There is an extremely high probability that at some point in your career, you will have a conflict of interest. Your initial reaction to that statement may be to discard it outright as being inaccurate and overly broad. After all, as a professional with a commitment to very high ethical standards and good situational awareness, that’s just going to happen. You would never put yourself in a position where someone would question your loyalties and commitment to your organization. You are simply not that person who leverages their position for personal gain or who indulges in self-dealing.
It’s important to acknowledge though that conflicts of interest don’t always arise by intentional acts. In its simplest form and by its very definition, a conflict of interest happens when your personal interests or loyalties intersect with your professional obligations. That conflict can and often does present itself in the ordinary course of living your life. Think about it. Unless you build a truly impenetrable firewall between your life and work (which is virtually impossible for anyone working in local government), your personal life will overlap with your professional obligations at some point. Here are very common examples of the conflicts of interest that local government professionals encounter:
• You want to build a home in the county where you are employed. Hands down the best builder is part of a large family-owned firm. His business partner is an elected official serving on the county board of supervisors.
• After donating personal time to a local nonprofit, you are asked to join their board. The nonprofit gets funding from the city where you work.
• After selling his business when you relocated to accept a new position, your spouse wants to start a new business. The plan is to buy and renovate an abandoned building on the edge of the business district in the town where you work.
• Recent layoffs in the tech field find your adult child looking for a job. In a very competitive market, her best offer is a firm that does business with the county AKA your employer.
• You need legal advice on how best to manage the affairs of your aging parents. In a very rural area, there are not a lot of attorneys to choose from. The most qualified in elder care law happens to also serve as the appointed city attorney.
• A very close friend is elected mayor in the community where you work and live.
Beyond the unexpected conflicts that arise from your personal life are two other sources of conflicts: taking on a role related to your professional position and intentionally engaging in activity that creates a conflict. Here are examples in all three spheres and advice for reconciling the conflict.
The Unexpected Personal Conflict
Examples of the ways in which your personal life could unexpectedly cross over into your work world are so varied and interesting. For one manager, the issue was syrup. A personal hobby harvesting syrup from his backyard raised a conflict-of-interest question in his mind when an investor arrived with a proposal to develop syrup into a local and regional industry. Even though the manager’s harvest was very small and not sold commercially, he stopped to reflect whether he would have a conflict of interest here in advancing this economic effort. Key to the determination that this was not a conflict of interest in fact or appearance was that his venture was purely personal. The output of syrup from his harvest was shared with friends, and he had zero interest in ever going commercial. Absent personal or financial benefit, his advocacy for syrup as a growth industry for his city did not present a conflict of interest.
When your reach the nexus of “personal” and “professional” interests, it is wise to stop to consider whether because of your position in the organization, you will:
• Be required to provide information and recommendations on the matter in your professional capacity.
• Supervise those responsible for managing the issue within the organization.
• Be responsible for taking an official action.
• Gain personally or financially. If you are the sole beneficiary of a decision that falls within your professional responsibility, you have a significant conflict of interest that disclosure alone will not cure.
• Create the appearance that you are not impartial or objective.
If any of these factors present, then plan out a workable strategy that extricates you from the conflict.
Unintentional Professional Conflicts
There are instances where a professional, who is clearly in their lane and may have official governing body approval to act, finds themselves embroiled in a conflict of interest. Consider the case of the city manager who served as the executive director of the city’s redevelopment authority. While an independent agency, it was created by the city and receives some funding from the city. The two organizations certainly have shared and mutual interest. Appointing the manager to serve in this dual role was intended to foster cooperation between the two agencies. But this arrangement placed the manager in the difficult position of serving two governing bodies. When faced with opposing positions on an issue, to whom does this city manager owe their loyalty? How does the public know whose interests are being promulgated by a manager serving in this dual role? To compound matters, out of concern for the financial wellbeing of the redevelopment authority, the manager decided to move funds from the city over to the authority. Even operating from a position of good intent, this action was criticized by the city council who did not regard it as in the city’s best interest.
The issue of whose interests are being served is a bit more challenging and nuanced when an individual is appointed to serve on a regional body. In that capacity, they are appointed as the local government’s representative with the expectation to serve the interests of their community in the context of also serving the region’s needs. At times local interests may take a backseat to regional interests. When that happens, the representative would be smart to keep their governing body up to speed and to take direction from their governing body.
Approval by the governing body to do something that raises an ethical issue for you or the staff does not absolve you from the responsibility to do what is right.
Intentional and Unwise Professional Conflicts
These run the gamut from having a personal relationship with a subordinate staff member to directing staff to hire a relative to investing in a business opportunity in the community where you work. The first creates an enormous liability for the organization and disrupts the culture. The latter could be a violation of the principle that a public official should not leverage their office or position for personal gain. To avoid self-inflicted harm, review the guidelines in the ICMA Code of Ethics on personal relationships, investments, private employment, giving policy advice, advocating for your personal cause, and confidential information just to name a few.
In between the unforeseen conflicts and the intentional self-dealing lies what can be murky territory. As in many professions, it’s not uncommon to use the talent and expertise gained in a career to teach or work as a consultant. If you are still a practitioner, it is a conflict of interest to serve as a consultant to your organization, represent an entity appearing in an official capacity before your organization, or work behind the scenes for an entity that involves your employer. No level of disclosure will cure this conflict. If you want to have dual careers as both practitioner and consultant, your clients should be very far removed from your primary employment. Once you have entered the “encore” stage and no longer work for a local government, you have more leeway to engage so long as you show respect for the current manager and don’t overstep your relationship with your former colleagues.
Best to frame the issue of conflicts of interest in terms of your integrity, credibility, and trustworthiness. As you navigate and resolve a conflict, will anyone from the outside looking in question whose interests you were serving? Relating back to Tenet 3 and the commitment to integrity, is your personal and professional conduct building trust? From the perspective of Tenet 12, are you respecting and advancing the principle that holding a public office or position is a public trust?
Be alert to the conflicts of interest that may come your way. Once in your path, discern whether it is a conflict of interest in fact or appearance? Will disclosure alone cure the conflict? Do you need to disengage? Best to be conservative in your approach as the stakes are significant when your reputation, a most valuable asset, is on the line.
MARTHA PEREGO, ICMA-CM, is director of member services and ethics director, ICMA, Washington, D.C. (firstname.lastname@example.org).
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