Between its founding in 1821 and its municipal incorporation in 1832, Indianapolis was governed by state laws that were enforced by county officers. From 1832 until 1970, Indianapolis functioned under five charters, each of which originated from particular municipal needs and which provided certain basic structures and guidelines for operating town and city governments.

Charter of 1832

The Indiana General Assembly adopted legislation on February 2, 1832, which changed the method of town incorporation. The new procedure required two-thirds of eligible voters within the proposed town to sign a petition requesting county commissioners to approve incorporation and to call for public elections. Local citizens prepared a petition on September 3 and presented it the next day to the commissioners, who called for the first election of trustees on September 29, 1832. That day voters elected Obed Foote president and Josiah W. Davis clerk; they divided the town into five districts, each represented by one trustee.

The newly elected town trustees drafted and adopted a general ordinance, known as the Charter of 1832, to govern Indianapolis. It defined the powers and responsibilities of the trustees and other town officials (including a clerk, assessor, treasurer, and marshal), prescribed taxes and special licenses, and listed local ordinances.

Charter of 1838 

On February 5, 1836, the citizens of Indianapolis obtained a special charter from the state legislature. It allowed them to adopt any ordinances “necessary for the good government of the corporation.” After two years, residents sought a stronger charter, and on February 17, 1838, the legislature reincorporated Indianapolis.

The new charter established a town council consisting of a popularly elected president and six trustees, one representing each of the six wards whose boundaries the charter established. The president possessed the powers of a justice of the peace, and the town marshal that of a constable. The council, whose members were elected annually, was authorized to appoint essential government officers and to tax property (one-half of one percent of the valuation) for street and other improvements. Taxation was limited to the Mile Square even though the incorporation included the entire congressional land donation. The council also possessed powers to license and regulate markets and amusements and to adopt any laws necessary to maintain the peace within the town’s four square miles. The charter required adult males to work two days per year on street maintenance or pay a $1 tax. An 1840 legislative act increased council terms to two years and adopted alternate year elections for half of the councilmen.

Charter of 1847 

Under a special act of the Indiana General Assembly on February 13, 1847, Indianapolis became an incorporated city, replacing its earlier status as a town. Local voters approved the charter 449-19 on March 27, and it became effective March 30. The council set citywide elections for April 24 to elect a mayor (two-year term) and fill the seven-member Common Council (one-year term), elected from the newly redrawn wards. Samuel Henderson was elected mayor, an unsalaried position that carried the “jurisdiction of a justice of the peace,” its attendant fees, and new veto powers.

The charter established the corporate boundaries of the city and authorized the council to elect a secretary, treasurer, marshal, clerk, assessor, street commissioners, and other officers as needed. It imposed a local school tax, required adult males to work two days annually on streets and roads, and authorized taxation on all lands in the original donation at a rate not to exceed 15 cents per $100 valuation.

Charter of 1853 

Following the adoption of a new state constitution in 1851, the Indiana General Assembly passed “an act for the incorporation of cities” (towns exceeding 3,000 in population) on June 18, 1852. The new charter, which the Indianapolis council adopted on March 7, 1853, established two councilmen per ward, designated the mayor president of the council, and limited all elected offices to one-year terms.

The council was empowered to appoint city officers, pass ordinances for local governance, maintain and enforce sanitary regulations, annex property and establish licensing procedures. The charter allowed the council to levy a property tax not to exceed 75 cents per $100 valuation, a poll tax of no more than 50 cents per adult male, and special taxes on carriages, hackneys, and dogs.

By a legislative act of March 9, 1857, the Indiana General Assembly revised the incorporation laws, increasing the tax limit to $1 and the terms of the mayor and city judge to two years. An act of March 1, 1859, extended the two-year term to all city officers.

Charter of 1891 

In March 1890, the Indianapolis Board Of Trade and the Commercial Club began to discuss the revision of city government. Both supported improvements on city streets, the creation of a Board of Public Works, and a more efficient and responsive government. 

Using as models the recently adopted charter of Brooklyn, New York (which utilized the federal plan of legislative, judicial, and executive divisions), and the Bullitt Law of Philadelphia (which allowed the mayor to appoint a Board of Public Works and other officers), a committee drafted a revised city charter. Key committee members included Augustus L. Mason, Samuel E. Morss, Mayor Thomas L. Sullivan, George G. Tanner, and Granville S. Wight. Upon submitting the charter to the Indiana General Assembly, both organizations lobbied the legislature, which approved the charter on March 3, 1891. The governor signed the legislation on March 6.

The new charter adopted a strong mayor-council form of municipal government. Authority was divided among the separate executive, legislative, and judicial branches with administrative responsibilities being concentrated in the office of the mayor. He was empowered to appoint a “cabinet” of six individuals to direct the departments of Finance (headed by a city comptroller). Law, Public Works, Public Safety, Assessment and Collection, and Public Health and Charities.

The mayor, who received a salary of $4,000, could appoint other officers without the approval of the common council. The council consisted of 21 members, one elected from each of the 15 wards and 6 at-large representatives. It possessed purely legislative functions to ensure public health and comfort, to maintain streets, to license and regulate occupations and businesses, to preserve the peace, to levy taxes (not to exceed 90 cents per $100 valuation), and to annex property, among other assorted responsibilities.

The judicial branch consisted of a police court, headed by a police judge with the powers of a justice of the peace. He was assisted by a clerk and bailiff-constable. The charter specified that local elections would be held the second Tuesday of October of every alternate year.

Between each charter, state and local officials adopted revisions and amendments necessary to maintain the operation of municipal government: increasing tax rates, granting power to borrow, and redefining the powers of city offices. Over the years there were numerous amendments to the city charter.

In 1895, the Indiana General Assembly created a board of park commissioners as part of the city’s administrative structure. An amendment in 1909 increased the power of the board of park commissioners and appropriated tax revenues for park purposes. Other amendments addressed the annexation of property, assessment for public improvements, and salaries of city officers.

A 1903 law established a juvenile court in Marion County and modified the judicial division of the city government. By the municipal corporations law of 1905, a system patterned after the Indianapolis model was adopted for Indiana’s cities, which were divided into five classes according to the size of the population. 

The Charter of 1891, as amended, remained the basis of municipal government in Indianapolis until the implementation of the Unigov legislation in 1970.

Revised April 2021
 

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