Media stories about the unethical conduct of local government professionals are so dismaying. They cast a truly noble profession in a negative light and feed very false stereotypes about what motivates decent, smart, and dedicated people to devote their career to serving communities.
A city manager caught “cheating at the margins” on compensation or another who outright “cooks the books” on travel expenses nurtures the false narrative that the motivating factor to work in government is self-dealing, not service to others.
Unethical conduct erodes the public’s confidence in every facet of local government. The county engineer who devised a plan to solicit and take bribes from contractors undermines public trust and credibility in the procurement process. Taken at face value it is also not unreasonable for the public to question the soundness of any infrastructure built by these contractors. Would the engineer really hold them accountable at the risk of personal profit?
These scenarios, all ripped from the headlines, describe premediated, calculated conduct designed to deceive. It is unethical and illegal.
Can we take some solace that most of the unethical conduct reported to ICMA rarely involves illegal and outrageous conduct? Not really! It doesn’t take a $10 million embezzlement case to harm staff, send an organization into a tailspin, undermine public trust, or damage the reputation of the profession.
Cases adjudicated by the ICMA Committee on Professional Conduct this past year, where they concluded that a member violated the ICMA Code of Ethics, highlight the impact of unethical actions.
Conflicts of Interest
A manager and assistant manager fell in love and embarked upon a romantic relationship. Falling in love with a colleague you work for or with on its own is not an ethics violation. It crosses the ethical line when the conflict of interest that the relationship creates is not cured immediately, (i.e., the relationship ends or one of the parties leaves the organization). Failing to disclose the relationship quadruples the ethics issue. Now have you not only entered a problematic relationship, but your honesty is suspect since you didn’t report it. In this case, neither party informed the city council about the relationship. An anonymous letter sent to city council brought it all out in the open. Obviously, any efforts by the manager and assistant to be discreet or to outright conceal the relationship were not successful. An ongoing relationship and lack of transparency exposed the organization to significant legal and financial risks.
Conflicts of interest are not always so intentional or extraordinary as this one. They can appear or be created in the most mundane circumstances. One manager crossed the ethical line when she sought city staff assistance to resolve a minor traffic accident she had while driving her personal vehicle.
Unprofessional Conduct On and Off Duty
After the town manager was arrested for assaulting an employee at work by throwing an object at her, it was also disclosed that he sent numerous inappropriate text messages to a town intern. The legal issue was resolved on a deferred prosecution agreement and the town entered into a separation agreement with the manager. The town also spent over $300,000 in financial settlements with the two employees. As the leader of the organization, the manager is required to model appropriate conduct that sets the correct ethical tone for the entire organization. Equally important is to ensure that it is a safe and respectful environment in which to work.
On that note, imagine going to work in an organization where the manager makes derogatory and sometimes race-based comments about employees, governing body members, and members of the community? Or where his approach to managing creates a culture where employees did not feel comfortable disagreeing with him due to a fear of retaliation?
Your ethical obligations don’t end when the workday does. Tenet 3 of the ICMA Code of Ethics requires members to demonstrate by word and action the highest standards of ethical conduct and integrity in all public, professional, and personal relationships. A member failed to meet that standard when he made unwanted and repeated advances toward a colleague while intoxicated at a professional conference. In another case, the local government settled a lawsuit after a colleague accused the manager of sexually assaulting her at a conference. Another member was charged after work hours with public intoxication, disorderly conduct, and assault and battery. While he accepted legal responsibility for his conduct, the media coverage reflected poorly on the organization and the profession.
After a manager left the organization for a position in another local government, he emailed his former governing body disclosing over three years of text messages between him and the mayor. The tone and language in his transmittal email was highly unprofessional. Beyond that, it was troubling that he only shared the messages he had with one elected official. His explanation that he was legally obligated to turn over all public records upon his departure didn’t square with the fact that he did not preserve or share his texts with the other elected officials.
Treating others with respect applies to colleagues as well. A recently retired manager expressed his concerns about his former organization in a letter to the editor. That created the opportunity to undermine public confidence in his successor and her ability to manage the organization without his unsolicited advice. A member has the right to voice their opinion, but that right must always be balanced by the ethical obligation to ensure any commentary does not undermine trust and confidence in a colleague or reflect poorly on the profession. In another case, a manager used a state association listserv to make unprofessional and inappropriate comments about a colleague.
Another manager’s disrespectful comments were aimed at both an elected official and a peer. This manager posted a comment on his personal social media post following the resolution of an issue between the city and state. The comment referenced the governor in a manner that did not reflect the highest standards of ethical conduct and integrity. He also sent an email to city employees containing a preemptive declaration that he would never implement a specific law or policy. Lastly, his comments to a colleague on the state association listserv failed to adhere to his ethical obligation to treat his colleagues respectfully.
Maintaining Political Neutrality
Political neutrality is a hallmark of the profession. The requirement to refrain from any political activity which undermines public administrators applies to all ICMA members who work for a local government, despite their role. One county manager violated the standard by attending state and national political party conventions as a delegate. The manager also sought appointment to the state commission responsible for mapping out the congressional and state legislative districts. Using a commission to do this critical work may appear to be a nonpartisan. But in this case, the path to the commission was entirely through the state legislature. Appointees were either caucus members or selected from a pool vetted by the state legislators. Beyond the partisan nature of the appointment process lies the potential conflict of interest for a sitting county manager to play a role in drawing a legislative district for their county.
Another manager endorsed two candidates for local elected office on her personal social media account, canvassed for these candidates, and made small financial contributions to their campaigns.
Would simply linking from your social media page to an elected official’s page cross the line of political neutrality? If the elected official’s page is purely personal or a mix of personal and government business, that would not be a problem. In this case, the county administrator linked to the county commission chair’s page, which included a link to his re-election campaign site. That created the appearance that the county administrator was engaged in campaign activity even as passive an act as this seems. Context and seasons matter.
These members were censured publicly or privately for conduct that violated ICMA’s Code of Ethics. Unlike bribery schemes, most of this conduct was not premediated. These individuals landed in a situation, perhaps of their own doing, that presented them with the time and opportunity to choose an ethical path. From the first step to the last, the best ethical outcomes result from awareness that the situation is an ethics issue, seeking advice, vetting options, and erring on the side of caution.
MARTHA PEREGO, ICMA-CM, is director of member services and ethics director, ICMA, Washington, D.C. (email@example.com).
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