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National Civic League (U.S.)

Last modified: 2018-12-31 by rick wyatt
Keywords: national civil league | united states | all-america city award |
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The National Civic League is an American non-profit non-partisan organization that advocates for transparency, effectiveness, and openness in local government. It was founded as the National Municipal League in 1894 at a Philadelphia, Pennsylvania convention of politicians, policy-makers, journalists, and educators (including Theodore Roosevelt, Louis Brandeis, Marshall Field, and Frederick Law Olmsted) to discuss the future of American cities. It also promotes professional management of local government through publication of "model charters" for both city and county governments.

It is important to remember how differently local governments were organized in the late nineteenth century. Some cities had bicameral "legislatures" with dozens of eldermen. The management of municipal departments was fractured across an array of directly elected or appointed offices, everything from comptroller to dog catcher. Governors and state legislatures interfered freely in local affairs. Lines of accountability were unclear. Waste, inefficiency, patronage and corruption were widespread. When the league adopted the first "Municipal Plan" in 1898, its provisions included a "home rule charter" to give more power and autonomy to local officials, a unicameral city council with nonpartisan elections, and a hands-on mayor to appoint and remove department heads. City employees were to be hired and promoted under the merit system. Although many local governments would eventually embrace the "strong mayor" plan for municipal reform, its success wasn't immediate. Some cities were opting for a different plan that had emerged on the Gulf Coast of Texas. In 1900 a terrible hurricane hit the island city of Galveston, Texas, sending a six foot tide across the entire island. Nearly the entire city was destroyed, and there were no functioning city departments. To cope with the disaster, the governor of Texas appointed a five member commission to oversee the rebuilding of the city. The commission was so successful, it was made permanent, and a new form of government—the city commission—was born. Other communities began to follow suit, first Houston, then Dallas, Des Moines and Kansas City.

What later emerged was a synthesis of the two competing models. In 1910, a municipal reform advocate named Richard Childs was asked to contribute ideas for improving Pittsburgh's government. Childs suggested reducing elected government to the city's select council and to make all other positions appointed. The most original part of his plan, however, was the appointment of a professional manager for city departments, thus separating policy from administration. The plan, as envisioned by Childs, consisted of a five-member city council, chosen by non-partisan at-large elections with a "weak mayor," who was to be elected from and by the council. The council would have total authority when it came to formulating policy, but day-to-day management decisions would be made by an appointed city manager who served at the pleasure of the council. The beauty of the plan was its simplicity – and the very obviousness of its delineation of authority.

"Democracy," Childs insisted, "consists of controlling public offices – not necessarily in electing them." In 1915 the National Municipal League published its second edition of the Model City Charter, and adopted the city manager, city council plan instead of the strong mayor form. In 1915 the National Municipal League published its second edition of the Model City Charter, and adopted the city manager, city council plan instead of the strong mayor form. From 1918 to 1923, more than 150 cities adopted the plan. By 1930, one out of every five cities with populations over 10,000 adopted the plan. Today it is the most common form of government among municipalities. During the coming decades, the National Municipal League would expand the scope of its research and advocacy, publishing models for county government, voter registration, election administration and state constitutions. The league was also an early advocate of proportional representation, regional governance and fair redistricting and reapportionment procedures. In 1986, the league undertook a strategic planning process to explore new futures directions. The name was changed to the National Civic League. Three years later, the league headquarters was moved from New York City to Denver, Colorado.

The NCL is best known for its All-America City Award, given to ten communities annually and it is the oldest and most prestigious community recognition award. In 1949, a reporter named Jean James was assigned to cover the then National Municipal League's National Conference on Government in St. Paul, Minnesota. James approached league officers, including pollster George Gallup, and explained that she wanted to write a feature article about the best-governed cities in America. Gallup suggested that such a judgment was too difficult to make. Intrigued by the idea, league officers countered with a proposal, as Gallup later described it, "to name eleven cities in which they knew the citizens themselves had initiated and completed some action of major benefit to the entire community. And so the All-America Cities contest was born."

The league formed a partnership with James's employer, the Minneapolis Tribune (today the Star Tribune), which sponsored the award for two years. The idea of the award program was simple. Each year cities would request a formal application from the program. The applications would be filled out, sent back to the league, and reviewed by a team of judges. From all the applications, up to twenty-two finalists would be selected. Each of the finalists would then send a representative to the annual National Conference on Government. At the conference, the finalists would make presentations to a jury made of leaders from civic, business, and labor organizations. The jury would select eleven winners of the award. Today there are only ten. It was once called the "Nobel Prize for constructive citizenship", it has been awarded to more than 500 communities across the country. California is the State with the most number of Awarded communities, a total of 62 times.

7 communities have won the Award 5 or more times including - Cleveland, OH; Des Moines, IA; Kansas City, MO; Phoenix, AZ; Roanoke, VA; Tupelo, MS; and Worcester, MA.

Sources: and

For the list of all the communities given the award, go to: and

Esteban Rivera, 25 February 2016

All-American City Award flag

[All-American City example flag]

"The All-America City Award is America's oldest and most prestigious community recognition award. Since 1949 the All-America City Award has encouraged and recognized civic excellence, honoring communities of all sizes (cities, towns, counties, neighborhoods and regions) in which citizens, government, businesses and voluntary organizations work together to address critical local issues."
National Civic League website

The town of New Haven, Connecticut, became one of the ten winners of the 2008 All-America City Award. A photograph by Paul Bass, published in "The New Haven Independent", 25 September 2008*, shows what seems to be the flag granted to the winners of the award, that is, most probably, the All-America City Award emblem placed on a white background, with "2008" placed below the emblem, and, maybe, something added above the shield (the town's name?).

The emblem of the All-America City Award is made of an "American shield", red with five vertical white stripes, a blue chief with five white stars and, between the main field and the chief, a white rectangle charged with "All-America City" in blue letters. The ® sign is placed near the lower right part of the shield. On the photograph, the upper part of the emblem is not visible, while the ® sign is clearly visible.

Ivan Sache, 20 October 2008

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