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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with George Esser, June-August 1990. Interview L-0035. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Learning about city government in North Carolina

Esser remembers some of his assignments at the Institute of Government. Esser became responsible for city government issues, including city-county consolidation and taxation. His involvement in government issues led him into associations with others in similar fields, and momentum for community development programs seemed to grow in the late 1950s and early 1960s. This passage contains a lot of names and scattered recollections, but also a detailed picture of Esser's early career and how he started to apply his ideas about governance in North Carolina.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with George Esser, June-August 1990. Interview L-0035. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

FRANCES WEAVER:
George, we haven't really touched on what assignments you did at the Institute and how that might have carried over into the fund.
GEORGE ESSER:
Well, let's see.
FRANCES WEAVER:
Well, assignments first and was there a carry-over to the fund?
GEORGE ESSER:
When I first came to the Institute, Mr. Coach had never…. I mean, every staff member who was there had dealt with a function of government. I mean, Henry Lewis dealt with tax assessment and tax collection. And when Phil came, he took on planning and when Ale came, he took on local government finance. At the time that Ale and I came, Mr. Coats had agreed for the Institute to make a study for Charlotte and Mecklinburg County on the consequences of consolidation.
FRANCES WEAVER:
Oh, really? That early? I didn't know that.
GEORGE ESSER:
Oh, yes. And it was a much better study from the point of view of the functional elements of city and county government than the legal and other aspects of bringing it together. So he asked me to do a study of city-county consolidation throughout the country. Well, I found a book by a man that I later—I mean there was a lot in the library—but there was a fairly recent book by a man I later got to know pretty well named victor Jones from california that dealt with—historically—with city-county consolidation from the point of view of political science. And I had a lot of arguments with Mr. Coats about what we said about…. I said, "We've got to end up with a legal charter." But I said, "The history is not found alone in law or statute or ordinance." And well, he didn't want to go. He wanted everything to be in terms of what the law was and not what the actual background and the politics of it and so forth. Well, I was involved—except for the legislative session of 1949—I was involved in that study for a year and a half and then I later picked it up again in the late fifties when we did the thing for Durham. But from that, I was sort of assigned a general responsibility for municipal government. And so I dealt with a city as a—city government—I dealt with all of city government, but if it was planning or tax collection or so forth, I would consult or it would be done by Ale or Phil or Henry or Don. But that's how I happened to develop the first school for newly elected mayors and councilmen; the first management course for managers. Well, I handled some little functional matters like privilege license taxation by cities and other things like that. I was the only staff member and later Alec did this for the counties. But I was the only staff member who looked at the total of city government. And the role that city government played in an urban community. Over the years, I found that it was a lot harder to get my hands around that kind of assignment than planning or budgeting as Alec had or tax assessment like Henry had or purchasing like Jake had. On the other hand, it gave me a lot more insight into what was happening in the country. And I was the only staff member who got interested in what nationally, was being done. I went to a national conference on metropolitan government in East Lansing, Michigan. And I wouldn't have gotten an invitation if I hadn't written a man who later became a very good friend of mine; Bill Cassella. And that was the meeting at which I met Paul [unclear] who later joined the Ford Foundation.
FRANCES WEAVER:
I was going to ask you, did this lead to your association with people like [unclear] and the foundations generally?
GEORGE ESSER:
That's right. I would never have known then if I had not been looking at the total community. If I'd been looking at a function, I never would have gotten involved. So, I got to know a lot of people, not only on the campus but increasingly, throughout the country. And I got to know Paul and the people at Ford Foundation when…. well, let's see. Back in 1955, the Institute for Research in Social Science established a committee on urban growth and there were, you know, quite a number of people active in it. But I was the only person from the Institute and I guess it was because I was already teaching in municipal administration in the political science department, that I mentioned that I heard about this. And I said something to Frank Leyland or somebody like that and they said, "well, why don't you come to this meeting?" And so I started going to IRSS meetings and I got to know Bob Bagger. Do you remember Bob Bagger?
FRANCES WEAVER:
Oh, I remember Bob Bagger. Yes, indeed.
GEORGE ESSER:
Bob Bagger was the first person I ever met who would intentionally create a problem so that he could observe what the consequences of the way people responded to the problem. I liked Bob, but Andy Scott…
FRANCES WEAVER:
Jim Prothrow, was he active?
GEORGE ESSER:
Jim Prothrow. And I met all of those people. And the sociologists and I got to know Gordon very well.
FRANCES WEAVER:
And Rupert Vance, was he retired?
GEORGE ESSER:
I knew Rupert pretty well. I've known Reba better than I knew Rupert. But I admired Rupert to no end. And Gordon and I struck up quite a friendship but it took Gordon a while and me a while to understand that I could not make a commitment for the Institute; that I could open the door, but I couldn't make the commitment.
FRANCES WEAVER:
You weren't Mr. Coats representative.
GEORGE ESSER:
That's right. But that's how Paul, I think, initially proposed that first urban studies grant to the University that a certain amount be reserved for the Institute of Government to carry the results of the research into the state. Well, it was interesting to me—that was '57—and Paul Novasocker is a very, very imaginative person and he carried the Foundation's interest in urban problems through several stages. I mean, first there was commissioning direct research. Secondly, there was supporting local institutions devoted to research. And he asked me to…. In 1959, I took some vacation to do some consulting for Paul in Kansas City and Dayton and Miami. And I met some interesting people there. Then the Ford Foundation decided that well that wouldn't work. And then they decided that they were interested in an urban extension function for universities like agricultural extension. Well, that didn't work. Then they got interested in education problem in the cities and finally, the so-called gray area programs.
FRANCES WEAVER:
That came out of Ford? Out of Paul Novasocker's fertile mind?
GEORGE ESSER:
Out of George Novasocker's fertile mind.
FRANCES WEAVER:
Was he vice president then?
GEORGE ESSER:
No. He was…
FRANCES WEAVER:
A program officer?
GEORGE ESSER:
He was a program officer.
FRANCES WEAVER:
Henry Heild was president?
GEORGE ESSER:
Well, anyhow, I kept up with these changes in emphasis by, you know, seeing things in newsletters or by seeing Paul at…. I remember meeting Paul at a couple of national conventions. And by that time, we'd gotten to know each other pretty well. And so, knowing what the current interest, though I was not able to follow through, but I did know, in the fall of 1962, John Healy had gone to work for Terry Sanford and they had gone to New York and Terry had made the famous statement, "I need your ideas more than your money," and so a rather large—seven or eight staff people—were coming to North Carolina in mid-January, 1963 to look at the state and to begin to work out a program to deal with the problems of North Carolina. So John Healy, with help from George Stevenson, was preparing the agenda for the week. And John and I knew each other, but very, very…. I mean, we knew each other [unclear] , but somehow, John called John Sanders and said that he wanted to…
FRANCES WEAVER:
John was director of the Institute? John Sanders?
GEORGE ESSER:
Yeah. And said he wanted to come over and get some ideas about the agenda. And I forget how I was identified. I must have had some prior conversation with John Sanders and I must have said to John—I'll have to go back and check this—but somehow I must have said to him that a focus during the week on traditional urban functions like city planning was not what Paul Novasocker was interested in.
FRANCES WEAVER:
That's in your 1970 tape. You point that out to either John Sanders or John Healy or both.
GEORGE ESSER:
But then at that meeting which I'll never forget, came on…. We met on Christmas Eve afternoon, 1962, I made that point to John directly. John Healy and John Sanders. There were three of us, but why it was only me in there, it must have been I had said something to John Sanders that led him to it. So as a result of that, John Healy asked me to help during the visit and then later the Governor asked John Sanders to sort of informally approve my helping on the whole process during the spring. Okay. My choice of looking at the government of urban communities rather than a function, led me to look at, to be concerned with…. I'd become interested in metropolitan government because of my first assignment from the Mecklinburg study. I had helped develop curricula for both broadly based short course for newly elected mayors and council and for managers. And I had to think about, you know, what do you say to people? What do they need to know other than functional things? What do you say about management? That was a tough one for me to understand, but it was tougher still for Albert and some members…. Henry Lewis to this day, does not like the concept of thinking about management.
FRANCES WEAVER:
Yes. I can see that. You just do it. [Laughter]
GEORGE ESSER:
And you know, maybe that's why the Institute staff did not regard Henry as a very good manager because he…. Well, anyhow, so looking at the governance of urban communities and then seeing changes come in the fifties and being exposed to what was happening in other states and going to national meetings and getting to know people like Paul Novasocker and Bill Cassella who was with the National Municipal League and people like that. Yes, I did have an….and then seeing that the suburbs were draining off the people more money and leaving the slums and depressed areas of the cities, so that gradually, I got a much different perception of the problem of urban governance than most people at the Institute and the reason was that I wasn't looking alone at North Carolina cities. Not that you didn't have problems in North Carolina cities, but our cities are mighty small compared to…. Now, we're growing. If we had had then the type of agglomeration that the Research Triangle represents today or the Triad, it might have been different. But I had to recognize that it would be hard to make of North Carolina, even though there were things…. Well, I wrote the annexation law that still is effective in North Carolina. It's looked on as one of the best in the country.
FRANCES WEAVER:
Really? When you are annexing property into an urban community?
GEORGE ESSER:
Yeah, and I'll never forget…. I mean, Bob Stape…. I was working one night at the Institute and Bob Stape was there and I said, "Bob, let's figure out a standard." That standard is still in the law. Something like a population density of something like two people per acre; something like that. He just pulled it out of the air. You know, Bob was a city planner and well, that's the reason that in North Carolina you have fewer incorporated suburban municipalities.
FRANCES WEAVER:
Oh, I see.
GEORGE ESSER:
Because the cities in North Carolina, with some exceptions…. I mean, you have a few around and you have some cities like Charlotte that have grown out to be [unclear] whatever. But you don't have new incorporation in the…. As a city grows, it generally takes it in.
FRANCES WEAVER:
Takes it in. Yeah, so you avoid the Saint Louis and Birmingham model with all those incorporated cities with their own schools. Yeah.
GEORGE ESSER:
That's right. That's exactly right. So, I guess, in the long run, the fact of looking at the total urban community and then seeing the diversity in…. The demographic diversity, the problems that were involved in race and income and employment, so I guess, you know, I wasn't trained, necessarily, to do the North Carolina Fund, but I had developed the sensitivity to the issues that enabled me to do it where it would have been very difficult for people with other backgrounds could have done it.