. So, what keeps Davenport’s citizens from exercising their right to give up this form of government? As George F. Robeson stated in 1920, “sentiment probably plays an important part in their retention: one does not readily give up a form of government which has been in operation, and fairly satisfactorily, for a period of considerably over half a century.” Even after a century and a half, this sentiment and pride in our special status does not appear to have waned.
An Act to Incorporate the City of Davenport, 1851.
History of Scott County, Iowa. (Chicago, Ill.: Inter-state Publishing Co.), 1882.
""Moon Law' overreaches."  Davenport Democrat. August 22, 1909, p.1.