February 11, 2014
“Your existence, your words and deeds, have reawakened the slumbering civic life. You have created a civic center where the sympathy and desire of those who love the city we live in may be safely facilitated. You have given hope and confidence to thousands who have become pessimists on American municipal institutions.”
These words are attributed to the Civic Federation’s first president Lyman J. Gage, in reference to the transformative work of Federation members during the organization’s first year in 1894. One hundred and twenty years ago this week, Mr. Gage joined with other prominent Chicago leaders including Jane Addams and Bertha Honoré Palmer to establish the Civic Federation as, “a citizen agency for promoting efficiency and economy in the organization and management of public business.”
Many of the Civic Federation’s founders played a major role in bringing the 1893 World’s Fair to Chicago. Mr. Gage was President of the World’s Fair Directors and personally guaranteed financial support for the Fair. Ms. Honoré Palmer was President of the Board of Lady Managers and arranged space at the Fair to celebrate the achievements of women around the world. Despite the glitter of the Exposition, the city had become equally famous for “vice, misery and corruption,” and had been recently painted as an example of urban evil by the visiting journalist William T. Stead in his book, If Christ Came to Chicago. The founders saw the newly established Civic Federation as a way to direct the resources of Chicago’s business and civic community toward improving the city’s political, moral and economic climate. The Civic Federation of Chicago received its charter on February 3, 1894 and held its first meeting on February 15, 1894. The Federation’s charter members included business leaders, labor officials, clergy and former government officials.
The Civic Federation’s early work tackled a broad range of issues across six committees: Political, Municipal, Industrial, Philanthropic, Morals and Educational. In the Federation’s first year, the Political Committee offered significant rewards leading to the conviction of fraudulent voters. The Municipal Committee investigated the City’s milk supply and garbage collection, organizing citizens to report weekly on conditions in their neighborhoods. The Industrial Committee consulted with both sides during the nationwide Pullman railroad strike in the summer of 1894. The Philanthropic Committee created the Central Relief Association to better organize the work of Chicago charities and prevent duplication of work. The Morals Committee organized raids of notorious gambling establishments. Finally, the Educational Committee facilitated monthly Parents Council meetings of parents and teachers to foster greater involvement in public schools. This work was accomplished largely by volunteers, with only a few office assistants employed by the Federation.
During the 20th century, the Civic Federation evolved into a research-oriented agency that served as a watchdog for taxpayers and gained a reputation as a fair, thorough and unbiased authority in local taxation and public finance. The refocused mission was confirmed by the Federation’s membership at its biennial meeting in November 1929, shortly after the “Black Tuesday” stock market crash of October 1929. The Federation was one of several organizations credited with saving Chicago’s governments from financial catastrophe during the Great Depression.
During this time, the Civic Federation began to present regular testimony at the budget hearings for Chicago local governments. In 1962 a Chicago Sun-Times reporter described the respect and attention paid to Civic Federation budget testimony before the Chicago City Council, “Idle conversation dies, wandering aldermen slide back into their seats and everyone pays close attention.” Annual budget reviews and testimony for the eight local governments in the Chicago region remain central to the Federation’s work today.
The Civic Federation’s influence on government tax and fiscal policy expanded throughout the 20th century. In 1934 the Federation spearheaded the consolidation of 22 separate park districts into the Chicago Park District. In 1943 it worked with the Sanitary District to successfully petition the Illinois General Assembly for model budget and fiscal control legislation. In 1979 the Federation proposed the creation of the School Finance Authority to resolve a school fiscal crisis. In the late 1980s, it compiled the first comprehensive database of revenues and expenditures in the six-county area. And, in the early 1990s, the Federation played a role in the restructuring of the Chicago Park District.
The Civic Federation’s analysis and counsel continue to prompt action to improve the efficiency, effectiveness and transparency of the State of Illinois and local governments in the Chicago region. One hundred and twenty years later, the Federation remains true to the non-partisan principles of its founders as it works to provide objective research, analysis and recommendations that:
- Champion efficient delivery of high-quality government services;
- Promote sustainable tax policies and responsible long-term financial planning;
- Improve government transparency and accountability; and
- Educate and serve as a resource for policymakers, opinion leaders and the broader public.